One year, I really wanted to be a genie for Halloween. I was nine or ten years old and I must have been watching lot of reruns of "I Dream of Jeannie." My parents told me absolutely not. I grew up in Salt Lake City where the first snowfall of the year is often before (if not on) Halloween. That skimpy little pink and red outfit was certainly not functional for trick-or-treating. But that is not the reason my parents refused my request and ignored my whining. They told me I was too young to wear a costume with a bare midriff. I don't know what I ended up being that year, but I was probably a witch or a ghost or a vampire, because those were the costumes I often wore as a child. And not a "sexy fairy" version of those things--just a mostly campy, sometimes scary attempt at a Halloween icon. In fact, my family had a big box of costumes and each year my brothers and I would dig through it to decide what we wanted to wear. The costumes were pretty much gender neutral.
Looking back, I am glad my parents denied my dream of genie. I think it helped me develop the attitude that I have about Halloween (and about myself in general). Mostly, I see Halloween as an opportunity to dress as some obscure hero of mine. One year I was evil Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another year I went as Kahlan Amnell from the Sword of Truth series. I get a big kick out of it when 2 people at a party actually guess my costume. I have also dressed in some pretty traditional Halloween costumes (vampire, sorceress, a terrible attempt at a homemade Cleopatra costume) or not dressed up at all.
As Halloween approaches and I think about what to be this year, I can't help but be distressed by the problematic nature of what has become super-sexy Halloween (there are also some really disturbing racist costumes floating around, but that is a blog for another time). Luckily there are campaigns out there and other people writing about their concerns with the sexualization of Halloween--but it seems to me that things are not getting much better.
Here's the thing. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy. There are definitely times in my life when I choose an outfit because I want to feel and look sexy. It is even ok for Halloween night to be one of those times (heck, one year in college I dressed as a "sexy Angel" because I found some cool wings, was 21, and was spending Halloween night at a dance club with my friend). My concerns about the sexualization of Halloween does not mean that we should all engage in slut-shaming or be afraid of women's (including young women's) sexuality. The problem with our "super-sexy" Halloween is that it promotes the ridiculous idea that the most important attribute for women to be is "sexy" (and "sexy" defined by some very narrow standards). This is bad for women of all ages, but it is especially problematic when this standard is imposed on girls. The report from the APA task force on the sexualization of girls clearly spelled out the numerous negative effects of our culture treating girls like sex objects.
Yes, Halloween can be a time for women to show off their "sexy" side--but it can also be a time to be silly, creative, scary, political, smart, adventurous and so much more. It can be a chance to try out a job or a persona. It can be a way to dream of what we can become, to imagine what our life could be like. Let's be honest, for most kids it is a chance to get free candy and stay up late.
Many historians believe that the tradition of Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain--when they believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to the earth on the night before their new year (November 1st). The Celts dressed in costumes of animal skins and heads to disguise themselves from the spirits. We sure have come a long way from that to
"Sassy Raphael Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" (no, I did not make that up).
I have been thinking about all of these things as I tried to decide what I should be this year. My husband and I are hosting a Halloween party for our friends (many of whom have children under 5) and we plan to have trick-or-treaters stopping by. I am very aware that little kids will often look to the adults in their life as they think about who they are and who they want to become. I wanted to pick a costume that would highlight the fact that women are more than just sexy. I decided to go as Amelia Earhart. I am planning to learn some fun facts about her that I can share with the kids (yes, always a teacher). As I was browsing google to find a costume (I need those iconic googles and the aviator hat) I saw a costume for "sexy Amelia Earhart" which only furthered my resolve.
We can all do something to push back on this cultural trend that has taken over girls and women's lives (not just on Halloween.
We can ask retailers to change what they offer--stop marketing boys' and girls' costumes differently. Stop making the "girl" costume a skimpier version of the boys'.
We can all encourage children to think outside the box when picking a costume, like this mom did. Guardians of kids can say "no" to the sexy costumes and make their own (like two of my amazing mom friends are doing), or buy the "boy" version of something.
