Halloween, A Study in Unhealthy Gender Norms

I love Halloween!  It is, by far, my favorite Holiday.  It is a chance to dress up and act like a kid again, casting off the silly structures that grownups are expected to live within.  I don’t want to wear a suit.  I don’t even want to wear slacks!  I wish there were more opportunities for me to dress as a life-sized Care Bear and go out and have fun with friends!  Here’s a perfect example of what I love about Halloween: I am driving my friends and I (who are dressed as the cast from Toy Story) down to meet up with Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, a baby doll, and Ken Doll.  We pull up to a light, and I look over to see a pirate, grimacing at me.  AWESOME!

The Cast of Toy Story!

We had a grand old time running around as giant toys and taking pictures with people in other awesome costumes.  We saw some really creative stuff!  We saw the characters from Candy Land.  We saw Quail Man and Patty Mayonnaise.  We saw some super creepy creepersons.  Altogether, lots of fun and lots of creativity.

Then my crew and I went down into the area of Denver known as “LoDo.”  This is where a lot of the trendy clubs are and where the trendy folks tend to spend their time.  As far as I am concerned (and it seemed as far as those in my group seemed to think), this was a mistake.  As we fought through the dense crowds, I became increasingly uncomfortable with two things: The dress of many (perhaps the majority?) of the women and the way the men were acting in response to this dress.

I’ll tell you what . . . few places in my life have felt to teem so incredibly with unhealthy sexuality as the club where we spent perhaps 30 minutes in Lower Downtown Denver.  In thinking about how the women were dressed, I couldn’t help but have the reaction of, “Why oh Why oh Why would women subject themselves to this kind of degradation and objectification?”  I found myself, at times, struggling with many of the same things that I described in my blog on the objectification of women. Simply put, despite my frustration and disgust with the whole scene, too often my eyes went down.

As for the men, I stand firmly behind my belief that no matter how a woman is dressed, we are responsible for our actions, and it is our responsibility to be sex-positive men.  Thus, the leering, cat calls, inappropriate touching, and forceful grabbing were out of control and out of line.  It is sad that I felt it necessary to pretend to be romantically involved with my friends so that they could worry a little less about being groped.  Once again, I am stumped as to where we as men can begin to change the culture of masculinity.  I mean, I can start with my adorable nephew Aiden and help him realize that he can be a strong and confident man who also values kindness and gentleness, teaching him about consent and positive sexuality as he gets older, but that feels so delayed.  I still feel so impotent sometimes.

That being said, there was something profoundly unsettling for me that I want to explore on here in hopes of getting feedback from my readers.  Again, I can say all day that it is our responsibility as men to change the ways we interact with women in unhealthy ways, but unfortunately many of my thoughts that night bordered on “victim-blaming” for the ways that men were responding to the costumes.  “Why would you wear that?”  “Do you realize how men are going to respond to that thong you’re wearing as if its clothing for a public space?”  It made me uncomfortable because I want to hold men accountable, yet I also want to understand why women feel the need to “dress to impress” the men.

Unfortunately, Halloween, for all of its fun and fancy, is a perfect space for seeing all of the problematic things we are taught about sexuality and gender in one place (and in extreme exaggeration).  In discussing this with my dear friend Sheila the other day, she made an incredible point, “Look at the ways we encourage our young girls and young women to dress up on Halloween!  Then throw in, oh, twenty years or so of gendered socialization and unhealthy sexual messages, and is it any wonder that we see the costumes we do!?”

Her point is dead on, and inspired by great post at Appetite for Equal Rights, I wanted to take a moment to compare some of the most popular costumes for little girls (based on research done by Good Housekeeping, and some of the costumes I might have seen out on a Saturday night of Halloween weekend:

Princess, Age 6                                              Princess, Age 26

Witch, Age 7                                                  Witch, Age 27

Tinkerbell, Age 9                              Tinkerbell, Age 29

Cat, Age 4                                                Cat, Age 24

Now, my point here is neither to relieve responsibility from men for the ways we objectify women in these costumes nor to further blame women for their objectification.  Rather, I want us to interrogate how our gendered expectations come out in incredibly unhealthy ways on Halloween!  Consider popular boys’ costumes and what they say about our expectations of our young men.  Hyper-masculine much?

