by Natalie Scoggins
This year, a quick online search for “sexy Halloween costume” reveals a sexy blue/black and gold/white dress, a sexy Cecil the lion, a sexy Nemo— yes, the fish from the Disney movie. Capitalizing on and sexualizing everything under the sun (or at least anything having to do with women) is nothing new, but it’s important to dig deeper every year and look at these problematic Halloween costumes from an intersectional lens.
Feminine versions of more traditional Halloween costumes like vampires and zombies are usually overtly sexual and often are the only choice for women and girls shopping in stores for their costumes. From a 6-year-old girl’s Spongebob or Mario costume having a skirt while the boy’s has pants to “sexy schoolgirl” outfits to miniskirt-wearing zombie getups, there’s no ignoring the the fact that these options (or the lack thereof) enforce gender roles, the male gaze, and the sexualization of young women/girls.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Costumes like “sexy Geishas” and “sexy Native American princesses” are abundant, along with blatant parodies of Black women and Latinas, who consistently face hypersexualization in the media. Some are more socially acceptable and lesser known forms of cultural appropriation such as “fortune teller” costumes based on Romani stereotypes. Despite communities speaking up and out against these bastardizations with campaigns such as “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume,” corporations don’t seem to care.
The racism combined with the sexism is extremely harmful to women of color who are still battling stereotypes and high rates of sexual assault and abuse— for example, a New York Times article from 2012 states that the rate of sexual assault for Indigenous women is twelve times the national average. These costumes, especially when worn by white people who have not had to face these harsh realities of racialized sexism, both normalize and trivialize the dehumanization and objectification that women of color face on top of the racism and cultural appropriation that they also experience— this doesn’t even cover the nonsexualized racist costumes.
Other common Halloween costumes include sexualized versions of uniforms specific to certain occupations, which are harmful to the perception of women in those workforces. Spirit Halloween’s website has over a dozen different short and low-cut nurse outfits in its “Occupations” category, with names like“Ravishing RN” and “Bedside Beauty Nurse,” and while one might argue that it’s just a fun portrayal of a job, they completely trivialize the work that these women do. Maid costumes are also common, featuring short skirts and frilly aprons; in reality, maids and housekeepers are mainly women of color, about half of whom are Hispanic/Latina (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). Most are paid minimum wage, and many do not speak English. Both nurses and maids are in vulnerable positions at work and are often subject to sexual harassment, according to The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. The same types of costumes are present in a lot of pornography, and the subjugation and objectification of women there is even more apparent. There’s nothing inherently sexy or sexual about taking temperatures or vacuuming under chairs— in the end, the costumes are not made to be sexy because the jobs are sexy, but because the power dynamic that women in these occupations face enforces the rich white heteropatriarchy.
While not as straightforwardly sexualized, there is the inherent transmisogyny of costumes of individuals like Caitlyn Jenner, which enforce not only the idea that her gender and that of transgender people as a whole is a costume or performance rather than a real identity, but that she and other transgender women are something to be mocked and made fun of. Even if the costume isn’t over-the-top sexy, it’s meant to be a joke about her sex/gender, which is a problem when transgender women have some of the highest rates of both sexual assault and suicide according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.
Perhaps one of the most unknowingly abhorrent “sexy” costumes is that of a “mental patient.” The “Sexy Straitjacket Costume,” also named “ANITA [I need a] SEDATIVE,” depicts a woman in nothing but a short jacket and tall, strappy boots, her arms tied around herself by the sleeves. The tagline: “Unleash your crazy side.” Straitjackets were used primarily in the 1800s to restrain patients in what were at the time referred to as “mental institutions” or “insane asylums”; despite the straitjacket being considered a more humane alternative to restraint using chains or cuffs at the time, these individuals were still often otherwise physically or sexually abused and neglected, writes the Kansas Historical Society website. In the modern age, physical restraint is a last resort option in psychiatric treatment centers, but patients still face abuse, from fatal beatings of straitjacketed patients (New York Times, 1984) to the 200,000 prisoners who are sexually abused each year, most of whom are misplaced psychiatric patients (Allen J. Francis, M. D., 2013). Disabled people, especially disabled women and women with intellectual disabilities, have extremely high rates of sexual assault and abuse: the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs reports that in 2000, 80% of intellectually disabled women have been sexually assaulted, with half of those women repeatedly sexually abused. Even though the straitjacket has not been widely used in nearly a century, its connotations are still clear: “this person is unstable and unsafe.” To sexualize that when victims of psychiatric abuse are often also victims of sexual abuse is incredibly disrespectful and ignores the history of the poor treatment of mentally ill and disabled individuals in our nation.
Sexy Halloween costumes aren’t inherently bad, and choosing to wear one doesn’t make someone a bad person in any way. It’s about choice— choosing something sexy while having other options rather than being forced to wear something sexy, and then choosing a sexy costume that doesn’t carry a history of social, political, and cultural violence. After all, Halloween is about fun. So if you want to be sexy, that’s up to you— just be conscious of what your costume means.