Racy, Sexy, and Culturally Appropriate-y: It’s Halloween Again, Folks!

Poster created by Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS)
Poster created by Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS)

By Sayantani DasGupta

Okay, someone tell me – since when did Halloween become a time to fly your racist and sexist flags without censure? I, for one, am tired of it.

So, hopefully we’re all on board by now with the idea that dressing our daughters up as ‘naughty’ leopards and ‘sexy’ nurses might be, say, a tad disgusting. As much as we may be told to ‘take a joke’ and not ‘take ourselves so seriously’, sexualizing young girls is a thing, a patriarchal thing that reduces girls and women to their bodies and body parts rather than their intellects and personalities, and a thing that suggests that girls and women exist simply for the sexual pleasure of heterosexual men. (And it’s not so great for young boys either, who are told to conform to certain muscle-bound macho-man stereotypes.) Don’t believe it still? Here’s some side by side comparisons of boy vs. girl costumes and – gag reflex warning—men’s vs. women’s costumes.

But let me use this opportunity to remind us that racist cultural drag – where real life people’s ethnic dress is co-opted into Halloween costumes – is equally gross. As this brilliant series of ads from a anti-racist college student group in Ohio reminds us, a white faced geisha or a sombrero-clad ‘Mexican’ or a feather-headbanded ‘Indian’ costume reduces entire communities of people to simplistic, offensive stereotypes. Such costumes erase our rich and varied cultural backgrounds, and effectively dehumanize people of color – serving us up as cultural jokes rather than equals.

And just in case you thought that racist drag was only something that gets trotted out in late October, let’s remember that ‘racist rages’ happen on plenty of campuses all year round. From ‘Cowboys and Indians’ or ‘Mexican’ themed frat parties to white students wearing blackface or dressing in stereotypical ‘hood’ drag to ‘celebrate’ Martin Luther King Jr. day! Ugh! So enough with that thing, too.

But what can we do about it? Well, I’m so glad you asked. Here’s some thoughts:

  • Use this handy anti-racist costume checklist – useful not just at Halloween! Created by students at Hampshire College, this checklist of questions including Does my costume represent a culture that is not my own? and Does my costume packaging include the words ‘traditional,’ ‘ethnic’, ‘colonial,’ ‘cultural,’ ‘authentic,’ or ‘tribal’? is a handy guide for those, erm, unintentional racists and xenophobes among us. (But seriously, my advice? If you have to ask yourself ‘is my costume racist?’ maybe that’s a good sign you shouldn’t be wearing that costume. And if your frat brother or sorority sister suggests a party involving sombreros or changing everyone’s skin color – DON’T!).
  • How about finding a non-tarty Halloween costume for our toddlers from this list of Empowering Costumes for Little Girls; I’m thinking Amelia Earhart or Hermione might be a better role model for a little girl than, say, a sexy pirate? And here are some related ideas for grown-up women including Baba Yaga, Athena, and Frida Kahlo that might help us plan a cleavage- and fishnet-free holiday.
Amelia Earhart and Hermione Granger costumes via A Mighty Girl
Amelia Earhart and Hermione Granger costumes via www.amightygirl.com
  • What about having an explicitly political Halloween – tongue-in-cheek suggestions courtesy of Feministing – by dressing up as a Radical Militant Librarian, or the Ghost of Health Care Bills Past? You get Nerd-lady props along with extra points for being non-racist and non-sexist.
  • If you still need more ideas, here’s 5 Ways to Love Your Body this Halloween. I particularly like the suggestion to have a costume contest without a Sexiest Costume category, but with prizes for Most Comfortable Costume or Best Looking Costume That Escaped Conditioning for What Women Should Look Like but Really Don’t.

Let’s take back Halloween, people. I’ve got some spaghetti in a bowl we can pretend are guts and a terrible, scratchy copy of ‘The Monster Mash’ from elementary school (if only I could find a record player to play it).

Headless horsemen? Why not. Ghouls and goblins? Sure. Spiderwebs and giant skeletons? Of course. But racist and sexist costumes? Let’s put those creepy crawlies into an ‘enough, already’ pumpkin and set them ablaze.

