October 27, 2011
It’s Halloween, which means it’s time for scary things like ghouls, groups of barely supervised children with sugar highs, and offensive costumes. The standard for women’s costumes has become predictably monotonous: think of a costume, remove most of the fabric, add a pair of thigh highs and heels, stick the word “sexy” in front of the title, and ta da! The only options left for women have become so predictable, I was surprised that some of the ideas still surprised me this year. Somehow, “Sexy Nemo” and “Sexy Watermelon” still caught me off guard.
But this isn’t another piece bemoaning the lack of creativity or highlighting the absurd perversion that was once a child’s holiday. We are supportive of those taking one step back from the madness of Halloween costumes to point out the problematic trend. True to the mission of this blog, we want to move two steps out and examine why this trend is so harmful. Yes, the new narrative for Halloween costumes is absurd and offensive, but why does that matter?
As Ohio University’s Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) highlight in their “We’re a Culture, not a Costume” campaign, it is not OK to represent an entire group of people by “borrowing” a few aspects commonly used to portray a negative stereotype of that group. Appropriating, or temporarily taking on, elements of an oppressed culture by someone outside of that group is frequently a racist action. This is why an “Indian Costume” is not a positive portrayal of a culture, but an offensive stereotype.
The sexy costume norm shares some similarities with the racist costume theme about which STARS is educating people. Beyond offensive outfits, both are about reducing a group of people to a single option. By offering all women only one role to fill, that of sex object, we are limiting their potential and reinforcing the stereotype that women are only good for one thing. This type of thinking leads to a systematic acceptance of male superiority, gender stereotyping, and a devaluation of women, all of which are societal risk factors for sexual violence.
When we see someone from a certain group as only one thing, we do not value them as human beings, and it is easier to perpetrate violence against them.