13 October, 2017

Sex, Gender, and Halloween Costumes

Halloween is the time of year for feminists and mommy bloggers the web over to complain about how attractive girls' costumes are (I hate to resort to cheap insults, but it really supports the impression that much of this criticism is motivated by bitter jealousy), and bemoan their alleged lack of choices compared to boys (in spite of the oft-ignored fact that nothing is stopping a girl from wearing a costume made for a boy - in fact, she'd have better success than if the genders were flipped). I've always felt that this "crisis" was overblown, but I must admit, I do take a perverse delight in monitoring the controversy. Every year, I enjoy browsing through all the girls' Halloween costumes on display (sitting in store fronts, advertised in web banners), because, as someone who is enraptured with femininity - especially the "girly" sort that children embrace but adult women are largely socialized to grow out of - to me they seem to represent everything that makes girls so amazing - the proverbial sugar and spice, and everything nice.

Arguments can be made about how many of these costumes are inappropriately "sexualized" (see: Monster High, essentially the horror version of Bratz dolls), but I believe this criticism, too, is overexaggerated, and depends so largely on a subjective interpretation of "sexiness". To what extent are the qualities we admire in girls (e.g., "cuteness" and "prettiness") an immature manifestation - in the sense that their youth and innocence is connected via an unbroken chain through a process of physiological metamorphosis into the adults they will someday become - of the same qualities that men will be attracted to when they are fully grown? (One might argue, as this image demonstrates, that it is not the costume that makes the girl sexy, but the girl that makes the costume sexy). They're not the same, perhaps, but are they related? I would argue that they are, more so than most would like to admit (i.e., that children share more similarities with adults than they do with sexless objects), which is the source of much of our instinctive anxiety surrounding youth and sexuality.

I'm a proponent of education in lieu of enforced ignorance. Why shouldn't we teach girls about the power their bodies hold, if it's something they're going to have to deal with sooner or later (and, despite anyone's protests, most likely sooner rather than later)? The lessons shouldn't come all at once - which means that you shouldn't wait until it's too late and hope they'll figure it out overnight any more than you should dump unnecessary baggage on them while they're still too young to process it. (This is where I must caution parents that if you neglect your child's education, she will pick it up on the street instead). Girls are bound to start experimenting with their sexuality eventually. Instead of trying futilely to cork the bottle, we should focus on what it all means, and how it should be handled. Because what we're talking about here isn't an avoidable pattern of evil, it's a fact of life - however uncomfortable it might make you feel. And a miniskirt on a child is no more an invitation for inappropriate behavior than it is on an adult woman.

So, at the risk of adding fuel to the feminists' fire (because I'm not interested in obscuring reality just to prove a point - I don't want to debate what the facts are, just how they could be interpreted), I've compiled a comparison of several costumes across genders, marketed to children. I think the differences are illuminating, but they're also precious. And while it's readily apparent that Halloween costumes do indeed play to gendered stereotypes (I would sum it up as "boys like action" - which is a gentler way of saying "violence" - and "girls like fashion"), one must acknowledge that they are a commercial product. Companies sell what consumers are buying. To use an analogy: ultimately, it is not the tobacco industry, but tobacco that primarily sells cigarettes. If most boys like action, and most girls like fashion, who can complain if that's what costume companies market to them? Certainly, there is no rule saying that if you are a boy, you have to wear a costume that's violent, or if you are a girl, you have to wear a costume that's stylish.

And if girls' costumes feature a disproportionate amount of tulle skirts and spaghetti straps, it's because that's what girls like to wear. This isn't restricted to Halloween costumes - take a look at the girls' section in your local department store. Girls like to be pretty. Girls like to be fashionable. Nor is it uncommon for them to imitate adults (especially on a holiday that gives them an opportunity to try on a new identity, just for a day) - what exactly do you think it means for them to be playing with baby dolls, after all? It's not some shady plot by upper society elites to sexualize little girls' bodies. It's human nature. If, like a lot of people, you have a problem with that - with the way little girls like to dress - that's one thing. But it's pretty short-sighted to pin all the blame on Halloween costumes. Although, to be fair, a lot of these arguments that come from conservative quarters do expand their complaints to cover the entire "moral degradation" of society - or, at the very least, the evil exploits of the bloodsucking advertising industry (you know, the one that invented the word "tween"). Dancewear is another frequent target - as far as Halloween goes, and ignoring the many off-topic costumes that seem to be modeled after a ballerina's tutu, girls can choose from Arabian, Flapper, Disco, and even Burlesque!

I mean, I'm not saying that I don't see how someone could interpret some of these costumes as being "sexualized". But what gets me is that I'm not sure I understand how that's any different from saying that they're "sexy" - and isn't that kind of problematic? You may consider it "inappropriate" for a little girl to wear fishnet tights, because of the meaning they hold in your mind, but ultimately, it's just a piece of clothing. Why does it bother you? Because it gives you inappropriate thoughts targeted on a child? If we are compelled to view children as perfectly sexless beings, then why should it matter what they wear? I feel like there's a serious cognitive distortion going on here. Either the costumes are bad because the children are sexy, or the costumes are fine because the children can't be sexy. Or, you know, maybe we could all just be mature adults and let children have their fun in whatever they want to wear, and not shatter their innocence by obsessing over how we judge their bodies. No?

