If you’ve been feeling over-confident about gender roles lately — maybe because so many women are running for president, or because She Said is on the NYT Bestseller list and Harvey Weinstein got indicted again — you can slow that roll by taking yourself over to any Halloween costume website or catalog. I’ve been deep down this rabbit hole for the past month because my older daughter is of the age where Halloween costume research starts before Labor Day. And my report from the trenches is: It’s not pretty.
Or rather, it’s all too pretty. To be expected are the princess and fairy costumes and I think we all have to find our own peace with that because forbidding a princess obsession is a surefire way to ensure one. (Violet is currently debating between rainbow fairy and ladybug, or possibly a mash-up of these two concepts if she can persuade me to spend that much on her various costume components.) But I am dismayed to see we have made literally zero progress since Lindsay Lohan explained the true meaning of Halloween in Mean Girls some fifteen years ago:
And so, as Violet paged through a catalog for HalloweenCostumes.com, she paused to ask me, “what is she dressed up as?” about a photo of a nine-year-old girl in a police officer costume, because the costume included a short skirt that no police officer has ever worn in the line of duty. Costumes like “doctor,” “pirate,” and “baseball player” are similarly gendered with skirts or lots of pink or both. Over on Chasing-Fireflies.com, boys can choose between costumes for doctors, firefighters and dinosaurs, while girls are given not one but three different options for waitress costumes including my favorite because it’s such a delightful mash-up of diet culture and misogyny (so, diet culture): Donut Waitress.
I mean no disrespect to baked goods or service sector workers. But if our daughters like doughnuts, maybe instead of “look pretty and serve them to other people” a more fun game would be “eat them your goddamn self.” (No, there is no equivalent costume for boys.) I want to say, oh it’s just dress-up. Because I know that a parent hand-wringing about gender stereotypes is a surefire way to a child wanting to be a doughnut waitress with her whole heart and soul. And of course, plenty of parents aren’t going to be perturbed by the symbolism. Two moms we know from preschool, enamored of the friendship that had developed between their children, decided to put them in a coordinating “couple” costume for Halloween. The four-year-old boy dressed up as a hunter with a camo vest and toy rifle. The four-year-old girl wore a short-skirted, lace-trimmed doe costume. She looked very pretty. She was his prey.
These moms weren’t thinking about the optics of this costume; how it communicates that boys should chase girls, and even try to hurt them. They thought it was sweet and silly and a fun way to celebrate their children’s friendship. But it didn’t surprise me that they landed on such a violent metaphor of domination, because those messages about boy/girl interactions are everywhere and thoroughly reinforced by the companies that sell toys, clothes and other products geared towards kids. (The doe costume was not homemade.)
Seeing all of this, I have newfound respect for the parents that go viral each year with their baby dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Rosie the Riveter. I just wish, on behalf of working parents with no time or inclination to make a costume everywhere, that capitalism would catch up.
PS. OK, a little more Googling and I did find a ready-made RBG costume on Etsy. And the very good humans at Mighty Girl have put together this excellent curated round-up of girl-empowering costumes, which, now that I’ve discovered it, will be the only way we shop.