Avoid These Halloween Costumes at All Costs

How To Avoid Sexism, Racism, and Classism in Your Halloween Costume

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Halloween is a time when many of society's skeletons come out of the closet to play. In the form of costumes and in the name of "fun," Halloween in the U.S. has for many devolved into a disturbing showcase of racism, sexism, sexual exploitation, and classism.

So, in the spirit of discouraging harmful representations of those who experience social inequality, and displacing the role of Halloween in perpetuating it, let's avoid these problematic costumes.

The Hyper-Sexualization of Women and Girls

As a woman or a girl, shopping for Halloween costumes can be tough. If you try to shop for a pre-made costume at a store, you are met with an impressively broad and bizarre area of "sexy" costumes. The "sexy nurse" is so overdone at this point as to have become cliché, but the "sexy" meme knows no bounds. The pattern of turning anything into a Halloween costume for a woman—be it police officer, doctor, animals, vampires, witches, cartoon or childhood storybook characters, even Sesame Street characters (Sexy Ernie is an actual costume)—usually involves a costume that show as much skin as possible while only tipping its hat at the actual likeness. Over at Sociological Images, Dr. Lisa Wade offers a visual roundup of the absurd lengths of this trend that includes even "sexy" versions of the Tootsie Roll, hamburger, and Chinese take-out. The most disturbing variation on this trend is the sexualization of costumes for girls.

Dr. Wade's post on how the sexualization of girls at Halloween has very clearly emerged over the last few decades is astounding, with side-by-side comparisons of girls in costumes from the 1980s and marketing images of girls in the sexified version of those same costumes today. Why is the hyper-sexualization of women and girls at Halloween a no-no?

In short, these costumes reduce women and girls to sex objects that exist simply for the pleasure and enjoyment of men and boys. Costumes like these reduce us to bodies that do nothing more than fulfill the sexual desires of men and boys within the contours of a patriarchal and heterosexist society. So this year, give the sexy costume a hard pass.

The Hyper-Sexualization of Men

On the flip-side of the sex/gender binary, hyper-sexualization for men is a clear extension of a phallocentric and sexist society that puts the sexual desire and fulfillment of men above women. "Sexy" costumes for men tend to feature a prominently displayed, sometimes sheathed, erect penis or its likeness, some of which are designed to invite the touch or oral service of others, like the "breathalyzer" and " ring toss" costumes seen here. And while "sexy" for women and girls means as naked as possible, these costumes for men typically cover their whole bodies. Altogether, costumes like these perpetuate the idea that men are sexual agents, while women are simply receivers of sex acts. They also smack of a rape culture in which the penis is the intimidating and threatening king of our dominion, ever poised to strike, and this is just not cool.

Turning a Racial Stereotype into a Costume

Step away from the racial stereotypes. Especially those that involve using make-up to change your skin color. No pimps, no hos, no gangstas, no Geishas, no China Men, no Mariachis. No Mexicans, no Indians, no Native Americans, no Jamaicans or Rastafarians. No. No, no, no, no, no. Why? Because reducing whole populations of people to racial stereotypes is racist, wrong, and very, very bad. Because reducing a culture to a costume is an offensive and harmful act of those privileged by a racially stratified society. And, because, while it might be in the name of Halloween, and you might call it a "joke," the repetition of racial stereotypes helps keep alive the racist belief that people of color are not as good, as smart, as worthy, nor as human as white people.

In doing so, racial stereotypes help justify core aspects of systemic racism like the over-policing, brutalization, arrest, and incarceration of people of color; and, using race as a basis for denying access to jobs and education. Don't do it.

Mocking the Poor

Recently there has finally been some much-needed criticism of derogatory classist slurs like "redneck," "hillbilly," and "white trash." Much like racial stereotypes essentialize people of color--reduce them to a base collection of imagery and ideas rooted in skin color--classist slurs do the same on the basis of economic class. Yet, Pinterest hosts a bevy of boards dedicated to costume and party ideas expressive of them. The costumes on these boards tend to overlap with key features, like women drinking canned beer while pregnant, gnarly fake teeth that evoke thoughts of inbreeding and poor dental hygiene, and even domestic violence, thanks to the ubiquitous "wife-beater" tank top. Mullets, cans of beer, and toy babies being fed from beer bottles are commonalities too. Why are these costumes no-nos? Because economic inequality is a serious systemic scourge on our society. In fact, it has never been greater in the U.S. than it is today. Costumes like these, that portray typically poor populations as backward and stupid suggest that the poor have earned and deserve their lot in life. They both mock and justify the experience of poverty faced by tens of millions. But wait, it gets worse. Dressing as "homeless" for Halloween, or dressing your child this way, is apparently also a thing. People, come on! This is not okay.

There's no need to denigrate others in the name of Halloween. There's plenty of fun to be had without this kind of bad behavior.