Iron Man, Age 5                                       Iron Man, Age 25

Pirate, Age 7                                        Pirate, Age 27

Batman, Age 6                                  Batman, Age 26

All of our men’s costumes are aggressive and hyper-masculine while our women’s costumes are hyper-sexualized.  It starts at a young age.  It leaves me with a lot of questions (perhaps ones my readers can help me answer).

How can we change the validation that many women feel in dressing scandalously for Halloween, only to be groped and gawked at by our super-her0-clad men?  Maybe I am super off base!  Is it even unhealthy that women want to dress this way?  Either way, how can we change the culture of masculine partying to ensure that all women feel comfortable in whatever dress that they will not be groped and gawked at?  In what ways can we help our young girls explore imagination and fantasy in their Halloween costumes yet break the obvious pattern that leads to hyper-sexualization later in life?  How can we encourage the creativity and whimsy that makes Halloween fun as adults while not encouraging hyper-sexualization and objectification?  Bah!  So many questions!  I kind of feel like if more of our moms had this approach to the whole holiday, we would be much better off.

What question does this bring up for you?  What insights can you share?

Oh . . . and don’t even get me started on some of the ABSURDLY racist costumes I saw this year . . .

Dontcha Just LOVE Blackface!?

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12 thoughts on “Halloween, A Study in Unhealthy Gender Norms

  1. You are preaching to the choir….I wish that this wasn’t the case with Halloween but for now it probably won’t ever change. I wish it would, I swear to God I wish it would…but this is what we get for our over-sexualized society.

  2. Before I answer, and this is only if you want an answer from the likes of me, I’d like you to answer a question. Why is leering, cat calls, inappropriate touching, and forceful grabbing not a good thing when a man does it to a woman but a great and hilarious thing to be recounted again and again when a man does it to Zach? Is your reaction a double standard or is there something I’m missing?

    • For those readers who are unaware of the event to which Nathan is referring, I was recently at a gay bar with my friend Zach, and we both experienced a fair bit of inappropriate touching. There is one particular story that Zach and I found funny that we have retold many times of Zach being inappropriately touched by a gay man in a way that was not wholly consensual.

      So . . . first off, you’re probably right, Nathan, in that I need to apply more clear standards of consent across the board and the situation at the gay bar was not consensual, so it needs the same scrutiny. Also, I think that your example brings up a good point about men (whether straight or gay), which is that we as men in our culture are taught that we should be able to take whatever we want without asking because we’re entitled. That is the problem that leads to sexual violence in all its forms, and we as men need to better interrogate this reality. Why do we feel that it is okay for us to just take what we want regardless of how that may affect others?

      However, I do think that there is a clear difference between the leering, cat calls, inappropriate touching, and forceful grabbing of women and the instance you describe with our friend. The difference is that Zach is a straight, white male. There is no culture and tradition of exploitation and sexual violence against straight, white males that this particular touching is playing into and is a part of (and particularly no tradition of gay men perpetrating it against straight men). Because sexual violence is a horrible reality and an epidemic in this culture, particularly with women as the victims, the leering, cat calling, inappropriate touching, and forceful grabbing of women fits into a much larger context of violence. Thus, to compare Zach’s experience to the experience of the women in the clubs we visited recently is plainly an apples and oranges comparison. Maybe that’s a double standard, maybe it’s not, but it is the sad reality of our culture.

  3. You said it…Nerdy Apple Bottom’s approach needs to win out. It may be liberal, it may be Buddhist, it may even be socialist, I don’t know. But until we have conscious adults raising educated children for at least 40 years, we’re going to see the deplorable examples you mentioned continuing. Think globally, act locally.
    Thanks for speaking out!

