Guest Blogger

Halloween is a busy time of year for gender

Filed By Guest Blogger | October 26, 2009 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: crossdressing, gender norms, gender roles, Halloween, Halloween costume, transgender

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Cassandra Keenan is a professional journalist living in Las Vegas who works as a copy editor for print media. She also writes about gender, trans issues, queer sexuality and other LGBTQ topics on her blog.

cassandra.jpgI was recently browsing Halloween costumes online, via Web sites such as Target.com. If you do the same, you'll notice that the scariest monster you'll come across is the one that holds up a giant mirror and shows us how little social progress we've made as far as relaxing and even abolishing our unwritten gender rules.

Not to my surprise, the vast majority of girls' costumes I browsed consisted of skirts and dresses, or generally outfits that rendered them as objects of beauty and allure: a cheerleader, a princess, Little Red Riding Hood, a "sexy" witch. With boys' costumes, the vast majority were superheroes, sports figures, villains and other fantasy- and reality-based get-ups that revolved around traditionally boyish stuff, infused with themes of aggression, bravery, virility, power and status. A doctor, a gorilla, a ninja, a football player, a monster.

So I was reminded once more that the Haunted Holiday is a time when the rules of gender are strongly reinforced. But interestingly, it's also a time when those rules are more apt to be flagrantly broken.

Parents and guardians enforce the gender rules day in and day out, 365 days a year. They're the ones who ultimately make the decisions as far as how their kids will present themselves. But that role comes into play even more during costume shopping, because unlike the rest of the year, apparel takes on a more hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine flair. How likely would it be to see a dad grant approval for his boy to go trick-or-treating as Hannah Montana?

Of course, another way gender rules are reinforced is through the manner in which costumes are marketed -- certain ones are for boys, while others are for girls. Again, it's the same principle that applies year-round, but it seems to take on added significance during Halloween season. Same goes for our stuffy and simplistic way of viewing sexual and gender identity -- our regressive mentality regarding those matters seems magnified many times over.

Luckily, Halloween also is a time that presents an opportunity to transgress gender norms. It's a time when closeted queers and the gender-confused or those who are merely curious have a chance to express themselves and experiment without being targeted and harassed. It's the one time of year when customers are not considered nearly as suspect if they purchase something that onlookers would typically expect the opposite sex to be purchasing.

Normally, one of the biggest hurdles for individuals who want to feel out what it's like to dress and behave like the opposite sex is the stigma that is attached to shopping for the clothing and accessories. Having been in situations like that during an earlier period of my life, I say that from personal experience. My panicking heart used to feel like it was going to eject via my eyeballs when I waited near the register to procure my lipstick, nail polish and other traditionally girlie merchandise. In fact, I aborted many a shopping trip due to that crippling anxiety. But that fear became tolerable during that one magic time of year: Halloween.

I'm lucky enough to have reached a point where I don't have to worry about such things any longer. But come November, the old rules go back into effect, causing discomfort to those customers who are in fact intimidated.

If only people had the more open-minded attitude year-round.


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It seems to me that at Halloween gender roles get reinforced for kids but, at least sometimes, broken for adults. As you noted, kids costumes tend to be strongly gender-typed. I know someone (a single mom at the time) who allowed her then 10-year-old son to go trick-or-treating as Jessica Simpson, but I'm sure that's the exception. Kids don't get to break the rules.

Adults sometimes can, though, as you also noted. Even macho guys can get away with dressing as women for a Halloween party, and women can be drag kings if they please. It's fantasy time. More often, though, it seems that adult costumes also reinforce gender stereotypes, especially for women, for whom the choice ranges from sexy this to sexy that.

People like to think they let loose on Halloween, but do they really?

Well said, Ms. Keenan! A few years ago, a friend of mine's toddler son wanted to play with his mother's lipstick . Mom said "No, lipstick is for girls." Being the outside-of-the-box lad he is, the kid thought for a moment and promptly responded with "I'm going to be a girl when I grow up!" resulting in a panicked phone call from his well-meaning mom to me asking "what she should do".

I responded "Why not just let him play with the lipstick?" Sure enough, the kid got bored with L'oreal rather quickly. While he may someday grow up to be trans, I seriously doubt it--but I hope he does remember his own challenging of gender "norms" so he'll show compassion to others on a similar journey when he's older.

