Point Patriarchy Dresses Women for Halloween
by Katie Sauter
Counterpoint Celebrating Our Inner Slut
by Libby Howard
“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” – Cady Heron, played by Lindsay Lohan, in Mean Girls.
Beginning in September, stores start setting up their Halloween displays. Candy and spooky decorations line the aisles of major party and grocery stores, and men and women can pick and choose from a vast array of costumes. For women, the options are seemingly endless, ranging from a devil to a Disney princess or even a nun. We could stop at the observation that men and women are presented with an equal variety of costume choices and conclude that women have equal rights, and thus, feminism has taken care of gender disparities in this department. But we could also delve deeper. By looking critically at these costumes, we would quickly realize that all of them are made out of the minimum amount of material possible with at least one of the following: a short skirt, low-cut top, and/or skin-tight material (yes, even the nun costume).
I want to preface this discussion by stating that I recognize the hard fight for sexual liberation the women’s rights movement has been involved in for years. In addition, I fully believe women should be able to freely embrace their sexuality in any way they desire, including the option to wear a sexy Halloween costume. However, currently, women are not able to make this choice freely. Regardless of how many costume options women have to choose from, the predicament the feminist movement faces concerning Halloween attire is that their selections have been censored by a corporate America—one that is dominated by men. Without this free choice, we cannot say women have comprehensive sexual liberation.
Patriarchal control dictates and defines women's Halloween costumes. There's little room for freely chosen sexual expression.
Women’s lack of choices in Halloween costumes is a result of our still dominantly patriarchal society. Halloween costumes are used as a mechanism to control women’s sexuality. You may question my reasoning here and ask, “If stores are putting out ‘sexy’ costumes isn’t that the stores’ fault?” The answer to that question is yes.
So you then may ask, “How can we blame ‘patriarchy’ for this?” To understand the answer we must look at who owns these stores. Gerald Rittenberg is the CEO of Party City, Hank Meijer is the CEO of Meijer, Steven Silverstein is the CEO of Spencer’s (which owns Spirit Halloween), and Jon Majdoch and Jalem Getz own Halloween Express. These are some of the top stores consumers go to for their Halloween costumes, and all of them are owned and operated by men. This gives these men the authority to select which products make it to the shelves. The control that these men possess demonstrates that patriarchy still reigns as a powerful system policing the acts of women.
Not only do the limited options presented to women encourage them to dress like “sluts,” whether they feel comfortable with it or not, these costumes also mock the advances that feminism has made. In the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, both women and men fought for equal job opportunities and fair treatment in the workplace. Although today we still face inequalities in this market, great advances have been made. The skimpy costumes of nurses, doctors, pilots, and police officers deride this progress. These costumes send two main messages. First, the costumes show that while it is presently more widely acceptable for a woman to be employed in a traditionally male occupation, she is still primarily valued for her physical appearance. Second, these “sexy” professional costumes validate and reinforce the idea that it is permissible to sexually objectify not only the women in these costumes, but also the women who actually have these careers.
Sexual liberation is one of the rights for which feminists have fought hard throughout the women’s rights movement. One way women should be able to express this right is by wearing anything they please for Halloween. Their costume choices, however, have been predetermined by our patriarchal society which continues to objectify the female body. Again, I want to emphasize that I am not saying that women should not be able to dress in this manner; women should be able to dress how they want. The issue arises out of the limited options women are presented with, which in turn impairs them from freely making a decision. Cady Heron may be right in that Halloween is the one time a year that women can dress like “sluts” without suffering the scorn of other women (or of men for that matter). If a woman wants to wear lingerie and rabbit ears and call herself a bunny, as Cady did, more power to her. But I question her ability to have made this decision without the influence of our patriarchal society. Hence, a woman being able to dress sexy for Halloween is not enough proof that we have attained sexual liberation. While dressing up in these outfits may be empowering, sexy and fun for some, there is no room to independently explore these expressions in the context of our patriarchal society.
“I was like –‘am I gay, am I straight?’ And then I realized…I’m just slutty. Where’s my parade?” –Margaret Cho, actress and comedian.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word slut? Maybe it is the girl in high school who slept with all your best guy friends but never got asked to prom. Maybe it’s a hyper-crossbreed between Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton. Maybe you think of yourself. Regardless, the word “slut” leaves everyone with a bad taste in his or her mouth—unless it’s Halloween.
