Gender, Race, and Halloween Costumes

by | October 8, 2009
filed under Feminism, Politics, Pop Culture

Halloween is fast approaching and a visit to the costume superstore near my house inspired me to tackle a couple of the trends we see at this time of year.

A. “Sexy” Women’s Costumes

Let me start out by saying that I’m not in any way trying to suck the fun out of Halloween. If a woman finds making herself wearing a sexy costume empowering then that’s great. I did the French maid thing last year and it was fun. But we should ask some hard questions about how far this goes and why we find it enjoyable.Seriously

Amanda at The Sexist has a great Top 10 list of the worst sexy Halloween costumes (for guys and girls), which includes the Sexy Clown and this Sexy Finding Nemo costume (right).

Some of the ones I spotted at the costume shop:

Sexy Border Patrol

Sexy Border Patrol costume. This one’s on Amanda’s list. Her response: “ Because there’s nothing sexier than making sure the illegals don’t steal our jobs.

Sexy Firefighter

Sexy Firefighter. Given the amount of sexual harassment many women firefighters are subject to on the job, do we really need to further undermine their credibility as professionals?

So let’s ask ourselves a few questions.

1. Is there pressure on women to dress “sexy” at Halloween?

2. How to these costumes define sexiness? Are there other definitions being missed?

3. Why is an outfit called “sexy” at Halloween but maligned as “slutty” in another setting? Can dressing sexy at Halloween be subversive? And/or can it reinforce gender roles?

3. Is there pressure on women to dress “sexy” at Halloween? At what age does this pressure start?

B. Racial Stereotypes

Ok yeah, I do kinda want to suck the fun out of wearing the following costumes. So I’m at the store and one of the first things I notice is that they have a whole section on how to be “Native American”:

Native American display

Apparently all you need is a feather headdress, some fake bone beads, a tomahawk, a peace pipe, and bow and arrow to spend a fun evening ignoring over 500 years of colonialism in North America.

And lest the “Native American” title make you think they’re trying to be a bit P.C., be reassured that the stereotypes are fully intact on the costume packages themselves:

"Indian" Costumes

And if you want to be both sexy AND racist look no further than the “Sexy Indian” costume, or the “Pocahottie” outfit.

And if faux leather-trimmed brown pajamas aren’t your style, there are other racial stereotypes to choose from. At the store and at costume stores all over the web, you can find rasta hats with fake dreadlocks in case you want to seem “black” and “Mexican” outfits like these:

mexicanBecause if the ridiculous sombrero and giant moustache weren’t bad enough, we really need him to be carrying a rifle just so we’re clear he’s not a good guy.

And if you’re wondering as a white person how you can hit up stereotypes from other continents, look no further than the plethora of geisha costumes available like this one:


The Geisha archetype is closely related to ideas of Asian (particularly Japanese) women as exotic and sexualized yet submissive. And at Halloween you only need to throw on a kimono to act like a geisha!


1. Why is there no “white person” costume? Can we even say what one would look like?

2. Why is it seen as ok for white people to co-opt other cultures by taking on a simplified, stereotypical representation in a venue completely devoid of historical and political analysis, even for just one night a year?

Our society defines white people as the norm and visible minorities as exoticized others. That makes it seem normal and fun to some of us to dress up like a “sexy Indian” or a “Mexican” without ever having experienced the overt and systemic racism people actually in these groups face.

So think before you get a costume. We really don’t need any more Pocahotties this year.

Bookmark and Share

Add to Technorati Favorites

, , ,