I have always loved Halloween. As a five-year-old, I convinced my friends to make construction-paper masks and go door to door demanding candy from our neighbors. It was summer. The police were called. But despite the serious trouble I was in, I still loved Halloween. It was the one night of the year that rules could be reversed, power relations overturned, kids ruled and, at the same time, the rules were up for grabs. Even as an adult, I still spend inordinate amounts of time thinking of costumes, decorating, and celebrating a time that is both exciting and scary. But something has gone terribly wrong with Halloween. It’s straightened up, become about adults, and now is a space where we don’t so much reverse the rules as highlight them.
I’m not saying it’s all bad. After all, during this national (now international) holiday, gluttony and greed are ritualized into trick or treating door to door. It is a day when we are not worrying about being fit bodies or transgressing the spaces of private property that usually stop us from going into our neighbors’ homes.
But besides the candy, I spend most of Halloween cringing in fear. The scary part is, of course, the costumes. Because it is in our costuming on Halloween that all of our cultural angst gets played out. If you’re a white, middle class woman between the ages of 15 and 55 you must now dress in an outfit deemed sexy. As a male student was overheard to say on my campus: “If a girl doesn’t wear a sexy costume, she might as well go back to middle school.” Sexy witch, sexy vampire, sexy nurse, sexy Pippi Longstocking, sexy Alice in Wonderland, sexy cop, sexy firefighter, sexy Border Patrol. The last one goes, no doubt, hand in hand with a man’s costume as “illegal alien.” Of course, that’s the racist genre, which sometimes is caught up in the sexy one: sexy geisha girl, sexy burqa girl, sexy Mexican dancer girl, etc. When the costumes are for men they are not sexy, just “funny.” Like Mexican costume with sombrero, long handlebar mustache, and poncho, or Arab “terrorist” with beard, keffiyah and bombs or, of course, the ubiquitous (and always racialized as black) pimp costume that can be bought for young boys too.
These sexual and racial anxieties where primarily white, straight, and middle-class Americans play out their fears of sexually impure white women and a sense of increasingly threatened white/American privilege are bad enough, but what really scares me are the now annual national scandals over young boys who want to dress in costumes deemed for girls. Last year the news media exploded over the case of a boy who went to preschool dressed as Daphne from Scooby Doo. This year it is the case of young Luc, who wants to dress as a princess for Halloween. His mothers are themselves ambivalent. According to one of them, Anna Villaneuve,
I want to encourage him to stand up and be himself. But my 4-year-old is too little and too fragile to know where the social boundaries are. And I don’t want his feelings hurt on what should be one of his happiest nights.
Perhaps it’s their ambivalence or perhaps it’s because he has two moms, but why is this even in the news except as a space to work out our cultural fears about boys who might grow up to be gay or trans (and like Mexicans and Arabs and sexualized white women, those are bad things). And why was the mother of young Daphne so roundly criticized for letting her son wear the costume?
I think the answer is the “adultification” of Halloween—and the adults getting to make the rules for the day are the kind of adults who call the police on a bunch of 5-year-olds trying to scam some free candy. The rules more or less work for them and they take this holiday as a time not to overturn the rules, but to act them out in a fetishistic ritual of privilege. Halloween now belongs to the norms. I think the rest of us need to either fight to take it back or pick another day for carnivalesque overturning of the order of things. Maybe President’s Day?Return to Top