At any rate, it seems like there is much more disparity between the sexiness of men's and women's costumes when you get into the adult category. This, too, is a reflection of our culture, but it's not as though there aren't plenty of women's costumes that aren't specifically designed to be sexy, especially if you don't hypocritically rule out unisex costumes as an option for women just because they aren't feminine enough to register as being "for women". I wonder if there aren't two separate issues at play here - the sexiness of adult women's costumes, and the enforced gender roles inherent to many children's costumes marketed to girls (a.k.a., the pretty pink princess effect) - that are getting mashed together to create the illusion of a third problem: sexy children's costumes. From what I've seen (and in fairness, I will admit that, as someone who likes sexy and/or frilly costumes, and isn't really looking for anything else in the Halloween store, I may be understating the problem), I'd say that the issue either isn't as pronounced as the nitpickers make it sound, or that retailers have done a good job of curtailing the most egregious offenders in recent years, and people have just gone on about it because they like having something to complain about.

Certainly, there have been questionable costumes made for kids (one wonders, for example, whose idea it was to wrap a little girl up in a Twister mat, with the "right hand red" positioned suggestively over her chest - something that would seem more appropriate for a college party than trick or treating grade schoolers), but the market generally corrects itself, and I consider it more of a humorous misstep than evidence of a great social evil bubbling under the surface of modern civilization. For example, I admit that this is pure speculation, but it would seem that Party City may have responded to complaints about their Fallen Angel costume by hiring a less lithe young model and toning down the makeup and fetish boots (for what that's worth - I don't know how comfortable a conservative mommy would be with either version of the costume), as if they'd realized they were shooting product photography (for kids, no less), and not high fashion glamour. (Although it's a bit of a foreign concept to me as an aesthetic artist to reach a point where you have to avoid pursuing what looks good in a photograph, just because it crosses some arbitrary line of propriety).

Ironically, though feminists complain that girls' choices are limited, they tend to spend more time campaigning for the elimination of some of their options (the ones they don't like), and criticizing anyone who chooses those options (as dupes of the "patriarchy" - hapless victims of the male gaze), rather than embracing the freedom of choice, and emphasizing the possibility that girls may simply shop in the boys' section, if they'd prefer to. What these people should be railing against isn't the fact that these are the costumes stores are selling, but that society expects girls and boys to shop according to their gender (to the extent that they actually do - I would argue that boys, not girls, suffer from greater rigidity in this context).

If you wanted to change the way the aisles are labeled - replacing the word "boys" with "action", and the word "girls" with "fashion" (or something like that), I would support that endeavor (although, where would you put the costumes that are fierce and fashionable?) - and if I were a bit younger, I'd even volunteer to model some of the frillier costumes, as a boy. But suggesting that there is something wrong or inappropriate about selling "pretty" Halloween costumes to girls - costumes that involve things like bows and ruffles, tulle and tights - or even about marketing those things to the audience that's most likely, statistically speaking, to buy them (i.e., girls), then I'm sorry, but you're off your gourd. Thankfully, though, that's not what consumers appear to be buying. And now, at the risk of possibly shooting myself in the foot, here are those costume comparisons I promised. Note that I am leaving out any costumes clearly marketed to teens (as opposed to "tweens" or children). Like it or not, teens are sexual creatures. This is not open to debate. Hell, some of them are even legal!

Horror Classics
Ghost, Skeleton, Mummy, Zombie
Vampire/Witch, Werewolf

Batman, Robin, Superman, The Flash
Spiderman/Wonder Woman, Captain America

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Action vs. Fashion
Pirates, Ninjas, Ancient Greek, Medieval
Link/Zelda, Peter Pan/Tinkerbell

Army, Police, Cowboys
Indians, Rabbit, Mad Hatter

On average, the primary differences between boys' and girls' costumes are as follows: girls' costumes typically replace pants with skirts (which is entirely conventional, and hardly scandalous), tend to have brighter colors (often including pink), and while boys' costumes opt for total immersion into the character, girls' costumes tend to emphasize the features of the girl wearing the costume - arms, legs, and especially hair and faces. This is probably the most egregious difference - and could be argued to contribute to girls' self-consciousness about their appearance (we're not allowed to talk about the rippling muscles drawn onto some of the boys' superhero costumes), although I would argue that this is merely a symptom, and not a significant cause, of our culture and/or the biological differences between the genders (depending on your position in the nature vs. nurture debate). However, I would caution that this may be a hasty generalization, and it is still true that nothing is stopping a girl who wants to become a werewolf, and not simply "dress up" like one, from buying the boys' costume. On the other hand, if a boy wanted to wear a tattered skirt and a furry hood with ears, he'd likely be laughed out of the classroom by his peers. So forgive me if I have little respect for the feminists' argument, when they so willfully ignore the concerns of half the population in their crusade for "equality".

