10/27/2014 12:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Masks of Sexism: Trick-or-Treating From Fairy Princess to Miss Behaved

Candy, dress-up and not having to shop for presents. There are plenty of reasons to love Halloween, and like most Americans, I have always embraced the sugar high that ends October. Halloween lets us explore our different selves. For me, writing is the Halloween of the arts, as I wear a distinct mask for each piece, trying on personas that delve beyond the "outer me" to express a voice buried inside. Childhood allows for lots of role-playing, but Halloween lets our inner freaks run free. For a day, we may become someone we dream about being.

In ninth grade, I decided to be Batgirl for Halloween. I spent days planning and preparing, gathering all the pieces for the perfect Batgirl, down to the yellow utility belt. I even went to a wig shop so I could have the right shade and style of red hair. Halloween fell on a weekday, so we could wear our costumes to school. I got on the school bus with my costume in a bag, not sure if I would have the guts to put it on. I loved the superhero idea and the feeling of power I felt would come with it. But I was both excited and self-conscious about the skin-tight outfit. My best friend wore a clown costume her mother made, and though I felt slightly embarrassed for her, I loved her courage to be silly and wear an unsexy shape. She convinced me to embrace my inner Batgirl and wear the costume. But the feeling was not so superheroic. Rather, I felt naked, far too exposed.

Working on this essay, I Googled "Halloween costume" to see what came up first: a site called "Party City." The women's categories on the site were similar to the men's, such as "new," "tv/movie," and "superhero," but the women had an extra one called "body shaper." A whole category devoted to remaking our bodies by enhancing bustlines and reducing waistlines. So eighteenth century! When I examined costumes within each category, almost every female one is designed for maximum exposure. The SWAT outfit for women consists of high lace-up boots, thigh-high tights and an ultra-short skirt with tulle. One of the few with positive role-model potential is a flight suit, but the costume is so skin-tight, we can see the whole outline of the model's crotch. Of the dozens in the adult "funny" category, there are only a few designed for women (the tie-on pregnant belly and old Aunt Gertie) and some cross-dressing ones (but designed for men), like the pregnant cheerleader and pregnant schoolgirl. My neighborhood store was no better, one example being the kinky convict outfit called "Miss Behaved" (pictured below, photo credit:


The children's categories promoted the same kinds of stereotypes. The first thing that pops up in the "Girls" category is a photo of girls in Disney princess costumes while the "Boys" are seen as superheroes and a lion. When my daughter was about 8, she spent a lot of time creating a Joan of Arc costume for Halloween. She had a couple of picture books about Joan of Arc that we read together every night, and she loved the story. I bought her fabric imprinted with fleur-de-lis that she made into a knight's tunic, and we found a plastic shield and sword for her to wield. But when it came time for dress-up day at school, she dug into her closet for a fairy-princess costume from a prior year and never put on Joan of Arc for that or any other Halloween festivity. She never articulated why she didn't wear it. I guess she became self-conscious about being different.

What makes girls (and women) retreat from our superpowers to damsels in distress? When we reach for a mask, why is it so often one of prettiness and not power? Why do we believe that sex is our only superpower? We are often complicit in these stereotypes. I have unthinkingly bought many dolls and toys over the years that perpetuate these myths. I was playing with a friend's 5-year-old daughter recently, and she was putting shoes on and off her many Barbie dolls. All of the shoes and boots for the Barbies would have proportionally been six-inch stilettoes, strappy imitations of what I let my own daughter teeter on as a teen. Now that my kids are grown and I am not so wrapped up in day-to-day childrearing, these little plastic shoes give me pause.

This past summer, Lego came out with its first line to feature women in a professional rather than a play or party setting. Called Research Institute, it sold out quickly on their website, produced only as a limited edition. Though the female scientists wear lipstick (I suppose we have to know they are women?), it is small step in the right role model direction. In contrast, Lego's primary girls' line (its "pink" collection"), continues to reinforce and perpetuate gender stereotypes.

How does all this play out in the "real" world? Like the costumes, the dolls and toys and games that engage our children mask them in sexist roles: powerless, objectified females vs. powerful, predatory males. Video games are especially egregious with the damsel in distress trope. Very few video games have female protagonists, yet girls are rapidly increasing their usage. Females are usually objects, often trapped in amber or carried off, only to be acted upon. Anita Sarkeesian, a critic of these stereotypical female tropes, has been repeatedly harassed for her views, including threats of rape and death. She recently had to cancel a lecture at Utah State University after the school was threatened with a shooting massacre due to her appearance. The campus police told her they could not prevent people with weapons from entering her talk due to state law. Her detractors have Photoshopped her in $1,000 Gucci shoes claiming that's how she spent her Kickstarter funds. I'd like to free Batgirl from the closet and send her to Utah.

Next time we buy a costume or toy for a child, let's turn on our gender-tropic radar to avoid sexist stereotypes. When my daughter was 9, she again created a costume not found on the store shelves. This time she wore it, marching with a big grin in the school Halloween parade as Evel Knievel, complete with star-spangled motorcycle helmet. Like her, I would rather fly over the canyon than be the damsel tied to the tracks.


Photo credit: author