  4. One thing I’m not seeing in all this excellent insight – and it is excellent – is an allowance for positive, empowering expression of sexuality by women. There is nothing wrong with enjoying being appreciated as sexual beings. Different women interact with their sexuality in different ways, with different levels of health and unhealth operative, and I’m certainly not suggesting that every woman who wears a sexy nurse costume is positively expressing her sexuality. However, I do think it’s important to recognize that women are agentive beings with complicated relationships to our sexuality and the power to express it if we choose. I think it could be interesting to consider where men are allowed to positively express their sexuality, and if there is a socially-accepted way for men to be positively sexual that is not wrapped up in dominance. (I would suggest there is not.)

  5. For a refreshing alternative to the “sexy” costumes I love this article from jezebel.com, http://jezebel.com/5675911/a-proud-salute-to-unsexy-halloween-costumes/gallery/.

    Sara, I agree with your point. I wonder why on Halloween in particular is when a lot of women choose to express their sexuality?

  6. Great post Jamie, I’m loving the dialogue it created.

    Sara, I also agree with your point.

    Sheila, I think women choose to express their sexuality on Halloween because they can justify it as part of their costume. Every other day of the year women being judged (by both men and other women) based on their appearance at work, at school, or just walking down the street and while we might be judged on Halloween too, those women can excuse the negative comments as directed at the character portrayed by the costume and not at their own character. If a man or a woman deems the costume that one uses to express their sexuality as hyper-sexualized, it is the costume, not necessarily the person wearing the costume.

    Why can’t a woman dress sexy for herself (on Halloween or any other day of the year) without being subjected to, or even raising the question of objectification and degradation? I would assume that a woman who chooses to wear a short skirt or low-cut top, like many of the costumes shown above, knows that it may lead to a certain type of attention that she may unfortunately have to deal with. I agree that we need to figure out how to treat a woman’s clothing choice as just that and not necessarily a reflection of her character or an invitation for unwanted advances.

  7. I was recently looking for a Holloween costume this year, and I found it hard to find a costume that wasn’t objective. When you walk into a Halloween costume store that’s all that you see. Costumes that are objectifing towards women. It is extremely hard to not dress that way when those are the only options you’re given.

  8. A few thoughts:
    First off, Jamie, thank you for such thought provoking blogs. I appreciate how willing you are to critically think about your role in the dynamics of privilege and oppression and be honest with yourself and others. I commend you for being so far along in a process of breaking down societal norms and injustices, a process most won’t ever attempt in their lifetime.

    That being said, I know you know this but I must reiterate:

    There has never been a woman in the history of our society that has PROVOKED a man to stare at her, objectify her, touch her, sexually assault her or beat her. Those are CHOICES that men make. Those are LEARNED behaviors that men need to UN-learn. Men and women are allowed to find eachother attractive, but it becomes unhealthy when it is purely participating in a culture of objectification that blames women for their sexuality and on a greater scale leads to women having less credibility than men, and a society that accepts violence against women.

    Lastly, as a woman and a feminist I often feel disgusted by Halloween and I feel I have an obligation to hold my female peers accountable for participating in a sexist structure and not taking a stance against those norms.
    I also celebrate and admire my sexually liberated friends who feel beautiful in anything they wear and wear it for THEMSELVES and not to “impress men.”
    And, I have an obligation to be compassionate towards those women who do dress to “impress men” because, frankly, we have been taught that it works.

  9. […] Sexual Violence) It was amazing to see the dialogue created by last week’s post, “Halloween, A Study in Unhealthy Gender Norms.”  All of the thoughtful comments have really had me thinking.  I hope that they have […]

  10. Jamie,

    I miss having you around buddy!

    You know this is an issue close to my heart since I have been informally studying sexual ethics for a while now. There’s nothing that I can post here that will be an all encompassing address to the issues (not that I even posses the capacity to make such a post anyway) but I’d like to at least throw in my two cents.