The one other major difference is one that isn't so clear in these comparisons (although you can see hints of it in the Link/Zelda, Peter Pan/Tinkerbell, and Ancient Greek/Medieval comparisons), which is the type (and multitude) of costumes available by gender. For example, there are a lot more pirate and ninja costumes marketed to boys, and hardly any witch or fairy costumes, which are all marketed to girls. You can't really fault costume makers for adhering to the gendered standards of historical and fictional characters - e.g., the fact that knights were men and princesses were women, and these were the social roles boys and girls probably looked up to. Again, it's not as though we can't subvert those standards by having a boy dress up like a princess, and a girl wearing a suit of armor, and there are certainly examples of genderbent or unisex costumes on the market. Although I found hardly any Spiderman costumes marketed to girls, and there seems to be a dearth of Wonder Woman costumes marketed to boys, most of the heavy hitters - Batman, Superman, and some of the Avengers - offer feminized versions of the boys' costumes, as well as the female version of the superhero (e.g., a girls' Superman costume in addition to a Supergirl costume), which I think goes at least a little of the way in making up for the fact that girl superheroes tend to be dominated by the likes of Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and such (not that I dislike those characters, but I can see how they could be considered "vamp"-ish). Still, the overwhelming impression to me is the sheer multitude of options available to girls.

Interestingly, there are more devil costumes for girls than for boys. I wonder if this is due to the church's influence (albeit via the vehicle of customer complaints). If so, it's telling that conservative audiences would be more outraged by the suggestion of a boy donning the mask of Lucifer (all in good fun), than the idea that a girl could be seduced (and subsequently become the seducer, by the look of some of these costumes) by the lure of sin. Although, to be fair, this is biblical canon. Perhaps conservatives are so stuck on the importance of girls' modesty because they secretly believe in their hearts that the soul of woman is inherently corrupt. How come this institutional misogyny never comes up in these discussions?

There also seems to be more varieties of zombie costumes for girls (although this is admittedly a thin margin). I would hypothesize (from witnessing some local zombie walks) that zombies may actually be more popular among girls, because, in spite of their gruesomeness, they tend to involve a lot of makeup, which is something that girls typically like to play around with. Or, maybe there's a secret society of upper elites trying to push necrophilia onto an unsuspecting public. (Yeah, right).

A couple notes on specific costumes:

The bunny costume is probably one of the most damning comparisons in this group. The boy is in a pretty standard fur suit, great for imagination play, while the girl looks like she's trying out for Hef's junior squad...

The police officer costume is another pretty damning comparison, as the boy looks like an actual police officer, while the girl looks like something out of a porno (the beginning, mind you - before the clothes come off). But in fairness, the boys' costume is not actually marketed as such, and even includes additional images of a girl wearing it. You might object to the very existence of the girls' version of the costume, but you can't say that girls have limited options. Also, most of these costumes do not include shoes, so even though many of them have been shot with the questionable choice of dressing the young models in impractical footwear, this is probably not what most girls will actually wear with these costumes.

In conclusion, I'd have to say that in the vast majority of cases, where the girls' version of a costume differs significantly from the boys' version, it's usually to create a more fashionable, girlier, prettified version of the costume. The "sexiness" of these costumes is open to debate, but they certainly adhere to gender stereotypes. I'm just not sure this is a big problem. How else are you going to market costumes to girls, other than to make girlier versions of them? I understand that this presupposes a certain gendered imperative, and the idea that boys are normal and the default, while girls are a variation on that - although, why assume girls are an inferior substitute; can't they be an exceptional alternative? Because I like girls, and that's how I see it.

But as someone who identifies as transgender (and is enamored of stereotypically female gender cues), I don't want to abolish gender - just the imperative that says that if you are a particular sex, you have to conform to the corresponding gender. I wish we had different words for sex and gender (or would come to a consensus about the words we already use - for example, using male and female only to refer to one's biological sex, while using the terms "boy", "girl", "guy", "man", "woman", etc. as a descriptor of a person's gender identity and/or presentation regardless of their sex).

But in the meantime, exposure to the transgender perspective, and more emphasis on the fact that it's okay for girls and boys not to conform to gendered expectations (which is something we definitely need to do a better job of teaching kids), is better for society than complaining and campaigning against the existence of costumes you simply don't like, and thereby limiting our and our children's freedom of choice. Because you might think that someone else has made a bad decision, but free will (as the religious like to argue) depends on people's freedom to make those bad decisions. And besides, you're no less fallible a human being than anybody else; what gives you the confidence to arrogantly exclaim that your choice is the right one for anyone else? Surprise me by showing a little humility for once.