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The Real Problem With “Slutty” Halloween Costumes

Scooby Doo costume for men and women. Source: the ever-brilliant Fuck No Sexist Halloween Costumes.

Tonight is the night when a large number of people my age put on costumes and get drunk, and a smaller number of people my age scoff and roll their eyes at what the women are wearing.

There is a lot to criticize about the way we “do” Halloween in our culture, but here’s what we shouldn’t be criticizing: individual women who choose to wear so-called “slutty” costumes.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress revealingly. It can be fun, and as long as you’re not feeling pressured into it, there’s no reason why you should need an “excuse” to show off your body if that’s what you want to do. Not really my thing, but not everyone has to be like me.

Second, if you’ve spent any time at all on a college campus, you know that the way some women dress on Halloween isn’t really that different from how they dress when going to a frat party any other night of the year–that is, pretty revealingly. To me, this says that the problem isn’t really with Halloween itself or with individual women’s clothing choices.

Third, women are often shamed for not dressing revealingly when they go out, especially on Halloween. Friends have told me that they’ve tried to wear “normal” costumes on Halloween, only to be shouted at by men, “Why are you wearing so many clothes?!” So, in a way, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and I wouldn’t blame a woman for deciding that she’d rather get called a slut than a boring, no-fun prude.

Fourth, although dressing revealingly can be intrinsically fun, women in our society grow up learning to base their self-worth on their looks. It’d be nice if everyone became a Super Duper Feminist and broke down their assumptions about gender and beauty and only wore revealing clothing for Completely Personal Reasons, but that doesn’t happen. At least, not for now. The idea that you must look good and you must put on a display for (heterosexual) men is one that can take a long time for women to dislodge from their minds because it’s often so subconscious.

Fifth, “dressing slutty” is a stupid phrase and I wish we’d stop using it. How someone dresses has nothing to do with how much and what kind of sex they want to have, and with whom. Saying that someone is “dressing slutty” promotes rape culture because, in saying so, you are making unfounded assumptions about someone’s sexual availability. Stop saying it.

Sixth, just try finding non-“slutty” Halloween costumes for women. Not everyone has the time, money, and skill to make their own costumes (but here’s a great resource for those who are so inclined). Also, not all female-identified people are willing to wear men’s clothing.

So if we can’t necessarily criticize individual women and their choices*, what can we criticize?

Well, our culture.

And that’s where it gets difficult. It’d be a lot easier to point at women who wear “slutty” costumes and blame them for the problem. It’d also be easier, and definitely more to the point, to blame costume manufacturers. But even that fails to get to the heart of the problem, which is this:

We still make a number of destructive assumptions–we, as a culture. One of those is that women exist primarily to be “on display,” and that anything else they do is secondary to that. Another is that female bodies are attractive and pleasant to look at (assuming they fit into the narrow criteria we prescribe), whereas male bodies are not. Why do we never see men “dressing slutty”? Why aren’t men expected to wear garments that restrict their movement, make it difficult for them to breathe, and require constant readjustments to make sure that nothing “indecent” is revealed? Because female bodies exist to be looked at, and male bodies exist to do things.

Another destructive assumption is that women who admit that they find themselves attractive and that they enjoy getting attention for their looks are “full of themselves,” “attention whores,” “think they’re all that,” and so on. We need to put this to rest right now–not only because it’s barely-veiled misogyny, but also because it’s part of the reason “slutty” Halloween costumes even exist. Women feel like they need a special “excuse” to show off their bodies, and Halloween provides such an excuse. As Cady narrates in Mean Girls, “In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”

It may be tempting to ridicule women who wear “slutty” costumes, but it misses the point. Although we ultimately make our own choices, we don’t make them in a vacuum. In this case, we make them in a cultural context that still treats women as objects for display.

*Of course, that’s not to say you can never criticize people’s costume choices. If you wear this (TW for anorexia) you’re just a terrible person, for instance. And also, here’s a PSA: don’t be racist.

And meanwhile, enjoy:

Edit: A number of people have been misinterpreting point 3 above to mean that because men (sometimes) ridicule women for not dressing revealingly, that means that they should dress revealingly. No. While I’m glad my readers are all disagreeing with that idea, that’s quite an impressive misinterpretation of my point. I’m not prescribing what women should or should not do. I’m explaining why women should not be ridiculed for wearing revealing costumes by showing that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Likewise, I’m not saying ridiculing costumes is wrong. I’m saying ridiculing people is wrong–if you’re doing it in a gendered way.