Whether it is on Halloween night or just a day in March, all of us (women and men alike) can remember to compliment girls and women on all the wonderful things about them--not just their looks.
Finally, adult women, we can consider our audience when we choose a Halloween costume. What message do we want to send with that choice? Being sexy is a totally reasonable option, but it doesn't have to be the one we go with every year. Have fun with Halloween and see where it can take you. Let yourself dream of flying to new heights.
Last week I took my students to a lecture by Representative Brian Sims, PA state representative of the 182nd district. Sims is the first out LGBT member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, he is a policy attorney and a civil rights activist. I was immediately impressed by Sims and his story. He is funny, engaging and authentic. He admitted that he is sometimes a bit "brash" and was clearly passionate about supporting and advocating for the rights and dignity of all people. Sims recently introduced H.B. 1686, the Pennsylvania Marriage Equality Act, he proposed a ban on anti-gay conversion "therapy" for minors, and supports a non-discrimination law that would protect LGBT individuals from discrimination.
One of the things that struck me most was the way that Sims talked about collaboration within politics. This was especially meaningful given the situation of the nation at the time. The day of his talk was more than a week into the federal government shutdown. While there is plenty of disagreement about the cause of the shutdown (and plenty of finger pointing) I don't think anyone would argue that it is the result of collaboration and mutual respect among politicians and between political parties. In fact the current state of politics in the USA seems to be built on vitriolic opposition of the "other."
Representative Sims talked about his own experiences being shut down and disrespected by some of his fellow state representatives. He also spoke proudly about being a Democrat, a feminist, and an LBGT advocate. But he did not assume that all members of a political party hold the same beliefs and values. He did not encourage partisanship but rather reminded the audience to approach everyone (especially those who we disagree with) with respect--to have conversations about why we want our representatives to pass laws which support the rights of all people. These laws are not a republican vs. democrat issue. They are issues of human dignity.
My students were amazed by Sims. Many said that they had never encountered a politician like him--and had not even envisioned one like him. I think we can all learn a lot from Sims' approach. I know how hard it can be for me sometimes to back down from argument, to listen to another perspective, to not assume that someone will disagree with me.
Balancing passion for an issue with collaboration is a tricky feat. But it is likely the only way to really get things done. People are rarely convinced of the value of an idea when it is presented to them in an adversarial way. If our goal is to "win" then by all means we should dig our heels in and take a competitive stance. But if our goal is to make the world a better place, to fight for social justice, to support the rights of all people, then a little collaboration just might be what we need.
Are you listening, congress?
In December of 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to make October 11th the official "International Day of the Girl." In case you haven't checked your calendars, that means this Friday will be the second year the day is celebrated. The goal of having a day devoted to girls is to recognize the needs of girls around the world, to galvanize support for activities that improve girls' lives, and to empower girls to be involved in all aspects of society.
Why do we even need a day of the girl? Sadly, because the state of rights and living conditions for girls worldwide is concerning. Many girls are denied access to education, experience violence in their daily lives, are sexualized in the media, and their voices are dismissed. Luckily, a number of girls and their allies around the world have joined forces to fight for the dignity and rights of girls. The Day of the Girl Summit 2013 will include a number of activities and events to engage people of all ages and genders to learn about and support girls. Here in Pittsburgh, there will be a large celebration bringing together various girl serving agencies.
Luckily, you don't have to wait until Friday to get involved. The summit is offering 11 Days of Action to mobilize people now. Today, the SPARK organization is encouraging girls, women, boys and men of all shapes and sizes to "strike a pose" and become live mannequins at H & M stores, a retailer who sales plus size clothing but only displays negative sized models (check it out: 9th Day of Action).
This is the kind of action that the Day of the Girl is all about--drawing attention to a problem facing girls and doing something about it.
I encourage you to celebrate the day of the girl this year. Join a local celebration or make one of your own. Think about a way to honor the girls and women (remember, they were girls once) in your life.
Each person can make the world a better place one day at a time.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.