Innocent Until Proven Sexy: The evolution of gendered Halloween costumes

Recently I visited a local Spirit Halloween store, and surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the creepy masks or the gory, dismembered body part props that scared me the most. Instead, it was the childrens’ costumes! Of all the horrifying shit packed into that place, it was the very gendered and segregated sections for “boys” and “girls” costumes that freaked me out the most. Not only was I able to witness the gradual evolution of “feminine” costumes (from playful, to sweet, sassy, and finally to sexy), but I was also made more aware of how Halloween actually conditions children to adhere to and perform the gender they were assigned at birth.

In her article, “Becoming A Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools” Karin Martin observes small children and analyzes the “hidden curriculum” of schools and other institutions that condition childrens’ bodies to become either male or female. One marker of gender, she argues, is clothing. She writes, “perhaps the most explicit way that children’s bodies become gendered is through their clothes and other bodily adornments” (498). As I browsed around the Spirit store, I observed the different “markers” for boys and girls. The girls’ costume section was stuffed with frothy tutus, “pretty” princess dresses, skirts, oversized jewelry, and flooded with Pepto-Bismol pink. The boys’ section, on the other hand, was packed with action: super heroes, villains, soldiers, scary creatures, and lots of blood.

According to Martin, when dressing up is gender normative, this “shapes girls’ and boys’ bodies differently, constraining girls’ physicality” (498). Just take a look at this “Playful Leopard” costume, complete with a dress and a whopping total of five obnoxiously pink bows. In her article, Martin discusses the popularity of dresses amongst toddler-aged girls, and how they affect their movement and prevent them from doing certain things. At a very young age, little girls who wear this outfit are being conditioned to be hyper-feminine, lady-like, and limited in movement. As Foucault would say, this playful leopard is actually very “docile.”

A girl’s movement is further restricted in this ridiculous “Police Chief” outfit, which is supposed to be a “cuter,” more “feminine” dress version of an actual police chief uniform. Ain’t no bows here, but since when do female police chiefs wear dresses?! As Martin writes, outfits like these “make girls movements smaller, leading girls to take up less space with their bodies and disallowing some types of movements” (500). If a little girl aspires to “fight crime,” how can she do it sitting down, cross-legged? How is she supposed to enforce the law when a convenient gust of wind can get her cited for indecent exposure?

It just gets worse as a girl becomes a “tween.” This absurd law enforcement dress is continued, but now instead of being just a sergeant, she’s a “Sassy Sergeant.” A glovelette-wearing, handcuff-slinging, hand-on-the-hip sassy sergeant… Why can’t she just be a sergeant? “Sassy” is a very gendered adjective that is often used to describe lively and opinionated women. To give “sass” is to have an attitude, or to be rude. By being a “Sassy Sergeant,” this implies that she is going to be “bossy,” or out of control. As a costume for “tweens,” this set seems to be the training wheels for the adult law enforcement costumes, which go by the clever names of “Bad Cop,” “Dirty Cop,” and “Sexy Cop.” Wow, what a diverse selection.

Not surprisingly, the boys’ “Police Man” costume is much more realistic. Even the toddler version of this costume is called “Police Man.” This one, as well as another boy costume called “Police Officer,” comes with a club as one of its accessories, while none of the girls’ police outfits are included with weapons. In a way, this suggests that it’s more socially acceptable for boys to be “violent,” but socially unacceptable for girls to behave in the same way. While an officer’s club can be used to commit acts of violence, it can also be used in self-defense. By not including a club for the girls’ police officer costume, this is another example of how patriarchy, as Martin writes in her article, “limits girls’ mechanisms for resisting others’ mistreatment of them” (504).

Overall, the boys’ costumes encouraged male children to run, jump, play, and be scary, while the girls’ costumes encouraged female children to walk or “strut,” twirl, sit, and be pretty. According to feminist scholar, Raewyn Connell, who Martin cites in her research, females grow up conditioned to use their bodies differently than males. She writes, “women’s lack of confidence and agency are embodied and stem from an inability to move confidently in space, to take up space, to use one’s body to its fullest extent” (495). Princess and fairy costumes, as well as costumes that include dresses, skirts, and tights, are uncomfortable and discourage girls to fully own and embrace their bodies. Although Martin observes that girls grow up being much more attuned to their bodies than boys do, she notices that it’s for the wrong reasons, such as adjusting their adornments or being self-conscious about their clothing (498).