So, OK: “Whaaaat that costume looks nothing like Scooby Doo/the Doctor/Super Man/Big Bird/Angry Bird/whatever”

Not OK: “Ugh, look at that slut.”

Comments

  1. says

    I agree with everything you said. :)

    Last year I went to a Halloween dance and there was a dude dressed as a Sexy Cowboy (cut off shorts, tied shirt, etc.) and when people said something about how it was weird or gross he was like, “Does this make you uncomfortable? But you like women showing off skin? So why are women required to do it and not men?” We had a really cool discussion about gender roles in society…you know, in the middle of a club, cause that’s how I roll.

    • says

      HAHA, that’s so awesome.

      I’ve always wanted to have a Halloween party where everyone is required to come in drag or otherwise violate gender roles. …this may be partially motivated by my desire to see scantily clad menz.

  2. Dani says

    Ppint 1 – “got it, flaunt it” – why not. I’ll take it.
    Point 2 – If other females are dressing provacatively that doesn’t mean you have to
    Point 3 – If other people shame you for not doing it – who gives a shit
    Point 4 – If you’re smart enough to recognize that our culture has based self-worth off of looks, then be smart enough to recognize that what you look like has nothing to do with who you are
    Point 5 – Yay and nay. No one has the right to rape another person – period. But to pretend like walking down a dark alley with pasties and edible panties on is a good idea is bananas. Practice situational awareness and act accordingly.
    Point 6 – To say finding a Halloween costume that isn’t provacative is difficult is just an excuse – because there’s plenty. Excuse. Big, fat excuse.

    I have a great body and I don’t think I’m a butterface but I do just fine every year finding a costume that’s hilarious without having to adhere to society’s, “It’s Halloween – so here’s your school girl outfit” attitude.

    SN – Do what you want, dress how you wish, it’s Halloween have fun – but this article is dook.

  3. Annie says

    I did a dia de los muertos type of costume Saturday and wore a short dress with it, and the guy I was hanging out with kept saying things like this: *gesturing up my body* “sexy, sexy, sexy” *gets to my painted up face* “scary”. And I wanted to punch him in his stupid face and tell him that my Halloween costume was not designed for his viewing pleasure. Instead I called him an asshole and he got all hurt. That made me want to punch him more.

  4. Josh says

    It is interesting for me to read about woman’s perspective on this phenomenon in our present culture. And I commend the author for deliberating and writing upon a topic I find very important. In the past year, I’ve been pondering why women dress the way they do in public. And this question is adressed specifically for Halloween in this article. But the question, as the author notes, brings up a whole array of complex issues that go very deep in the fabric of western Christian culture. Not the least of which, and very pertinent to answering these questions, is the declining masculine virility. The EPA has recently started an endocrine disruption screening program as many pesticides impact hormonal health of humans and animals alike. As I recognize the complexity of this topic, I am well aware of the need for more investigation on my part before reaching definitive judgments. And that my response (or the article) in no way adequately rises to the task of justly answering the questions once and for all; but rather is a point of departure.

    To preface my comments pertaining to the author’s article, I am a 29 yr old male who values liberity and strongly diasgree’s with rape and violence against women, emotional or physical. One of my good friends used to work for a sexual assualt support hotline, and I’ve attended several events, like Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, to support raising sexual assualt awareness and to demonstrate to women that there are men who desire respect and consideration within the relation of the sexes. Yes I physically walked a mile in high heels to fulfill the proverb of putting myself in another’s shoes, which I continue to try to do. I’ve also read several books on civility, character, and social grace, endeavoring to temper some of their patriarchal historical perspective with modern feminine sentiment so as to not be or promote chauvinism or condescending behavior. My motive and intent to the best of my ability still remains to show all people, male and female, hetero- and homo-, black and white, Christian and Islamic, etc. equal respect and consideration. Naturally, as a male attracted to, intrigued by, and grateful for the opposite sex, I also desire to bestow special consideration to them.

