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Behind Halloween's Mask | The Nation

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Behind Halloween's Mask

As the weather begins to get colder, we begin to seek out heavier wears—the wooly sweaters, the fur-lined Holden Caulfield hunting hats—just around the same time we look for other outfits to fulfill a more specific purpose. We’re all bracing ourselves for the question: what are you going to be for Halloween?

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays for its encouragement of originality. Everyone wants to out-dress the rest or be applauded for having actualized a wild idea. With the help of an iconic outfit, a prop or two and some makeup, anyone, regardless of gender, can become a convincing Marilyn Monroe or Groucho Marx. But why is it that the understanding of ‘parody’ seems necessary before we permit the pressing of boundaries in terms of gender and sexual identity?

One Halloween tradition many take part in is the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie which delights in challenging notions of the ‘hetero-normative’—ideas and behaviors within the film don’t coincide with what is deemed ‘normal’ by a heterosexual system. The film, starring Tim Curry as a transvestite bisexual mad scientist, is known for encouraging audience members to ‘participate,’ both by shouting out dirty jokes in time with well-known lines and by dressing in drag as Curry does. Although classified as a ‘cult classic,’ the film is widely enjoyed. Still, after attending a screening this summer in full costume, my appearance drew stares and whispers from patrons at an all-night coffee shop just down the street from the theater. The issue, it seemed, was that the customers weren’t provided immediate context for what they were witnessing and were confused and put off by it as a result. I wonder how many of them would react differently to my wig and heels around Halloween, dismissing my appearance as just a gag in the spirit of the holiday.

I’m reminded of “His Costume,” a poem by Sharon Olds from her book The Unswept Room, where the speaker describes how their father, a man who they remember embodied sexist ideals, found comfort and some unique confidence in dressing as a woman at costume parties. Olds writes, “he would sway/ his body with moves of gracefulness/ as if one being could be the whole/ universe”. She later continues, “Those nights, he had a look of daring,/ as if he was getting away with something,/ a look of triumph, of having stolen/ back”.

Costumes are, after all, a form of escapism; when we are disguised we believe ourselves to take on the place of another. Departed from the social pressures of our daily identity, we rejoice in playing a character. What strikes me is that our society can define gender nonconforming self-presentation as liberating for one day only, only to turn a prejudicial gaze on those who choose to do so for the rest of the year.

One’s presentation as a trans-woman, trans-man, or anywhere in between, should certainly not be equated with wearing a ‘disguise.’ But perhaps that’s the issue—that our society cannot immediately separate those who costume themselves as an act of parody from those who do it seriously within a heterosexist gender binary system. Hetero-normative culture demands we fall into predetermined categories, that we are born, like self-fulfilling prophecies, into a body and must accept the social rules that body predestines. When we choose to reject the binary, to operate outside the system and take control of our own identities, it questions the validity of the system. Hetero-normalcy then retaliates by injecting culture with prejudice, refusing to take on trans issues seriously, demanding that the individual submit to the system or be dismissed as either parodist or pervert.

Yet Halloween also presents a strange double standard for those who work within the binary. Consider the options offered to women for costumes. In this case, sexuality is either celebrated or exploited as sexualized costumes are encouraged for heterosexual women. Under the “Sexy Costumes” heading of Party City’s website, the costumes offered are predominantly, if not entirely, for women (from “Sexy Cop” to “Sexy Angel” to even "Sexy Lollipop").

The line between empowerment and exploitation here is quite thin as these costumes encourage women to express their sexuality, but confine them to do so within the realms of apparent male fantasies and through the lens of a scrutinizing male gaze. Aside from ‘sexy,’ there is a prevalence of ‘cutesy’ costumes, which also impose a kind of ideological submissiveness made even more troubling by their hints of sexualization.
Our culture subtly predicates the constant sexualization of women’s bodies; by restricting the options available to the mainstream, a consumerist patriarchy recognizes that we, preferring convenience over creativity, are willing to submit to oppression and thereby perpetuate it. In a culture where a woman is asked what she was wearing when she was harassed or assaulted, the holiday seems to encourage an apparent pass. Women must make themselves an object of desire at one moment, and are then reviled for it the next.

I should hope this piece doesn’t get me barred from Halloween parties. Far from being a spoilsport, I want to celebrate the experimentation that the holiday offers, to encourage that we live every day this way rather than having to wait for one day a year to express ourselves freely. I want to abolish hypocritical social stigmas, and depart from narrow-minded, uninformed systematic prejudices. I want us to learn that we shouldn’t be threatened by the pressing of boundaries—that doing so breeds diversity, openness, and fulfillment. We should embrace the idea of costumes as liberating but carefully and respectfully translate it to those breaking the rigidity of gender borders. Let us instead make every day a chance to express ourselves and a reason to celebrate.

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