There has been much debate orbiting the concept of “appropriate” costumes for young women when it comes to Halloween. Some argue that the social pressure for women to dress themselves in promiscuous rags originates from patriarchy’s rule book; that this expectation alone ultimately lowers the standards of respect that women should hold for themselves. Others argue that the direct inverse relationship between seasonal weather conditions and square footage of clothing is impractical and ultimately ridiculous. However, most people just think that being a slutty firewoman is an easy and unimaginative way for a girl to show off just how hot she really is. And my question is, so what? If any guy with a killer body dressed up as a slutty fireman, the automatic reaction would be laughter—he is either supposed to be a stripper or a sexy calendar month. Pressure to dress in a certain way for Halloween is not exclusively felt by women – there are only differing manifestations of gender expectations. Women and men should dress to empower themselves and show off their bodies through whatever costume they choose. Halloween is the beginning of a subversive sexual revolution.
Sexy Halloween costumes are a means to self-exploration and sexual empowerment.
We know Halloween as the one night a year when girls can dress like sluts without negative social consequences. Really, every day should be “the day” that girls can dress how they please without facing the inevitable judgment. Sadly, there is rarely a single day when women are not judged and demoralized for wearing any kind of revealing outfits outside of the house. In fact, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto police officer, summed up this societal attitude when he so kindly suggested that if women want to remain safe, they should avoid dressing like sluts. This was spoken at a crime prevention safety forum at York University last April. His ugly words sparked a counter-movement, which spread across the globe, known as SlutWalks, where hoards of protesters rally in public space all while scantily clad. The movement argues that women should not have to constantly censor the way they dress in order to protect themselves from dangerous men. Instead, we should be attacking the framework of patriarchy that influences and perpetuates this “slut-shaming.” A woman, just as a man, should have the right to sleep with whomever she wants and whenever she wants without fearing emotionally destructive repercussions from society. Similarly, any woman should have the right to choose exactly how she wants to dress without the constant fear of being attacked. Everyone dresses certain ways for their own reasons and revealing clothing should be no exception.
Halloween is the perfect opportunity for us all to take part in the message of the SlutWalk movement. Wearing risqué costumes does not have to fall under the gaze of oppressive patriarchal objectifications of bodies. Rather, we can manipulate the message that our appearance sends. Ladies (and guys), this Halloween, let’s proudly adorn ourselves in as little or as much as possible – it’s not about pleasing anyone else. It’s about making a statement to the Constable Sanguinettis of our society and letting them know that when we march out for parties and do the monster mash, it is a firm stance against patriarchy.
If you aren’t persuaded by this feminist call to bare arms, consider Halloween as a gentler opportunity to escape social ridicule while trying out different expressions of your body and sexuality. Long ago we traded in our Trick or Treat bags for the excuse to party at our college campuses. Along with this came the social pressures—to drink, dance hook-up, and wear certain clothes—that are basically unavoidable. We begin to experience the ones associated with Halloween once the October wind starts blowing and the shots start rolling. Despite the sexist undertones to these pressures discussed above, there is ground within these coercive social norms for really beautiful moments of character development and discovery for all genders. Although these constraining social pressures might make some feel uncomfortable; all it takes is a lighthearted attitude, an instinct to survive, or a curiosity to experiment. This willingness is necessary for human survival and personal growth—just ask Darwin. Social pressures act as a right of passage from childhood into adulthood as kids learn who they are and which social norms they want to partake in. This process of natural selection helps each individual fall into his or her own specific niche.
Halloween can be a night of escape, a night where sexual power is reclaimed by costumed SlutWalkers, or something in between. So if a woman or a man wants to show off their assets in any way, we should all ask, so what?
About the Issue
Point author: Katie Sauter is a junior at U of M, studying Women’s Studies and Political Science. She is passionate about ending gender inequalities through her involvement with SafeHouse Center, the Women’s Issues Commission of MSA, and the CIAM Cancun Partnership.
Counterpoint author: Libby Howard is a sophomore at Lewis & Clark College, She is a spoken word poet and was Colorado Youth Slam champion two years in a row. For Halloween, she is going to be a gnome.
Edited by: Lexie Tourek and Lauren Opatowski
Cover by: Jill Brandwein