The sexualization of female Halloween costumes
Women clad in tight candy striper uniforms and plaid schoolgirl skirts just long enough to cover their important bits are the norm at college Halloween parties.
Students in the Sigma Nu fraternity at Duke University sent email invitations to more than 300 female classmates for their Halloween party last year. The beginning of the email read: “Whether your [sic] dressing up as a slutty nurse, a slutty doctor, a slutty schoolgirl, or just a total slut, we invite you to find shelter in the confines of Partners D.”
To no one’s surprise, some women dressed just as the fraternity suggested.
The next morning, bright yellow flyers reprinted Sigma Nu’s invitation with a handwritten note: “Is this why you came to Duke?”
Grace Woodward, the co-president of IC Feminists, felt sick after reading the invitation.
“It’s unfortunate that the titles given in the email, such as nurse and doctor, are all powerful positions women hold that are diminished to sex,” she said. “To take such ambitious careers and ‘sexify’ them kind of sucks.”
Maria Shishmanian, a member of the executive board for IC Feminists, was bothered by the message behind the invitation.
“I’m all for theme parties, and I’m all for women dressing up however they want and doing what they want with their bodies,” Shishmanian said, “But I don’t like that this invitation sounds like men calling for ‘sluts.’”
In her book Slut!: Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, Leora Tanenbaum recalled one of the many times when she was “sexualized in asexual contexts,” such as on her way to work. Men made kissing noises at her or shouted, “Nice tits!”
“For many men, woman equals sexual being, and sexual being means sexually available all the time,” Tanenbaum wrote.
Intense backlash to an event such as Sigma Nu’s party has yet to happen at Ithaca College or at Cornell University, but Shishmanian said something similar could happen at Cornell because of their prominent Greek Life.
Woodward had the same belief.
“I know men expect to see women in little clothing,” Woodward said. “I’m preparing myself for the fact that when I go out [for Halloween], I will be looked at weirdly because I will have an actual costume.”
While Woodward dressed up as Rosie the Riveter for the holiday, Halloween City at the Ithaca Mall sold costumes like Sexy Witch, Sexy Cop, Sexy Fireman and Sexy Referee. Costumes marketed at men — Vampire, Pirate and Superhero — covered substantially more skin. Across the country, women’s costumes are designed with as little coverage as possible.
The students at Duke took sexualizing women a step further by encouraging them to wear costumes that were sexually appealing.Shishmanian said the most demeaning part of the invitation was that women were expected to dress the way the men described.
In Slut!, Tanenbaum describes a slut not as a woman who is sexually promiscuous, but as a negative word that people use to belittle a woman with a casual attitude toward her sexuality or fails to conform to the idea of “normal” appearance and behavior.
Not only does society have a double standard toward gender and sexuality, but it also presents two radically different opinions that are held simultaneously: A woman is encouraged to show off her body on Halloween, but at any other time she must dress conservatively if she wants to be respected.
Tanenbaum said women can use their sexuality and their femininity as a source of empowerment. Woodward agreed, but not entirely.
“Being sexy can empower women, but I’m afraid Halloween is not about that,” she said. “I know some feminists who will show off their awesome bodies and do it because they love the way they look, or even to hook up with men, but they would never let anyone disrespect them.”
Before female empowerment can be applied to Halloween costumes, Woodward feels that society must first adjust its attitude toward sexuality.
“We have to work on the mentality of what it means to be sexy and where the boundaries are before these Halloween costumes can be seen by everyone as empowering,” Woodward said. “One girl may see strength and another girl might see a slut.”
While society may not be ready for women being comfortable enough with their sexuality to express it publicly, it feels comfortable in demanding those same people to sex up their wardrobe on Halloween. To the American population, ghosts and ghouls might be easier to deal with than a woman’s sexual empowerment.
Carly Smith is a junior journalism major who refuses to dress as the Sexy Feminist. Email her at [email protected].