DENVER–Let’s face it, Halloween costume options for girls mostly suck, especially when you think of them in terms of gender roles. Girls get to be pretty princesses, helpless damsels in distress, sparkly and whimsical fairies or a handful of other narrowly defined, gender-role-reaffirming characters. Take a minute and think about Ariel, Disney’s Little Mermaid, who gave up her voice to be with a man, which sounds, frankly, like it should be a horror film and not a childhood classic. Yet every year on Halloween, I see a myriad of Ariels at my kids’ school Halloween parade or standing at my door asking for candy later that night. And if you’re a slightly rebellious girl, there’s always a witch or black cat costume, but those are loaded with a different set of gender-role messages. Witches, symbolically speaking, are powerful women who don’t conform to conventional ideas of gender, which makes them, and their black cats, evil.
The past few years, I’ve watched my daughter, eight, struggle to come up with a Halloween costume. Most options pushed by society feel wrong to her, and it’s not something she can easily explain; she feels it on a subconscious level that she can’t yet articulate. So, she attempts to mix things up and asks if she can be a black cat fairy princess or, for the past two years, Mal, the daughter of Disney’s evil Maleficent in “The Descendents.” But she doesn’t want to be Mal in a badass pantsuit. She wants to be Mal in a frilly princess dress that is supposed to soften somehow the fact that she’s picked a powerful female character to emulate.
The thing that my daughter doesn’t know how to explain and that I barely can, even after reading a good amount of feminist literature, is called internalized sexism. Internalized sexism, unlike its ugly stepsister overt sexism (there’s another essay waiting to be written about what the ugly stepsister represents), which is getting a lot of attention these days—Harvey Weinstein to name one case—often goes unnoticed. When you look at yourself and think, “that extra inch or two around my middle must go because women need to be thin to be attractive”—that’s internalized sexism.
When you look at a woman with short hair and no makeup and think, “She could do more to look feminine”—that’s internalized sexism. When my daughter wants to be Mal but feels like she should make her softer, prettier, more girlie—that’s internalized sexism. Society sells us an impossible idea of what beauty should be and that women should strive, always, toward attaining it, and that men should desire it. But the beauty ideal is so narrowly defined that it couldn’t possibly reflect the body types and desires of all the women and men in our culture. And so it creates a lot of self-hatred, discontentment, frustration, confusion, well, the list goes on.
My daughter’s annual October dilemma makes me think back to some of the costume choices I have made, how cultural gender norms played a role. In fifth grade, I was obsessed with the band Duran Duran and went as lead singer Simon Le Bon (my best friend went as Boy George), a decision I felt self-conscious about as soon as one of the boys in my class said that I really looked like Simon Le Bon. Was he saying that I looked like a boy? I mean, I was going for that in my costume, but I was still horrified that someone thought that I looked like a boy. I felt conflicted, embarrassed, and a host of other emotions after, which pretty much ruined my Halloween and made me pick more girlie or at least more gender neutral costumes in the future.
I don’t remember dressing up for Halloween much between Simon Le Bon and college, but my junior year at college I went all out. I bought a red velvet, spaghetti strap dress with a high-low hemline that I couldn’t afford. Then I spent several weeks daily at intense step aerobics classes and skipped lunches so that I would look extra sexy at a Halloween party. I thought feeling sexy would make me happy, and most Halloween costumes for women (and increasingly for girls) push sexy big time. When you’re young and impressionable and inundated with the message (media plays a big role here) that sexy equals happy, you start to believe it. As soon as I got into the party, someone stepped on the back of my dress with a big, muddy combat boot, swiftly ending my plans to return it. I ripped out the tags I had left on, which were digging into my back; I didn’t feel sexy, happy or fulfilled.
In my early twenties, the lesson still not learned, my younger sister and I donned skimpy dirndls and acted like buxom beer wenches, Oktoberfest meets All Hallows Eve. It seemed perfectly natural to celebrate the holiday with our breasts, corralled tightly into lace-up vests, spilling over the top of crisp white peasant blouses. It didn’t even strike us as an odd choice even though we were going to a Halloween party with our Dad, Stepmom and their friends, all conservative and over 40.
By my late twenties, thanks to Virginia Woolf and Naomi Wolf, I stopped caring as much about creating a version of myself that matched society’s expectations. What’s sexy and what men want was still buzzing a little in the back of my mind, but I headed to a vintage resale store and patched together a Stepford Wife costume. It was feminine and not nearly as daring as my Simon Le Bon days, but it was the right sort of parody in contrast with the beer wench costume. It required some thought about what society tells women they should be.
When I watch my daughter starting down the same road, trying to reconcile what she hears from society with what she feels inside, I’m determined to help her understand that gender roles are constructs and internalized sexism creates self-doubt, insecurities and a whole host of other problems. If she understands that the media she and her friends are bombarded with daily has an agenda, then she can be empowered to make her own decisions about how she wants to dress and act. And if we all talk about internalized sexism, we’ll be healthier physically and mentally. I haven’t decided what I’m going to be this year for Halloween, but whatever it is it’s going to take into account gender stereotypes so I can set a healthy example for my girl.
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