While girls are conditioned to behave more “formally,” boys are allowed to be freer with their movements. This is evident not only in the style of their costumes, but also in how the male child models are posed. Boys’ poses often express strength and dominance, or threat as they hold weapons. This demonstrates how boys are allowed to be more “unruly,” or expressive with their bodies. Martin writes, “boys come to take up more room with their bodies, to sit in more open positions, and to feel freer to do what they wish with their bodies, even in relatively formal settings” (503). Girls, on the other hand, are photographed often with a hand on their hip, in a cutesy pose that makes them look smaller and feminine. As I strolled down the “girls” aisle, I think literally all of the child and tween female models were posed leaning to one side, their hand on their hip, in the default feminine stance.

While Halloween is a time for children to express themselves, gendered costumes can make this difficult. Foucault might argue that gendered costumes actually “discipline” and “regulate” children to follow social norms. In her article, Martin uses Foucault to argue that gender creates a “context on social relations.” Similarly, gendered costumes “signal, manage, and negotiate information about power and status” (495). The meanings that can be made from the differences between male/female costumes is that boys have power and a higher status than girls, while girls are supposed to derive most of their power and status from how “pretty” they look. By creating differences between genders, and materializing these differences through clothes and/or costumes, Martin writes that these children become “bodies that clearly delineate gender status [and] facilitate the maintenance of the gender hierarchy” (495).

This gender hierachy is maintained from toddler-age to adult. As I wandered aimlessly through the adult Halloween costume section at the Spirit store, I saw the evolution of how little girls become feminine, sexual beings. As soon as females become of age, we seem to lose our innocence. This is best illustrated by jail/prison costumes. This “tween” girl costume on the left is called “Not Guilty,” implying that she is innocent because she is still “sweet,” “cute,” and underage. But suddenly, when girls turn 18, the available convict costumes are called “Miss Behaved,” and “Locked Up!” So, are we innocent until proven sexy? Meanwhile, male children of all ages are presumed to be guilty of their crimes, with costumes such as “Got Busted,” and “Convict Boy.” This theme continues well on into adulthood.

The gender hierarchy is not only maintained through heteronormativity, but also through white supremacy. This costume, aptly named “Give Thanks,” is probably my favorite because of how racist it is. Here is a presumably white, or at least light-skinned girl, appropriating Native American culture while simultaneously declaring that indigenous people should be the ones “thanking” white people. Thanks for the influenza and small pox, and raping our people as well as all of our land and resources… The adult versions of this costume are arguably more insulting, like “Pretty Indian Princess,” “Queen of the Tribe,” and my other personal favorite, “Reservation Royalty.”

Through appropriation, gendered Halloween costumes flatten other cultures by futher imposing and spreading Western ideals and gender norms. By commercializing Native American culture, as well as other cultures, and “re-presenting” their style of clothing as a more Western type of dress, children learn that “white heteronormativity” is right.

As quoted by Martin, Foucault argues that practices, such as dressing up in gendered costumes for Halloween, make “some bodies become more docile than others” (497). From my visit at the Spirit Halloween store, I observed that the bodies that are punished and disciplined the most are female bodies. Costumes for female children and women were often unrealistic and hyper-feminine versions of real things, suggesting that females are preoccupied with their appearances rather than the actual role they are playing. Many costumes for male children and men were also unrealistic, but at least they had options that allowed them to imitate real cops, real convicts, real firemen, and real soldiers. The closest thing to a fireman for an adult woman was a costume called “Hot Spot Honey,” and if she wanted to be a paratrooper, she had to be a “Pretty Paratrooper.” As a result, women of all ages and races become more docile because of how gendered clothing and/or costumes regulate and restrict their bodies.

The tradition of shopping for childrens’ Halloween costumes may seem normal or natural, like the boy-girl binary and gender hierarchy, but it’s actually really fucking scary.