    Our culture as a whole has adopted an unhealthy sense of sexual morality in recent decades. There are certainly many moving parts to the puzzle but I think foremost is the idea that morality itself has become largely obsolete in the minds of moderns. Now we sit in a post -modern era in which our culture is predisposed to a large dose of radical individualism and profound relativism. I’ll do my thing, you do your thing and as long as we don’t hurt the environment or each other then we’ll all be fine. The problem is that we are slowly discovering we do not live in a vacuum. We have discarded the idea of a moral code of conduct as “oppressive”. After all, nobody can tell me what to do with my body, it’s MY body…as if we’ve purchased it somehow or that we made it ourselves. Then we run into the issue of who makes the decisions about what is moral or immoral, after all nobody can possibly have the authority to do that can they? Of course not! If you want to dress like a slutty nurse, get blind drunk and have sex with a stranger, it’s your right, it’s your body, nobody can tell you what to do with your body. Just make sure that you use a biodegradable condom, otherwise you may hurt the environment. And if you forget to use a condom, don’t worry, just give the local clinic a call, they’ll take care of that “problem” for you.

    This message is clearly sent that sexual morality has become a thing of the past. That’s not to say that people behaved morally or that women were treated properly in the public sphere in the past, certainly women have been oppressed in many cultures including our own over the course of history. They continue to be oppressed today by being made to believe that their worth is derived only by being the same as a man. The solution to the problem of inequality doesn’t get solved by making everyone the same. I don’t think that either sex bears the full weight of the burden as probably most level headed people would agree, but being a man, I can say that our society has less and less real men. Part of the reason is that men have few mentors showing them the proper way to treat a woman, but another part is that our culture is becoming more and more unisex. Men have been emasculated because we have ignored the very thing that makes us men, the difference in the sexes. The feminine genius also has been discarded in the face of equality and gender neutrality.

    I’ve realized my argument has left me open to criticism which is fine, but let me clarify some things before I stand in front of the firing line. I believe that women are not only equal with men but in many ways reflect the richness of humanity even more than men. They should be cherished, protected and their dignity should be defended as the centerpiece of a just and free society. This does not mean that women can’t express themselves or that they should earn less in the workplace. It means that women should recognize the dignity that they possess while at the same time reflecting for men a counterpart that is not a thing to be used but a valuable treasure to be cherished. Men in the same way should recognize their call to manhood as a responsibility to never mistreat or use a woman for selfish purposes.

    I build these arguments not only on what I have learned and witnessed, but through the lens of my own experiences. I have failed several times to treat women with dignity and respect. I never considered myself a “bad guy” necessarily but I had (and probably still have) a lot to learn about how to be a real man. Over the years I have gawked at women with my friends as some guys tend to do. I’ve had sexual relationships that I had no intention of continuing. I, like many of my peers, built my psycho-sexual development through the ever increasing availability of porn in our culture. In my experience, none of this is seriously frowned upon. It may not be something you brag about in mixed company, but the Halloween costumes tell the tail perfectly. I had to re-learn what it is to be a man through a completely different paradigm.

    In conclusion, I firmly believe that we don’t need to break gender roles, we need to live them out in a moral way. We need to recognize that there is abundant beauty in the differences among the sexes and allow those differences to flourish without discriminating against one or the other. As a famous inspiration of mine once said “A just society will at all times be determined by who man is for woman and who woman is for man.”

    As an add-on: Some of you may be wondering how this applies to those who aren’t attracted to the opposite sex. They also have a share in a just society and should never be robbed of their dignity through discrimination. How same-sex attraction is lived out from a moral perspective is a multi-faceted topic and better left for a later post as I’m sure it’ll come up in the conversation at some point.

  11. […] year my Halloween post focused on gender, sexism, and sexual objectification through costume.  As Halloween approaches this year, I wanted to write about how often I cringe during my favorite […]

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