How Gendered Marketing, Sexism Can Impact Halloween Costume Choices

Person with long blonde hair wearing white top, black skirt, and black hat skips along street carrying bunch of Halloween-colored balloonsWhen I was 13 years old, I was a huge fan of “I Dream of Jeannie,” a show from the 1960s about a female genie who lives with her male “master” in his suburban home in the United States. Setting aside the psychoanalysis of my choice of character, when Halloween rolled around that year, I was desperate to obtain an I Dream of Jeannie Halloween costume. I remember having to convince my parents to let me buy the costume and how, due to the midriff-baring top and translucent pink pant legs, I had to compromise by wearing a nude leotard and pink tights underneath the costume in order to go trick-or-treating.

Thinking back on this encounter, I am flummoxed. Why, at 13 years old, was I already so aware of the fact that showing my belly and legs, something done every summer at the beach without restrictions or shame, was somehow different when done on October 31st?

Gendered Marketing of Halloween Costumes

The question of what is appropriate dress on Halloween is not a new one, especially for women and girls. The gendered marketing of costumes increasingly makes the news as consumers become more aware of the choices, or lack thereof, presented in stores. Research has shown that, out of eight archetypal categories available for costume choices, women are typically presented with only two: overtly feminine heroes and overtly infantilized, non-human characters such as animals (Sullivan, Hipple, and Hyers, 2017).

This matters in ways that go far beyond a seemingly innocuous holiday. When we sexualize a female warrior or infantilize a lion we are removing agency and power from what that character initially represents. A female warrior doesn’t exist to do battle so much as to showcase her legs; a lion isn’t here to terrorize the Serengeti but rather to passively twirl its beribboned tail at others. A modern woman who wants to dress up as Batman will, in all probability, be unable to find a simple Batman costume. Instead, options will be cute, sexy, and/or unrealistic (i.e. wearing high heels to fight crime). In other words, the original intention of Halloween—disguising oneself in ways outside the “norm”—now includes an unspoken demand for women: above all else, we must still be able to be recognized and seen as female.

Why is this? Some research has gone so far as to wonder if infantilized and/or sexualized costumes for young women are as prevalent as they are in order to reinforce underlying gender roles and myths about the lack of female competence and ability, especially considering that the uptick in availability of these types of costumes starts at an age when young women are beginning to learn about their own agency and sexuality (Sullivan, Hipple, and Hyers, 2017).

Another point to consider as we get closer to Halloween is the idea of sexual expression as a form of independence or freedom. Third-wave feminism has presented self-sexualization, even with intentions to attract the sexual gaze, as proof of female liberation and agency (Erchull & Liss, 2013). Reclaiming the female body, including how it’s dressed and for what purpose, makes the idea of dressing up as a cutesy lion or sexy warrior seem like more of an inside joke and expression of power. In other words, it can become a sort of “wink-wink” among women who know the marketers’ game and have decided to play along—but only because we feel like it.

Reclaiming the female body, including how it’s dressed and for what purpose, makes the idea of dressing up as a cutesy lion or sexy warrior seem like more of an inside joke and expression of power. In other words, it can become a sort of “wink-wink” among women who know the marketers’ game and have decided to play along—but only because we feel like it.

Celebrating our sexuality through overt dress can absolutely be a part of empowerment. However, with this empowerment comes the double-edged sword women carry of being responsible for our own safety. Research abounds regarding so-called violence prevention that rests solely on the shoulders of women, putting heightened scrutiny on our abilities to reign in our bodies and the choices we make regarding how we showcase them (Crooks, Goodall, Hughes, Jaffe, and Baker 2007). Dressing scantily on Halloween, viewed through this lens, becomes not only a rebellious act but also one that carries an undertone of risk, however unwarranted. (Unwarranted, because of course, sexual harassment, assault, or other violence is never the fault of any victim for any reason.

Awareness and Safety: Make Halloween Fun Again

Can Halloween just be fun again? With a few considerations, I think so. The main takeaways here, I believe, are the importance of (1) awareness and (2) fostering a community of safety.

First, let’s separate the costume from the person. After all, the original intent of Halloween was to disguise oneself from evil spirits (Sullivan, Hipple, and Hayes, 2017). By reminding ourselves of this fact, we can allow a sexy cat costume to simply be a costume, not necessarily a reflection of, or invitation to, the person underneath. Next, it’s important for everyone to remember that no costume is ever an indication of or substitute for consent. Finally, let’s all work to continue the push for greater choice when it comes to female costumes, across all age ranges. This will allow Halloween to be a part of healthy experimentation for young folks, and perhaps more inclusive of people of all genders, rather than a siphoning point for “boys vs. girls.”

It’s also helpful to encourage ourselves and others to increase our media literacy. Our ability to decode the underlying messages presented via commercials, magazines, and yes, even Halloween costume packaging allows us to become more aware of what we are consuming and better able to make choices reflective of our actual desires.