    I don’t find the third point has much substance. To criticize our culture and the attitude men have that women are just sex objects and that her self-worth totally equates with how she looks is certainly valid. If this is really wrong, then men and women who recognize it have a responsibility and duty to their own integirty to try to change it. It is very sad that a man would treat a woman very crudely and disrespectufully because she isn’t dressing revealing enough. This to me, though, seems to be faulty ground to justify woman dressing provocatively. Is she succumbing to the cultural expectations in order to receive masculine attention and/ or female esteem and/ or self-worth? In order for her to maintain her personal integrity, shouldn’t she resist the attitudes of culture that she disagree’s with? Should she not recognize the crudeness and lack of character such a male portrays makes his attention or perspective worthless to her despite how much money he has, how smart he is, or how cool he looks, or what her girlfriend’s think of him, etc.? Granted the author does note that most women aren’t at this point of conscious recognition that they disagree with these attitudes. However, it seems the author is, and that the general thrust of her article is that dressing revealing on Halloween is OK.
    This brings me closer to my real point of contention: absolving the individual of responsibility and separating that individual from the culture at large. The author says that we can’t criticize the individual but we can criticize the culture. This doesn’t jive or make sense to me. Newtonian physics and calculus offer a great analogy. The culture is the integral of the whole; it is de facto the amalgamation of all the individual choices, preferences, beliefs, and values. Certainly the culture we grow up in shapes our beliefs and our character. But we have the ability to chart our own course. It is the program or be programmed analogy. Will you drive your own life or let society drive it? The first step to change is to take responsibility for one’s own actions and choices. This is what the first habit of Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is all about. Be proactive. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Now granted, one person is a small aspect of the culture at large, and the lion’s share of the blame may be at fault with culture at large. But for individuals who don’t want to be molded by society, the best perspective for change is to take responsibility for their choices, and change their paradigmns and thereby change their choices and behavior. It seems to me that the author desires such change to occur in the culture at large, that she disagrees with much of the sentiment associated with “sluty” costumes, etc.; and so I recommend that she place greater emphasis on the responsibility of the individual in his or her choices.
    Women’s exhibitionism is probably rooted, as Wilhelm Reich contends in The Sexual Revolution, in infant sexual repression and is a reflection of present subconscious sexual negative attitudes. Hence the word “sluty” or “naughty” associated with these costumes. It is an effect of a culture (made up of individual preferences mind you) at large that holds a sex-negative attitude, starting in infancy and amplified in adolescents, creating preversions in adulthood–exhibitionism being one such instance of sexual perversion. Such sex-negative cultures are authorative/ patriarchal and produce individuals who don’t exercise their right and ability of self-government and must rather rest upon outside influence for guidance, direction, etc, which explains why a woman would conform to rude men.
    The album “Make Yourself,” by incubus, expresses much of the theme of self-government and the last song concludes it best:
    “To resist is to piss in the wind
    Anyone who does will end up smelling
    Knowing this, why do I defy?
    Because my inner voice is yelling
    There is a fist pressing against
    Anyone who thinks something compelling
    Our intuit we’re taught to deny
    And our soul we’re told is for selling

    Get out from under them
    Resist and multiply
    Get out from under precipice and see the sky
    Get out from under them
    Resist, unlearn, defy
    Get out from under precipice and see the sky”

    I’m not try to say that dressing revealing is necessarily wrong per se. I’m trying to understand where it comes from, both for the individual and the culture at large. I do hope, on the contrary, that woman recognize that exhibitionism can be very antisocial. Please recognize that healthy men are visually stimulated sexually more so than woman are, in general. (The health of men and the over visual stimulation in our society is another discussion altogether). Please recognize that it is only natural for a woman dressed sexy to arouse desire on the part of the male. And finally that such outfits do infact coincide with unveiling during real sexual foreplay and that it is strongly coorelated with the actual sexual act and that many of the costume make use of definite sexual stereotypes and/ or fantasies. In brief, the costumes are SEXY. Please recognize that making choices while remaining oblivious, ignorant, or apathetic to such facts is exactly the defintion of being inconsiderate. Just like it would be inconsiderate to invite a hungry friend over, and eat a mouth watering, juicy steak in front of them without offering a share (such a guest doesn’t have the right to steal the steak (ie. Rape by analogy) and can obviously leave and discontinue the friendship and make their own food or find other friends). A woman has the right to make such choices. To fight for change for woman to be seen and treated as humans with values, personalities, inteligence, sensitivities, purpose, and intrinsic value (and are not merely sex toys) as equals necessitates consideration on men and women alike.

    • says

      ^Nice summation, in case anyone found this to be TL;DR – Cis male fails to grasp the fact that individuals are shaped by the culture that they are socialized into and, as a result, any deviation from the norm takes on a much more significant social consequence, especially when one is of a non-dominant social category. Male also fails to understand that a superficial knowledge of the topic does not afford an in-depth understanding for the purposes of criticism, as his writing demonstrates quite effectively.

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