When I was a kid, I used to love Halloween. The week before the big day, we kids would all start coming up with ideas for costumes. I was never particular creative when it came to costumes, but my sisters were. Blonde Sister was particularly good at painting stuff on our faces, using just regular water color paints. She was way ahead of her time because face-painting had not yet become a trend. Pretty much everyone I knew wore homemade costumes, with bits and pieces that had come from garage sales or thrift stores, or sometimes cool hand-sewn costumes made by someone's parent and then passed down through many children. You could buy cheap costumes with plastic masks at the drugstore, but they always fell apart easily, and a mask is annoying to wear on a dark October night.
I've always thought of Halloween as a holiday for children, complete with seasonal candy, carving pumpkins, classroom parties, silly games like dunking for apples or eating donuts off a string, and the excitement of running around a neighborhood after dark, bravely knocking on doors to ask for candy. Since we lived on a country road, we used to visit Picnic Family's neighborhood on Halloween night. We kids would trick or treat for a few hours, then come back to spread our candy on the carpet, carefully sorting the candy bars and hard candy, ready to trade away anything we didn't like. The adults were always in the background, or more accurately, in the basement. Jazz music came drifting up from the jam session going on below us as we argued the worth of a candy bar.
One of the biggest changes I've seen in Halloween in my lifetime is the way that consumerism and adults have taken over the holiday. Instead of simple costumes they make themselves, for instance, many kids now wear elaborate store-bought costumes. It seems sad that kids often don't make their own costumes any more, since that sort of kills the creative element of the holiday, but the thing that most horrifies me is the kind of costumes that seem to be available. I mean, left to her own devices, would your average seven-year-old girl think to dress up as a slutty cheer leader? I doubt it.
I suppose it is unrealistic to think that corporations motivated only by profit would manufacture costumes for little girls that were original or creative or clever. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the costumes tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, which for girls means that the emphasis is on sexuality. When I was a kid, I sometimes dressed as a cat, which meant black cloth covering my whole body, and cardboard ears, and whiskers that my sister painted onto my face, and a long tail. Nowadays, a cat costume means a bare midriff, a black tank top that emphasizes the chest, fishnet stockings, and eye shadow. How is it that a cat costume for a five-year-old can be so sexualized? Am I the only one who thinks it is a bit unhealthy to push that sex object stereotype on a child who won't have breasts for another eight years?
Last year, I saw numerous little girls dressed as comic book superheros, with full-body costumes that gave them cleavage, round breasts, skimpy shorts, and hooker boots, sort of a colorful version of a Hooters' waitress. One parent, with whom I was having a thoughtful discussion, defended the costume to me by saying, "Oh, but it's a progressive outfit. A superhero is powerful." Yes, the idea that a woman needs big breasts, long legs, high heels, and skimpy attire to be powerful – that is real progressive.
I suppose all these highly sexualized costumes for little girls is just one more example of unhealthy attitudes towards the body in our culture. Perhaps is the repression of adult sexuality that leads to the once-a-year Halloween slut. Many adult women in our culture feel uncomfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, and yet we foist an artificial sexuality on our little girls as some kind of cute Halloween joke.
Of course, I don't want to idealize Halloweens of the past too much. Certainly, in my childhood, some inappropriate costumes existed. In the sixties, kids still dressed like the stereotype of the Indian, for instance, a practice incredibly offensive. And I know that a few decades before that, a costume could include blackface, and few would question the racist implications of that. In the schools in this part of the country, at least, educators have begun the process of getting kids and parents to think about who they might offend if they choose to dress as a stereotype.
Yet, I think we still have a long way to go in examining the messages that costumes mass-produced by patriarchy give our children. Perhaps it is unrealistic for me to think that parents would refuse to buy costumes that make their little girls look like sex slaves. Perhaps it is inevitable that girls learn that their place in our culture is to serve as the object in a male fantasy. Perhaps I am old-fashioned in thinking that an elementary school's Halloween parade shouldn't look like a porn show.