I’ll leave you with another costume story. When I was 10, I had a burning desire to be Elvis Presley for Halloween. There were no Elvis Presley costumes to be found in the stores, so my mom set out to make me one. She helped me pin up my hair in a faux duck-tail swoop, spray-painted it black, and helped me draw on cartoonishly large eyebrows so that my oft-practiced lip snarl would have corresponding eyebrow movements. My legs were so sore that night from pulling one too many hip-swivel and finger point moves. Looking back, I’m amazed my parents felt more confident in my dressing as a male who was an actual sex symbol than my showing off my female body in a Jeannie costume.

Perhaps with more awareness, choice, and body positivity, the next generation of Jeannies and Elvis Presleys can be free to dress up without toting along all the other baggage.

References:

  1. Sullivan, J., Hipple, E., & Hyers, L. (2017). Female disempowerment disguised as a Halloween costume. The Open Family Studies Journal, 2017(9), 60-75.
  2. Erchull, M. J., & Liss, M. (2013). Feminists who flaunt it: Exploring the enjoyment of sexualization among young feminist women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2013(43), 2341-2349.
  3. Crooks, C. V., Goodall, G. R., Hughes, R., Jaffe, P. G., & Baker, L. L. (2007). Engaging men and boys in         preventing violence against women: Applying a cognitive behavioral approach. Violence against Women, 13(3), 217-239.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mandy Rubin, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ellen

    ellen

    October 26th, 2017 at 7:59 AM

    I always made my girls have homemade costumes, and they would hate it, but now that they are older with girls of their own they appreciate it what we did.
    Who wants their sweet little girls to go out as hooker Barbie? Or basically hooker anything because that is how sexualized most of the young girl costumes have become.
    It made me mad for my own girls and now for my granddaughters.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    October 26th, 2017 at 1:37 PM

    Ellen thanks for your comment, I too really enjoy looking back on all the cool creations my family put together for the holiday. I think what is most frustrating is the lack of choice for female costume (especially younger girls). I strongly believe that if you are an adult you should be free to dress how you please AND that young girls would be better served by a wider variety of costume choice.

  • Betsy

    Betsy

    October 26th, 2017 at 9:42 AM

    And little boys get to run around and be aggressive because their costumes allow them to all dress up like Thor or another superhero.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    October 26th, 2017 at 1:45 PM

    Betsy that is an interesting observation and I think it further highlights the need for more choice in female costume, especially for young girls, as there is that implied connection between how we dress and how we are “allowed” to act. If girls are only given costume options that come with skirts (which by their design limit aspects of our mobility) are they being silently told to not run, jump, tumble? It’s amazing how much goes unspoken in clothing and in costumes in particular!

  • Ruth Y

    Ruth Y

    October 27th, 2017 at 11:15 AM

    The problem is that Halloween has become in so many ways commercialized and not just targeted to children, but there are a large number of adults who like to play dress up too.
    Ok so that’s fine, I guess that they can have their fun too but you know when it comes to the big bucks they are the ones who will be targeted obviously because they are the ones who will spend the big bucks on a costume.
    It sure would be nice if things could stay for the kids, eh?

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    October 27th, 2017 at 11:56 AM

    Thanks for your comment Ruth. Halloween, historically, was for all ages and disguises were used to confuse evil spirits and keep them away – times certainly have changed and there is obviously a more light-hearted mindset when it comes to Halloween these days! The original research on difference in costume choice based on gender focused heavily on children and teenagers choices back in the 1990’s (a study by A. Nelson titled “The Pink Dragon is Female”) which I think points to the bigger issue of steering even very young children into rigid roles of “pretty princess” or “playful kitten” where boys have more range and choice to express their imagination etc. I believe more choice (why not have a female ninja costume that doesn’t come with a skirt?) will help foster a Halloween truly on choice rather than subliminally sending the message to girls that it’s only a time to dress up and look pretty or sexy. It truly is fascinating stuff!

  • Bennett

    Bennett

    October 28th, 2017 at 10:18 AM

    Nothing makes me more proud than the fact I will be walking around the neighborhood this Halloween with my two little soccer players. Yep they both decided that they love playing so much that this is what they want to be on Halloween. Honestly I think that they would wear their uniforms every day if they could! But at least with them deciding on this I know that I have two strong daughters on my hands.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    October 31st, 2017 at 7:54 AM

    Thank for your comment Bennett, I hope you and your daughters have a wonderful Halloween!

  • Melanie

    Melanie

    October 30th, 2017 at 6:56 AM

    A deeper problem is that when our girls see these costumes then naturally this is how they THINK that they should want to look so they internalize every bit of this.
    No wonder many of us are all screwed up! We have society and retail telling us one thing and then our parents are trying to come in and help us fight against that message, but this is a big war for any of us to fight against.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    October 31st, 2017 at 8:00 AM

    Melanie, thank you for your comment. It can feel a bit like the chicken and the egg when looking at what started the over sexualization of younger girls’ costumes, especially as young adults become parents themselves having grown up in the commercialization/consumer era of Halloween. I think you are spot on though when it comes to continuing to have parents involved in these discussions with their kiddos so they can understand their own empowerment and agency even for the little things in life like Halloween costumes. As a parent of a toddler my goal is to impart the idea that costume is a part of play and is an extension of imagination – not something to be used to make assumptions about that person’s character – regardless of costume choice. Have a happy Halloween!

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