Monday, November 5, 2007

Speaking of Halloween

I recently read a post on Racialicious that lamented the tendency of many people to wear costumes depicting various ethnic stereotypes - particularly costumes with a Middle Eastern appearance - such as sheiks and belly dancers. The poster was also concerned that so many women's costumes seem to be hyper-sexualized.

This made me stop and think. I have certainly worn my share of sexy costumes. And I have even worn a costume or two in my life that played into some ethnic stereotypes.

So I went out Halloween night with my girls with all this in mind. And it made me look at the costumes I saw with a slightly more critical eye. I really don't know if, in the past, I'd noticed people dressed in various ethnic styles. But I sure was aware of it that night.

I saw quite a few Geishas, a Native American girl, a number of Rastas, and a harem girl or two. Most of the costumes I saw were on children - I saw very few adults dressed up - though all of the harem girls and one of the Geishas were grown women.

I also saw innumerable witches - and I wonder, isn't that a kind of ethnic stereotype as well? I mean, I'm thinking that the witch we all think of. with the pointy hat and the broom is based on a European model.

My girls, were I guess, dressed in costumes that appropriated ethnic stereotypes as well. Spice was a princess in a standard European mold. Sugar fell into a couple of stereotypes dressed as Hermoine Granger - the stereotypical English boarding school girl, and a witch.

OK, so what's going on here? Are the majority of people just insensitive idiots who are determined to reinforce ethnic stereotypes? Maybe. Maybe we could all be a little more sensitive and aware. Maybe we could all work harder to be a little more authentic in our choices. But I also think you have to look at what most people are thinking when they choose a costume.

I think the two biggest things people want when they pick a costume are the 1. the opportunity to step outside of themselves, and 2. they want the costume to be recognizable.

Now, of course, there are those super creative people who love to come up with costumes that others have to work a little to figure out. My favorite of these is one that my friend Super Red's brother and friends wore to a party many years ago. They each smudged black eyeliner all around one eye and the all wore t-shirts with a single letter P on the front. Of course they were Black-eyed Peas.

But this kind of thing is, I think, the exception. For most people the worst question they can hear on Halloween is, "What are you?" They want their costume to be recognized immediately.

Which means that they want to be the simplest, most obvious version of whatever it is they are dressing as - or the most stereotypical version. This is true whether the costume has ethnic roots or not.

And I think that one reason why costumes so often do have ethnic implications is because people so want to step outside of themselves. They want to be something or someone different - just for a few hours. It's exciting to try on a different ethnicity, a different culture to imagine that you could lead your life differently, have different reactions to things, a different point of view - or maybe just look completely different.

I think this is why, too, women so often choose extremely sexy costumes for Halloween. It's amazing to me, but still, in 2007, there is so little opportunity for women to express their sexuality without being frowned upon. A woman who shows herself to be sexual is still considered to be degrading herself, cheapening herself, or pandering to men. She's still called slutty or trashy and is not to be taken seriously.

So, one night a year, a whole lot of women who normally hide their sexuality away decide to let it loose. They dress up and take on images that are as far from their everyday selves as possible so they can be as sexy and sexual as they want without feeling like anyone will connect it to the real them.

I think this, in particular, accounts for the sexy ethnic stereotypes. If you take on a different ethnicity as well as a different personality then it's more removed from who you really are and you can more easily go back to being yourself afterward without feeling like there are repercussions. I imagine a very straight-lace, serious business woman thinking the day after - I wouldn't go out with my belly showing and dance and gyrate like that. I was just playing the role of a belly dancer.

Now, is all this right? Am I merely making excuses? I think it's certainly true. I don't know how right or wrong it is. I understand how it can insensitive and even offensive when taken to an extreme. However, I have to wonder - do we always have to be SO right, SO accurate. Is there no room for simplistic, broad strokes any more?

And I wonder, if there's something we miss by not feeling right about stepping into each others shoes even if it's just for fun.

I don't know. It's so much to think about. Maybe that's why I don't dress up for Halloween anymore.


The Bear Maiden said...

I was just thinking about something similar but for a different reason.
Check out this blog post.

Mom said...

I do think Halloween is more about being something different then about stereotypes. I love dressing up for Halloween. My costume choices have changed since I had kids, although I can't recall too many costumes that would have been stereotypes. For many years, I was either a devil or an army girl.

As for women dressing sexy, I think that unless you are willing to be create and likely make your own costume, you will have a hard time finding a costume that isn't sexy. We went to a local Halloween shop and while browsing the costumes (I already had mine but it is fun to look and see what is out there) I commented to dh "what is this, 'sluts are us'" It was AWFUL. I couldn't find a single female costume in the store that wasn't classified as "sexy" or "naughty" whatever (firefighter, maid, referee, pirate, nurse, etc). Every costume came complete with ultra crop tops, tiny skirts, super spike heels and sexy hair. Being sexy and expressing sexuality is one thing. Those costumes were something else entirely. They would have been perfectly at home at a porn convention.