October 24, 2018

Feeling Sexy or Feeling Sexualized? Negotiating Halloween Costumes and Their Social Costs

{by Maren Tergesen}

Whether you plan your costume in excess, enlisting friends into an epic mimicry of the Scooby Doo crew, or simply sport a festive hat and t-shirt, Halloween is a celebration that centres on dressing up and having fun. Occasions to dress up as a cat or Shrek do not present themselves as readily as many adults would like, making Halloween a special day. Encouraged to deviate from the norm, Halloween allows folks to get creative and let shine a part of themselves that they may otherwise keep tucked away.

Halloween often emboldens women to wear costumes that express their sexuality and that make them feel sexy or cute. These sexy costumes not only empower women but offer them the chance to explore dressing in ways they may otherwise not feel comfortable doing. In this way, Halloween is a celebration that inspires experimentation and a lot of folks are happy to jump on this exploratory bandwagon. While women expressing their sexuality on Halloween is great, it can also spark some problems. As more and more women wear sexy costumes, sexy becomes the standard and dressing otherwise may not feel acceptable. When sexy becomes a protocol that women can’t dodge, Halloween functions to continue the cycle of sexualisation and sexual objectification of women.

Sexualisation is the process by which a person’s sexual qualities or sexuality are emphasized by an institution or a person other than themselves. While anyone in society can be sexualized, it is largely women who experience sexualisation. Sexual objectification, in turn, is the process by which a person is treated or made to feel like an object of sexual desire. Among the consequences of sexual objectification is self-repression or a “denial of mind and personality” (Fasoli et al. 2017:339) as an individual comes to see themselves as merely a sexual instrument. As women are sexualized and reduced to one characteristic, that being their sexuality, it often follows that they experience sexual objectification. Viewing a person only in terms of their sexuality is inherently problematic as it is degrading, dehumanizing and can lead that person to “self-objectify” (Szymanski, Moffitt, and Carr 2010:8) as a result of seeing their self-worth as a function of their sexuality. When we return to the case of Halloween, it becomes clearer how sexy costumes are not merely a choice but a binding contract of a sexualizing society.

The sexualisation and sexual objectification of many women’s Halloween costumes also serves to delegitimize women in certain professions. While the sexy cop or sexy nurse costumes are fun, they act to undermine and delegitimize women in those professions by casting women as sexual objects instead of competent workers, dedicated professionals, and leaders in their fields. With high heels and short dresses, these sexy career costumes don’t even offer the semblance of functionality, which again contributes to discrediting women in these jobs and gives the impression that a woman’s role in the workforce is innately sexual and subordinate.

Although sexy Halloween costumes may add to a system that delegitimizes, sexualizes and objectifies women, the sexy French maid costume did not create such a system, nor can its removal undo it. The issues stemming from sexy Halloween costumes are ultimately a result of the patriarchy and its perception of women and their inferior place in the social order. Though tackling the patriarchy may be too daunting of a task to address between trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving, dismantling the patriarchy is imperative to cultivating a society that does not sexualize a costume because it is worn by a woman.

One route to challenge the patriarchy is through feminism. As bell hooks sees it, feminism is a “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks 2000:1), which are precisely the barriers we need to overcome in order to liberate women from sexualisation and subordination. When we bring feminism into the discussion of Halloween, we widen the parameters of this celebration and invite folks to introduce the political and to confront these oppressive systems directly. Halloween can be fun and feminist. When it is both, Halloween has the potential to be more empowering than ever. While gargoyles and ghosts may seem like the scariest part of Halloween, remember that on November 1st they, unlike the patriarchy, will be packed away until next year.

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