Halloween: Destroying post-feminism through costumes

Wednesday, October 28, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

The accepted norm of Halloween costumes is that they are an opportunity to be not yourself for an evening. That is all well and good but I can guarantee that there is not enough post-feminist theory in this world to justify the female skin parade that will be on full display this All-Hallows Eve.

Many women my age took the movie “Mean Girls” too seriously when it said: “Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”

Which is a really lovely sentiment, isn’t it? We’re so post-feminist that dressing to please the aesthetic sexual eye of men is acceptable again. Because I’m sure that all the girls running around in black tights, bustiers and bunny ears and tails will be thinking about Gloria Steinem and her investigative stint as a Playboy Bunny (in the cocktail club, not the magazine) in 1963 (see “I Was A Playboy Bunny” for details).

And do all the professions really need an injection of the erotic? There’s no such thing as being a doctor or police officer or zombie for Halloween anymore. Being those things requires showing lots of skin, as if Halloween will be a dress rehearsal for Spring Break.

This mentality about the acceptability of body-baring costumes on Halloween has trickled down to children.  Reports of young girls sexing it up on Oct. 31 may be slightly over-exaggerated, but I would certainly argue that ladybugs with short skirts and false eyelashes, or pirates in tube dresses and fishnets, or maybe just the devil, are sexualizing girls before they’re old enough to understand what it all means.

Maybe it’s because I am from Michigan, where the end of October is quite cold, but I keep thinking that it must be miserable wearing nothing but a theme bikini as a Halloween costume. Going to a bar or a house party to celebrate with copious amounts of apple cider inherently requires less cold-weather wear than trick-or-treating out in the elements. To maximize the candy grab, at 10-years-old, all Halloween costumes had to be worn over three layers of sweat suits and jackets for warmth, and with the exception of Dorothys with ruby slippers, boots in case of rain or snow.

Now, a Dorothy is more likely to be wearing four-inch spike ruby heels than ruby slippers. Where is the creativity? The scare-factor? Halloween costumes have their roots in the Celt’s fear of being recognized by spirits of the dead, and they wore masks so they would be mistaken for fellow spirits. Or maybe we should all be scared of the cleavage?

The display of too much female flesh on Halloween is merely a symptom of a larger problem. The reclamation of sexual images that previously upheld a patriarchal society’s impractical standard of beauty and a female’s role of servitude is a standard of post-feminism. But this has been perverted into a one-night-per-year display of sex that has no purpose except to please male party-goers. It’s hard to demand respect when a woman is dressed, even on Halloween, like she does not respect herself.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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King Diamond October 28, 2009 | 8:34 a.m.

So you'll be going as a slutty lumberjack for Halloween?

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill October 28, 2009 | 11:27 a.m.

Oh, certainly. With lots of flannel.

(Report Comment)
Angela Hamilton October 28, 2009 | 7:47 p.m.

Yikes. What a damaging article. None of what you have brought up here actually points to anti-feminist tendencies on the part of the hypothetical women in question. Unless you personally know someone who is planning to dress up as a slutty wage gap for Halloween, your allegations of anti-feminism are way off base.

You imply that women who dress in revealing clothing by definition also don't know anything about Gloria Steinem. That is really dangerous territory, intellectually-speaking. It's analogous to saying that people who care about reality television also don't care about healthcare reform.

The only definitive thing that can be said about women who reveal skin on Halloween is that they are comfortable revealing skin on Halloween. The insinuation that there is something inherently wrong with women who wear (so-called) slutty clothing, on Halloween or any other day, is extraordinarily problematic. Feminism has — or should have — nothing to do with whether you think women dress this way because they are exploiting their gender identity to please someone else. Evidently the women dress this way because it pleases THEM.

Reclaiming the word "slut" is, as you mentioned, one of the hallmarks of third-wave feminism. But it's not for you or anyone else to decry any one woman's personal take on that reclamation as a perversion of the intentions of our feminist forebears. Women who have a strong sense of their own sexuality, and who are happy with their bodies despite centuries of social conditioning to feel shame toward their own physicality, should be celebrated. Period, full-stop.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro October 28, 2009 | 10:50 p.m.

Bring on the sluts...

(Report Comment)
Shauna shames October 30, 2009 | 9:49 a.m.

O'Neill makes terrific points in this well-written piece. I disagree with Hamilton's notion that women who dress as "sluts" on purpose, as their Halloween costume, are simply celebrating their own sexuality. I believe it has much more to do with Laura Mulvey's famous notion of a "male gaze" (see, which permeates every part of our society, culture, and media. The so-called "postfeminism" or third-wave notion that feminism is simply about individual choices lacks a group-based analysis of patriarchy central to feminism. Nice job, O'Neill.

(Report Comment)
Angela Hamilton October 31, 2009 | 9:40 a.m.

Hi Shauna: You bring up an interesting point. I recently had a discussion about male gaze with a friend of mine, and I agree that the theory has a place in film criticism. It loses steam when discussing live drama or real life, though, since you can't direct an individual's eyes where to look.
Since we're discussing individuals, you also can't know why any woman chooses to wear what she wears, and that's why this op-ed misses the boat — it proceeds from the premise that O'Neill knows things she can't possibly know, like a stranger's motivations for dressing the way she wants to dress.
There might have been an interesting (and well-reasoned, and perhaps novel) argument to be made if we'd pulled back the lens a bit and reframed the discussion around how this phenomenon got started in the first place, and what it means in terms of self-image, but that hypothetical article would also have had to pull way back on the value judgments to succeed.
Dan Savage's take on this topic is spot-on:

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