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.