From Mav: It’s October, and so we are continuing our string of Halloween themed, or at least Halloween adjacent shows. This week we want to explore something that I’ve actually used as a debate topic when I teach freshman comp. Sexiness and Halloween costumes. Or specifically, are Halloween costumes getting too sexy? Remember that part in Mean Girls (don’t act like you don’t love Mean Girls when we both know you do!) where Lindsay Lohan’s character, Cady, goes to a Halloween party dressed as a scary zombie bride only to find out once she’s there that the true meaning of Halloween is to give girls a chance to wear lingerie in public so long as they wear some form of animal ears on their head.
And there’s some truth to that. Halloween (and dress up and cosplay type stuff in general) has an element of escapism to it. When you’re in a costume, you are in many way freed from social convention. You can “be someone else” because on some level you aren’t being yourself… you are being the costume. And in a social system (say high school, as in the movie) where certain levels of sexuality are at least repressed if not outright forbidden, the costume allows that sexuality to come out.
However, the flip side is, there are fewer and fewer options, especially for women, to express anything other than hypersexuality in a Halloween costume. Or at least that’s the going theory if you watch the news every year or read think pieces on the internet. But is that really the case? And if so why? After all, there are also quite a few (not as many, but they’re out there) think pieces on the internet that argue in favor of sexy Halloween costumes. Shouldn’t it be about being able to express yourself? Isn’t it wrong to slut shame someone who chooses to wear these outfits? Hey, we like to do think pieces! And we’re on the internet! Let’s work this out.
Probably my favorite version of “Are Halloween Costumes too sexy” think piece was done by Kristen Schaal on The Daily Show back when Jon Stewart was hosting. Obviously, she kind played the whole thing for laughs, but I think she makes the best possible point. Often the debate becomes one of “is this too sexy?” as opposed to “why is sexy the only option?” I think both of those are valid questions. But they are fundamentally different ones. A cursory and non-scientific look at the think pieces out there makes me feel like most of the people DEFENDING sexy Halloween costumes are dealing with the first question, where most of the people COMPLAINING are actually more concerned with the second.
And they both show merit. As do other issues that conflate the sexy halloween costume with issues of gender performativity and the male gaze. There are far fewer “sexy man” variations available (as Schaal implies) and often the sexy man costume is sort of played for laughs in a way that the sexy woman costume is not. A big part of that, I would argue, is based on the way we culturally tie sexuality to femininity in a way that we don’t tie it to masculinity. While there are sexy man costumes out there, for the most part we envision them as only sexy when they are worn on a body that conforms to classic visions of masculine hypersexuality. If a man looks like a bodybuilder or a Greek statue then showing skin provokes a message of sexuality. Otherwise attempts to do so always appear comic. However, any woman, regardless of bodytype tends to inherit some aspects of male gaze when placed in anything remotely revealing. This is most prevalent, I think with gender bent costumes.
Placing the male body in female drag becomes comedic in a way that does not occur when women do the opposite. In fact, we place so much sexual value in femininity, that that a women in male drag for Halloween costumes are often sexualized in the exact same way as if they had been wearing lingerie and animal ears. And far more so with costumes that aren’t specifically designed to hide the femininity. We look for sexual cues in women’s clothing. While obviously many Halloween costumes are intentionally sexy, there’s an aspect of this that we perceive (again, because of the male gaze) no matter what. Elvira is sexy because of the low cut dress, sure… but honestly, this happens even with the scariest of women’s Halloween costumes. Laura Mulvey’s male gaze essay that we reference so much on this show equates sexuality in women with “to-be-looked-at-ness.” The male gaze works because it feels “invited.” And no matter what the costume is, nothing says “look at me” more than a Halloween costume. Glam.com made a viral video a couple years ago where they tracked popular women’s Halloween costumes over the last century. Even ignoring the fact that the model is in her underwear between costume shifts, I would argue that even the less “sexy” costumes still come across as far more sexy than a male equivalent video would.
So, on one hand, the sexiness of dressing up almost can’t be avoided, especially (perhaps sadly) for women, but on the other… is there such a thing as going too far. A lot of the costumes that make the most noise every year for this issue are by Yandy.com. I’m quite certain they do it on purpose. This year’s most controversial costume being their attempt at doing a “sexy Handmaid’s Tale” costume. Complaints were that the subject matter of the show, especially in today’s #MeToo climate, was too sensitive to sexualize, even in satire. They’ve since pulled the costume from their website. And obviously there’s a point to that. The entire point of the show is to speak to the objectification of women as sexual objects rather than having independent agency. On the other hand, is removing the choice to sexualize the representation contrary to the the freedom that the show is espousing? But then can the the outfit be sexualized independently even as a choice. Is that ever possible?
From Hannah: Mav has covered a lot of good points. As a perpetually broke graduate student, I can’t remember the last time I bought an official Halloween costume instead of pulling together random things from my closet to make a costume. So as part of research for this episode, I Googled costumes from Yandy and Party City to see what is being sold for Halloween 2018.
And as a consumer, you can visually evaluate whether or not a costume is too “sexy” or not based on the “to-be-looked-at-ness” that Mav describes. But, to build on Mav’s point that the marketing and use of language in the the costumes themselves also tell you whether or not they’re sexy without you having to think about it. (I’m a big fan of the Steamy Dreamy Steampunk costume name.)
For example, Party City has a Harley Quinn costume called “Adult Property of Joker Harley Quinn Costume.” Following the creepy portrayals of the character from other media, the name of the costume hints at what kind of costume this will be. The name comes from the back of the jacket and a good deal of the little details on the costume relate to Harley’s twisted relationship with the Joker (the stockings read “I’ll Wait Forever,” “I love Puddin'”). On the show, we’ve talked a lot about how language matters, and this costume in particular uses a limited amount of language to make sure this portrayal of Harley is always objectifying herself in relation to the Joker.
Or, if we were to take an example from a less obvious “sexy” costume, Party City also features several costumes that use the word “Sassy,” including the
“Adult Sassy Minnie Mouse” costume. It can be said that sassy isn’t quite sexy, but there is certainly an undertone of something bold, flirty, or saucy there. The point I’m trying to make is that with a lot of adult women (and teen girl) costumes, the implication of sexiness/sassiness/steaminess is always there, no matter what it looks like just from the terms we use to describe costumes.
From Mav and Hannah: So those are the kinds of things we want to explore this show. What are your thoughts on any part of the sexy Halloween costume controversy? What do you think of the options? What do you think of the effects? How young is too young? How old is too old? What should we be talking about here? This is definitely one where we want a wide variety of opinions and would love some volunteers to be on and talk about this.