On Representation and Responsibility This Halloween
Because there are heavier and more pressing issues at hand this week, this post will be brief, but in light of the event at Spring Valley High School earlier this week, and given that Halloween is tomorrow, the notion of representation–the conscious and unconscious choices we make about how we want to be seen, and the utter lack of control that we often have over how others see us–has been on the forefront of my mind for the last few days (more so than usual).
Tomorrow, October 31, is Halloween. A day that means different things to different people. To a 2nd grader, they may most closely associate the day with candy. All the candy. To my childhood friend, horror expert, and badass young adult author, Chris Krovatin, the day is about the delightful magic of ghosts, goblins, ghouls, Satan, zombies, and gore. And for lots of young (and not-as-young) people, it’s the one night of the year where it’s socially acceptable to wear something outrageous/ridiculous/ extreme, out in public without risking the social stigma or loss of capital one might encounter on any other day.
The act of and decisions associated with dress—material items like clothing and accessories such as shoes, bags, and other props–have long been studied by cultural theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and sociolinguists as a significant factor in identity formation, socialization, and cultural production. We use dress, both literally and figuratively to describe the process of experimenting with who we are and who we want to be.
In a recent interview with comedian Mark Maron for his podcast, “WTF,” President Barack Obama talks about feeling rebellious when he was young as he worked to understand his racial identity. He describes “trying on” different personas as a young person, negotiating the tensions of being bi-racial in the United States, in pursuit of figuring out “what kind of African American man he wanted to be” (Shear, 2015). In stride with many sociocultural and sociolinguistic theorists (Gee, 1999, 2000) and social psychologists (Goffman, 1956; Vygotsky, 1978), Mr. Obama likens his adolescence to the ritual of getting dressed in the morning, positioning identity as a wardrobe of items that can be layered, donned, and discarded just as quickly: “I [would try] on a whole bunch of outfits…Here’s how I should act. Here’s what it means to be cool. Here’s what it means to be a man […]” (in Shear, 2015). Obama speaks to both the tangible and intangible aspects of identity that he wrestled with as a young black man growing up during the 1970s in Chicago. Adolescence is a period in our lives defined primarily by the negotiations we begin to make between ourselves and the world around us—determining who we are and who we want to be and how we want others to see us.
We combine different pieces of identities—our own, our peers, and those constructed by society, the media, and other hegemonic forces—in attempts to find the right combination, which may last for a day, for a month, or for years of our lives; there is no one ‘right’ way to be, but we are often socialized to think the contrary.
Additionally, costumes, as a genre of dress, allow us to explore, experiment, and pretend often in even more exaggerated ways. They allow us push envelopes, push creative bounds, and push buttons. However, in an overly-saturated, media rich culture in which we are exposed to highly generalized, essentialized, and often problematic representations of entire groups of people on a daily basis, it is troublingly easy to conflate representation with reality and truth.
Some Halloween costumes flirt with fine lines between appropriate and inappropriate; others cross the line and it’s not ok. For instance, when I googled “Donald Trump” Halloween costume, the image to the right was one of the first hits.
Dressing up as Donald Trump — fine, funny, maybe a little cliche, but I’m ok with it. The need for “sexy” Donald Trump, however, may be funny to some, but it is irrelevant, objectifying, and an example of a covertly problematic costume.
You may also recall when Julianne Hough attended a 2013 Halloween party in blackface, dressed up as the character Crazy Eyes from TV show, Orange is the New Black. Four days ago, Gawker published pictures of a young white girl donning a blackface Nicki Minaj ‘costume’.
In 2013, Colorado University – Boulder launched a public service campaign, “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume,” to raise awareness and critical thinking about covertly and overtly racist Halloween costumes. In a press release, they write:
Halloween is a fun and celebratory occasion. It is often a time used to portray a character or symbol different than oneself. Unfortunately, stores often sell stereotypical and offensive costumes. If you are planning to celebrate Halloween by dressing up in a costume, consider the impact your costume decision may have on others in the CU community.
As a CU Buff, making the choice to dress up as someone from another culture, either with the intention of being humorous or without the intention of being disrespectful, can lead to inaccurate and hurtful portrayals of other peoples’ cultures in the CU community. For example, the CU-Boulder community has in the past witnessed and been impacted by people who dressed in costumes that included blackface or sombreros/serapes; people have also chosen costumes that portray particular cultural identities as overly sexualized, such as geishas, “squaws,” or stereotypical, such as cowboys and Indians. Additionally, some students have also hosted offensively-themed parties that reinforce negative representations of cultures as being associated with poverty (“ghetto” or “white trash/hillbilly”), or with crime or sex work.
The goal of CU-Boulder this Halloween and every day is to create a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.
CU-Boulder values freedom of expression and creativity both in and outside of the classroom. The CU community also values inclusiveness, respect and sensitivity. While everyone has the freedom to be expressive, we also encourage you to celebrate that you are a part of a vibrant, diverse CU community that strives toward respecting others.
This post is intended to serve as a reminder, a suggestion, a call to action — to you or to your friends and family — be critical of what is packaged and sold in stores as “costumes”, think about your costume choices — who and what you are choosing to represent. What images and stereotypes might you be reinforcing and therefore underwriting in some ways? As always, I invite and encourage you to keep asking questions, keep having conversations, and keep thinking critically and justly.
I will end with one more image from the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign that’s holding particular weight for me at the end of this week, as we continue to see examples of a violent disregard and devaluation of young black and brown bodies. While it may be difficult to see the connections, I assure you that there are real, deep and often covert ties between the images and messages that we produce and consume through our participatory popular culture–including what we choose to dress up as or pretend to be for Halloween–and how young people’s bodies and minds are represented in the dominant narratives that flow through our schools, our streets, our neighborhoods, and the Internet.