Flavius Julian Iulianus | October 26, 2009 5:18 PM

Indeed, if only people had the more open-minded attitude year-round.

Thank you for pointing out to me yet another reason why Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year!

Flavius Julian Iulianus | October 26, 2009 5:21 PM

Indeed, if only people had the more open-minded attitude year-round.

Thank you for showing me yet another reason why Haloween is my favorite holiday of the year!

Breanna Rose | October 26, 2009 5:36 PM

Ahh yes. Good 'ol Halloween. I sure do remember buying an awful lot of my girly stuff at halloween's past so as to avoid the majority of the social stigma attached to buying such things as a male. Sure am glad those days are over.

I too was rather upset when looking through the local costume shop add to see just how many of the women's costumes had the "sexy" attachment. It had to be at least 95%... and we're a progressive society? Well, we all know untrue that really is.

*/Brea

Halloween is practically the LGBT holiday.

Odd how a holiday that supposedly is so rooted in pretend really thrives in large part because it allows people to be their true selves, or show a part of themselves they normally wouldn't reveal.

Great post, Cassandra! As a parent, I have been appalled (though not really surprised) at how gender-typed so much of kids' clothing and toys are. Holidays that transgress norms of gender--and social class--go back a long way in Western history, however, at least to the Middle Ages. Let's hope a little of that spirit continues!

Good stuff, Cassandra. I, too, remember the freedom that Halloween represented (and still does, in some small way) for me before I came out and began transition. It's a shame that fear has to lead to people wearing a costume the other 364 days a year, but I hope that, as time and effort are applied to educating the masses, that'll change and we'll all be able to dress up as ourselves...every day.

It seems that nearly every one of my friends has utilized this one day of the year as carte blanche to be themselves, especially at a time in their life where outside the dark day they would be castigated and chastised for dressing. Living a fairly conservative Christian lifestyle, we abstained from participating in the celebration of dark spirits, but I can't say I longed for the opportunity for my inner spirit to be set free...if only for a night.

It's good to see that the "old rules" may still prove strong, but our teens of today are challenging the notion that they can only go for it on one night of the year only. They're really just going for it, aren't they?

Insightful story. I think Halloween is perfect opportunity to break free of the gender rules.

One of the largest Halloween street parties out here is in West Hollywood. Gender-bending is de rigueur, and not only is it expected, it's celebrated.

It's unfortunate that it's only once a year that people can feel comfortable enough to express themselves without the immense stress attendant upon smudging gender lines. We need more events and holidays like Halloween.

Jami Bantry | October 27, 2009 1:54 AM

Very interesting article.

Hmmm. I wonder how many gender variant people will dress the opposite of their felt gender (if any) for Halloween.

Will Transwomen dress as males?

Will Transmen dress as females?

How might genderqueer and androgynous people dress for Halloween?

It could be a very personalized method of "gender bending."

It might even internally challenge one's personalized concept of gender itself.

Would one be able to transgress their personal gender for the sake of Halloween?

jami

This totally decides it. I'm going as Hannah Montana.

I'll always remember that first Halloween when I dressed as a woman, and how profoundly right it felt to be seen as myself.

Thank you for that post! As a recent parent, I'm really surprised by how gendered children's clothes are in general. Boys' t-shirts so often have stereotypically "male" graphic motifs (baseball player, fireman, truck after truck).

Even more surprising to me is the way these clothes not only use these associations but add boorish ones. "Future Heart-breaker," was a t-shirt I saw. Is a boy who hurts girl's feelings something anyone would encourage their child to be?

It amazes me how parents get so paranoid if a young boy wants to play with a doll yet more acceptable if a girl wants to play with cars.

Halloween is the perfect day to explore the other gender without being judge or harassed. Yet it's so sad that for some it's a life time battle to be themselves on a day to day basis. Hopefully people will learn to open their hearts and minds!

Great article... look forward to your next blog!!

Great blog Cassandra! I was just thinking how tired I was to see all the "sexy" pirate or scarecrow or witch, Wonder Woman or what-have-you costumes for women.
Whatever happened to the more creative costume ideas? I would love to see more "it" costumes. I think this year I am going to arrive as a refrigerator, magnets and all. Not a boy fridge or girl fridge and certainly not a sexy appliance, haha.