Related Content:

5 Ways to Love Your Body this Halloween

Halloween is Frightening When it Sexualizes and Stereotypes


11 thoughts on “Racy, Sexy, and Culturally Appropriate-y: It’s Halloween Again, Folks!

  1. In response to Ash.
    There is a difference between dressing as a culture and dressing up as a specific character/person. You can dress as Shakespeare or Esmeralda, they are not cultures, they are people.

    Also, I don’t agree with your statement that Halloween is a night to be anyone you want. Halloween is hands down my favourite day of the year but just because it’s a celebrated “holiday” doesn’t mean your ability to be a polite, considerate decent person should go flying out the window.

  2. While I agree with the over sexualized costumes for young girls, I completely disagree with the idea that you cannot dress in costumes from other cultures if you are doing it in a respectful way. Halloween is a night to be anyone you want to be. Does that mean only British people could be Shakespeare? I notice on here it says not to dress like a gypsy. So when I was five years old and I wanted to dress as Esmeralda, who is a gypsy in the Disney film, my parents should have told me no? If you are not belittling a culture, I see no reason why you could not.

  3. I HATE ‘sexy’ costumes. My (then) teenager is modest enough to want to wear clothes. She also believes in having shorts that have legs longer than the crotch. (Can’t shop at walmart for her!)

    Now my confusion comes in when we dress in costumes from other cultures. Are you saying this is wrong? If a caucasian woman dresses up as a Geisha, you consider this wrong? Maybe I’m missing the point because I actually ADMIRE women that have the grace, poise, and beauty to be Geisha. (none of which I have)

    Granted, if I’m going to dress in the garb from another culture, I’m going to do so because I have found something in that culture that calls to me, not because I want to belittle it. (and I don’t need to change my skin tone to do so.. I don’t see a need for blackface)

  4. Thanks all for your comments (and huzzah Suzanne!) – @John, Ok, I think the Baba Yaga and Athena examples could be used as cultural signifiers, sure, but I think what we’re talking about here are images that are used to stereotype, denigrate and belittle communities – be that ‘blackface’ or a ‘Mexican’ moustache and poncho, etc. No one I think would call a non-Mexican artist dressing as Frida Kahlo an act of cultural appropriation if that costume and gesture came from a place of specificity and admiration of Kahlo’s work. On the other hand, dressing in stereotypical ‘geisha’ wear and imitating what sounds to a non Japanese person as Japanese speech is an entirely other matter. Like I replied to a person who asked on the Adios FB site if this means that only British men can wear Shakespearean garb, I do think that the negative power of these acts of cultural appropriation are very tied to the specific history of racism and xenophobia against particular communities…

  5. Actually, John V, I do know several people who would be not only offended to find Baba Yaga on their doorstep, but horrified at the misuse and abuse of their goddess. I’m not looking forward to finding out how Americanized She can be made, because She isn’t a goddess with a good sense of humor, Like Athena*.

    I’m sensing a wee bit of slut shaming. No, kids do not belong in sexy clothing, this goes without saying, but a grown woman or man who wants to flaunt their body – more power to them, and shame on the person who tisks at them for being “sluts”. Bring on the naughty nurses and the nasty unicorns, they should be able to be slutty without being scolded for being comfortable with and having fun with their bodies.

    *Athena isn’t known for Her sense of humor. 😉

  6. The Baba Yaga and Athene examples made me wonder… does one need to be Russian or Greek to wear these constumes? Does wearing a costume based on someone else’s folklore or mythology count as problematic cultural association?

  7. I’m the director of Take Back Halloween, and I just wanted to thank you for the shout-out. We totally share your attitude and concerns about Halloween. This is a really excellent round-up, and I’m going to post it on our Facebook page. Thank you!

  8. I was in a Halloween shop the other day and I have to be honest, it was hard to tell the difference between some of the sexy women’s costumes and the junior girls costumes. In fact, I tried on one costumes that was juniors thinking it was a women’s, but it was just as sexy as the women’s. There’s something icky about that.

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