Finally it’s Autumn. I love this time of year. In Austin, the weather cools down to a balmy 92° and thoughts turn to things like turning leaves, football, chili, and Halloween. Ah, Halloween – the one day out of the year where us grown kids can act like our children and nobody will give it a second thought.
Now if you’ve known me for a long time, you know that I have not always been a fan of Halloween. In fact, I can remember several times in college when I, along with my roommates Pat and Springer, would sit and drink beer with all the lights off in the house so the trick-or-treaters would think we weren’t home. I hated Halloween. For me, that tradition more or less carried on until I had a child of my own. Once my son was born, something changed. The more he understood Halloween, the more he got into it and the more I got into it.
My son is 5 now. Last year was the first time he actually cared about his costume. We shopped at places like Spirit Halloween and Party City to find a Wall-E costume because, in his mind, nothing else would do. Sadly, none of the costumes we found met his exacting standards. So, being that I have a degree in art, I decided to make a costume for him. Check it out…
Pretty cool, huh? At first I was sad that I wasn’t able to find a costume all ready to go, but it was fun making this with him. I was also saddened by what I did find in those stores. So this year I decided to write about it. In order to research this article, I visited www.spirithalloween.com to see if anything had changed. They have costumes for babies all the way to adults. They are also separated by gender and style for convenience. I started by looking at costumes for men and then for women. Quickly I was overwhelmed by the stark differences between the male and female costumes. In fact, it was so bad that I had to find a way to simplify it so that I could even put it into words.
For this article, I wanted to be able to compare apples to apples. I wanted you to see just how entrenched male and female gender roles really are in our society. I decided to focus on a set of costumes to which most, if not all of us can relate…the characters from Wizard of Oz.
First, here are the “standard” costumes for Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Dorothy:
I’d say this pretty much what I expected to find. They seem true to the original movie wardrobes. HOWEVER…I also found a series of costumes called the “Wicked of Oz”. Here are the same 4 characters from that line:
What I noticed right off that bat is that the male characters, in this version, appear more powerful because they are more menacing. Meanwhile, the female character (Dorothy) became more powerful by seeming sexually dominant – down to the black latex corset and knee boots. She looks like a dominatrix.
These gendered expressions of power are found throughout pop culture. Nowhere is it more evident than in the world of superheroes. Male superheros are powerful because they are physically dominant machines that leave collapsed heaps of criminals in their wake. The lines between hero and villain are often blurred because of the violent nature of many heroes today. For female superheroes, their power is expressed in their sexuality. Take a look at these examples of Batman in the film The Dark Knight and Silk Spectre from the film The Watchmen and you will see what I mean:
Batman is the embodiment of raw power and anger who is always teetering on the brink between good and evil. Silk Spectre, on the other hand, radiates sexuality. In fact, her story line in the movie is that she is involved in 2 sexual relationships with 2 other superheroes (Night Owl and Dr. Manhattan). Oh, and she is the daughter of a superhero who was beaten and raped by another superhero (The Comedian). Both characters are powerful, but they arrive at their power by very different means.
But I digress. Where was I??? Ah, yes…KANSAS. I was stunned (but not surprised) at the divergence of the character paths in the “wicked” costumes. So, I decided to see if there were any other interpretations of these characters costumes. I did a search on the site by each of the character names (Scarecrow, etc.). What I found was nearly unbelievable. Check it out:
This is wrong on so many levels I will have to focus on just one in this particular post. These outfits scream SEX regardless of the character contexts. These costumes make the models look like a strange amalgamation of naughty school girl meets farmer’s daughter meets St. Paulie’s Girl meets “Diamond” from the local strip club. All of them play on male (generally speaking) sexual fantasies. They also reinforce the cultural belief that women’s bodies are the most valuable currency women have in order to “purchase” power from men. In a patriarchal society, men are the keepers of power and women are forced to use their sexuality in order to share in that power – even if temporarily.
I think these costumes send the message to girls and women that females should always exude sexuality or should always give off a sexual vibe. For boys and men, the message is that females are always looking for sex or to be sexy. If you combine that with other messages that tell males that “real men” are tough, strong, in control, devoid of emotion (other than anger) and hypersexual, then it is easy to see why some men don’t take “no” for an answer when it comes to sex and/or why some men don’t accept responsibility for getting consent (they put the onus on women to say no rather than actively seeking an enthusiastic “yes”). It is also easy to see why some women give in when being pressured to have sex even if they don’t really want to and why some women don’t classify or report an unwanted sexual encounter as a sexual assault. The lines around intent, sexuality, consent, appropriate vs. inappropriate, wanted vs. unwanted are blurred. Everyone is confused and some men (and women) are taking advantage of that confusion.
Thankfully, most men treat women with dignity and respect (I really don’t like the word respect, but I don’t have a better one in this case). Most men do not abuse, assault or rape women. However, I think on some level we all have a hand in paving the way for the men who do. We are all part of a culture that accepts the sexualization and exploitation of women. By accepting those parts of our culture, we are creating space and therefore opportunity for the small number of men who see women as sex objects and pressure, coerce and force women into having sex. When we say things like “I don’t abuse or rape women, so it’s not my problem” we are actually saying that we have no influence on the world around us. If that were true, then boys who grow up in abusive households wouldn’t frequently grow up to be abusive themselves (for example).
The reality is that men must challenge our own socialization. We must think critically about the world around us and how we are influenced by it. If we are ever going to live in a world that values men and women equally, men must join women in challenging anything to the contrary. We must also be willing to pass on to the next generation a set of attitudes and beliefs that reflect and promote gender equality. We can do this through schools, community centers, churches, sports leagues, etc. but for these values to really take root and flourish, THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME.