Witty or slutty
Halloween in North America for the uninitiated foreigner is an eye-opening experience.
My first ever visit to a Halloween costume store in the lead-up to my first ever Halloween was not what I had expected. I’m not a prude, but after entering the women’s section of the store and perusing the wares on display, I wasn’t quite sure where to look. A wave of middle-class anxiety briefly took hold of me. Wait, am I in a sex shop? Why are there brand names like ‘Leg Avenue’ and ‘Forplay’? It wasn’t until a gaggle of teenage girls strolled by, casually and audibly discussing the outfits on display, that I realised I was not in some kind of bizarre Halloween fetish store, but rather one of the thousands of mainstream chain stores that open across the US in the months prior to Halloween. Oh, this is normal, I reassured myself. It’s ok. It’s ok to touch the pretty plastic packages.
I asked a male acquaintance of the North American species what the deal was. “Oh, you know, just wear whatever you want.” No, really. What’s the deal? “Well, it basically comes down to this: you either need to dress slutty or do something really witty.” I really appreciated his candour in giving me this honest insight into American culture. (Ok, he was drunk.) But it explained what I had seen in those isles of plastic-wrapped, neatly commoditised packages of sexy. The Sexy Alice in Wonderland. The Sexy Little Red Riding Hood. The Sexy Nemo Fish (WTF?).
(As an aside: when shopping for my own costume I decided I wanted to have a true American cultural experience so I heeded the advice to go slutty or witty. I came up with a potential idea for a costume that would tick both the slutty and witty boxes: I could go as a ‘Sexy [Insert Nubile Pop Culture Character Here]’. However, trying to flesh out this concept and visualise its physical form was too much for my poor brain. It was sort of like when John Malkovich entered the portal into his own mind. But seriously, someone should totally do that. Just putting it out there.)
I think it’s great that there’s one night of the year when you can wear whatever you want, without shame, and live out your fantasy. And I’m no puritanical do-good who is easily offended. I’ve spent time in Europe and seen all kinds of crazy things. Like strippers at a small town 30th birthday party that was organised by the local Catholic church choir (it was Germany, need I say more). Having said that, it’s kind of hard not to be struck by the glaring difference in how men and women are catered for by Halloween retailers in the US. The men’s section has tonnes of truly scary and hilarious options. The women’s section has very few costumes that are either scary or hilarious. There’s no Headless Horseman or Donnie Darko suit that comes in scaled-down sizes suitable for smaller frames which are designated for “women”. (Then again, who needs those costumes when you can be a Sexy Unicorn?)
Of course, women can make their own costumes or buy a man’s costume and make some adjustments. I know many women do. It’s just a little unsettling to see mainstream retailers sending such a strong and consistent message to the masses about what is “for women” and what is “for men”. A woman who has confidence in herself would have no trouble knowing what she wants to wear and putting together her own costume, but I wonder what effect the retailers have on the vulnerable: young girls who, despite what they might think, don’t yet fully know themselves, or the world they live in, and those individuals who unknowingly accept whatever is peddled to them as “what I’m meant to be doing”.
As someone who loves clothes and dressing up, the really disappointing thing is that it all seems a little unimaginative. If Halloween was really an event when women felt empowered to dress sexy and make a statement – a tradition, rather than an expectation – there would be better ways of doing it. The opportunity to think about what you consider sexy and how you want to express your own sexiness is exciting. But instead, the masses are beckoned into the mall to buy one unit of standard issue, commodified sexy. (Have you noticed how pretty much all the costumes are sealed in identically shaped and sized packages?). The only creative thought input required is deciding on whether the Sexy Goldilocks costume looks hotter than the Sexy Policewoman costume. The stores offer many options, but many of those options are simply variations on the same theme. This creates the illusion that you’re making a real choice. One sad side effect of this phenomenon is also that not everyone is going to look sexy in those mass-produced costumes. I’ve bought a costume that is labelled sexy, therefore I’m going to be sexy on Halloween. Er, not necessarily. If you want to look slutty, that’s fine, but it’s a mistake to confuse it with actually being sexy. They are not the same thing. Consider this offensive yet probably truthful article from AskMen.com offering advice on Why You Shouldn’t Pick Up The Halloween Slut:
Any woman who wants to wear the cheap costume from a bag really doesn’t have the sense of style to be one of your priorities for the night. Instead, look for girls who put time into their costumes.
But wait girls! Don’t put too much time and thought into your costume, lest the men at the party have to think too much:
Halloween is supposed to be fun and relaxing, not a brain-twisting Rubik’s.
Just to clarify, this is not a man-bashing exercise. I heart men, and in fact I feel kind of sorry for men on Halloween. (Do they even know where to look?). But this just demonstrates the impossible position that women are placed in. Mainstream retailers are peddling you cheap and nasty commoditised “sexy”, while society is judging you for going along with it. Truly awful.