While trying to figure out how to top my costume from last year (I dressed up as M.I.A., and yes, I did look pretty fly), I’m reminded of Halloween’s uniform for young women: the “slut”. The 2004 movie Mean Girls said it best:
Mean Girls describes, but doesn’t explain, this Halloween phenomenon. Why do girls care so much about looking sexy? What do they hope to achieve by dressing provocatively? And why do they feel the need to conform to such a narrow model of expressing their sexuality? After doing some critical research and cultural analysis, I decided to attempt to explain just why girls are so gung-ho on dressing up like “hos” on Halloween.
Our culture simultaneously shames and rewards female sexuality, so it makes sense that girls grow up having very conflicted feelings and ideas. Nothing is inherently wrong with a young woman wanting to feel sexy. However, looking like a Playboy Bunny is only one of an infinite number of ways to achieve that feeling. We can dress up as anything on Halloween (or any other day) to express our unique talents, interests, personalities, senses of humor, strengths, etc.—so why do so many of us just choose to be “sexy” for Halloween?
Dressing as stereotypical eye candy has strong cultural implications, and enough young women do so on Halloween that it has become expected. However, when a female chooses to present herself in this stereotypically sexy way, she’s also making an important statement that she might not have considered before going out dressed in what is essentially lingerie: “I am content to be seen as just an object—not a full human being.”
We would like to believe we have achieved sexual liberation and gender equality; we have not. But maybe by focusing on our abilities to dress provocatively, it’s easier to forget the opportunities and rights that we still lack, the violence and discrimination we constantly face.
Ariel Levy discusses this idea, as well as what she refers to as “the rise of raunch culture”, in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs (which I highly recommend). Levy argues:
The proposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it. But if we think about it, we know this just doesn’t make any sense. It’s time to stop nodding and smiling uncomfortably as we ignore the crazy feeling in our heads and admit that the emperor has no clothes. (p197)
Levy also asserts that, these days, women have three options:
1. To act “like a man” (a male chauvinist, in particular)
2. To embody “the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture” (p197)
3. Do neither 1 nor 2, and be considered a prude or an uptight feminist
None of these options seem too appealing, but only the last one can really get us out of this bind. While the first two options might grant a woman shorter-term, individual success, they also perpetuate sexism and misogyny in our culture (hence the term “Female Chauvinist Pigs”).
Girls learn early that their looks count, often much more than their intelligence, personality, or talents. Cultural messages reinforce the idea that, to be successful, we need to be a particular type of sexy and attractive. I want young women, when they are mature enough, to really own their unique sexualities. But I don’t want our sex appeal to be our sole means of getting attention, status, or money, because ultimately, it doesn’t lead to gaining respect or better rights.
Do what makes you feel happy and confident, but ask yourself who you are being sexy for, why, and if you need to look like a Maxim model to feel that way. And remember that your sexuality is part of you, but it’s not the only part.
If you can dress up any way you want to on this holiday, do you really want to hit the default button and look like just another clone? Or do you want to express yourself (and your sexiness) in a more unique, authentic way?