Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A question about Halloween and costumes...

I love Halloween.

This is a fact that is hardly surprising to people who know me, and isn't really that remarkable amongst people my age, anyway. I mean, who doesn't like Halloween? It's an excuse to get together with a bunch of your friends and wear funny clothes and costumes. Oh, and candy.

Plus, you get to tell ghost stories and watch horror movies, and, really, the whole thing becomes a socially sanctioned day of getting to play dress-up and make-believe, and generally get to act like a kid without having to give up all the benefits that come with being an adult. In other words, it's one of the few times you get the best of both worlds.

With regards to costumes, though, this post on Feministing has me thinking and trying to figure out where I draw the line. I think that some costumes are really offensive, and some are just in poor taste, while others are completely fine, and I've never actually thought about where the line seperates them.

Most costumes are probably pretty inoffensive. Or, at least, not overtly racist or sexist. If you dress up as a ghost or a witch or a monster, you're probably not going to be crossing the line, right? Now, the weird way that women's costumes are almost always super sexied up is problematic, but that's sort of a different issue.

Now, there are some costumes that I think are almost always offensive- and a lot of times, I think that they're intentionally offensive. They're the costumes that people wear just to get a reaction. I've seen pictures of people dressed up as the twin towers from as far back as 2002. You don't dress up in that kind of costume unless you're specifically trying to get a rise out of people- it's the "Look at how shocking and offensive I can be! I'm a rebel!" costume.

I think that people who dress up as people like Hitler or as KKK members are probably falling somewhere along the same lines- they know that they've picked out a costume that people are going to be completely shocked by, and they're looking to get that reaction.

And then there are the costumes I'm more confused about- like the ones that were pointed out in that feministing post. How bright and well defined is the line between dressing as a character from another culture's history or mythology, and dressing as a racial stereotype?

I don't think that any of us are confused about the notion that dressing in blackface would be offensive. That seems to be well understood, and I certainly don't disagree in the slightest. What about that samurai costume, though? Or, to pick something that all of us almost surely seen at least a few times: the ninja?

Now, I want to make it clear that I think that there are some important differences between blackface and ninja, and that the two really aren't the same, but I think that they exist on a continuum, and I'm not clear where, or even if, there's an easy point where we can draw the line.

I don't think that dressing as a ninja is particularly problematic. While ninja are associated with Japanese culture, I think that most people are aware that they're not real (or, at least, not real as presented). The ninja as a person who wears all black and disappears in a puff of smoke is a mythological figure- a fictional character from stories. More important, I think, is that "ninja" is an occupation- it's something you do. It's not a race. If the goal was to dress up as a Japanese person, I think that would become more problematic. Ninja has more in common with, say, Cowboy or Superhero than it does with blackface.

The more troubling and difficult cases, though, are things like the American Indian costume from that post. I find costumes like that troubling because they're not really costumes of occupations or characters- they're reinforcing stereotypes. Costumes like that strike me as being a lot more like blackface in that the whole point of the costume is that you're pretending to be a person of a particular race.

So, I think I'd really like to hear what other people are thinking about this, because I find myself wanting to justify or excuse some costumes that pull from other cultures- matador or samurai or pharoah, for example- because I seem to find them less troubling than others, but I can't help but wonder how that looks from the outside. Is it that some aren't offensive but others are, or maybe they're all problematic, but some moreso than others?



Sovawanea said...

Oh, how I wish we could just say most people do understand blackface as being a problem...but I was at a Halloween party about 3 years ago where a skinny white dude decided it was cool to come dressed up as Fat Albert.

I had honestly not thought about the cultural costumes in depth before (although I know something did not seem right when I saw a Geisha costume at Target, but had and still have a hard time putting my finger exactly on it). My question really would be the same as The Law Fairy: is it just the generic stereotype that is offensive or is it still offensive if someone of a different race portrays a historical figure of a in a respectful way?

tekanji said...

There's actually a major difference between a "ninja" costume and that samurai one: the samurai one comes with the stereotypical "Asian" mustache which puts it one step closer to yellowface than the ninja costume is.

Not to mention that it is mixing both Chinese and Japanese styles (the 'stache was certainly not from Japan, although I do question whether or not it was actually a fashion in China at any time), which feeds into the "all Asians look alike" stereotypes.

Basically I took one look at that costume and (especially since I've seen real outfits worn by historical samurai) said, "Racist yellowface."

Rachel said...

Several years ago, I worked at a hotel. I had to dissuade the PBX operator from dressing in a "traditional Mexican peasant" costume for Halloween. Serape, sombrero, sandals and tattered clothes. She had no idea that the Hispanics who worked there (half the staff) would think it offensive.
Personally, I just wear my normal clothes but with a pair of ceramic goat horns, and act like nothing is different.

Roy said...

Sov: That's a good question, and I'm interested to hear what other people think, too. I'm with you, I find Geisha costumes and the like to be a bit offputting.

Tekanji: Thanks for pointing that out- I forgot about the mustache, which I think someone in that original post also mentioned. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess your feelings on the other costumes on that page aren't entirely different, either?

Rachel: Wow. That's insane!

I really appreciate the feedback everyone. I think Sov raises a good question- is it the generic stereotypes that are offensive, or is it also offensive for someone to dress up as a specific historical figure or character, even if it's done "in a respectful way"?

I think that's probably a key part of the equation: is it done in a respectful way?

Kimberley said...

Geisha costumes disturb me as well, particularly a CHILD'S geisha costume. On a purely surface level, that's a horrible rendition of kimono (I've worn one with all the trimmings before, and it looks a hell of a lot prettier).

On a deeper level, it's EXTREMELY troubling for me that the only Western association with Japanese femininity is the geisha...a symbol of female beauty up for sale to the highest (male) bidder, whether you see the geisha's role as that of windowdressing or that of prositute. It's such a passive role, such a commoditized role. Is that what we want young girls pretending to be, on the day they're allowed to dream about being anything??

Personally, I don't think that someone who is not Japanese respectfully and properly wearing a kimono for Halloween is offensive, because it shows that you've taken the time to think about someone else's culture and are trying to adhere to its customs. But those geisha and samurai costumes are just WRONG in the particulars and in the overall approach.

Kimberley said...

For the record...the one Halloween I dressed up as someone from another culture, I was Sondok, first queen regnant of the kingdom of the Silla, wearing a Korean hanbok and a gold crown. Now THERE'S someone for a girl to dream about being.

Torri~ said...

I think the thing that gets me with the Indian costume is just how, well, crappy it looks. If it were more realistic in it's colour and design and looked like someone actually did some research and put some effort into it then I would have no problem with it. It would probably look a whole lot cooler too.
I think the same sentiment can go to a lot of the other costumes

tekanji said...

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess your feelings on the other costumes on that page aren't entirely different, either?

Yeah, basically. The only one that didn't trip my "WRONG WRONG WRONG" meter was the "Sexy Senorita" one because I had just assumed it was a generic saloon/barmaid costume. Then I saw the name for it and was like, "Oh."

As for sov's question, I'm not entirely sure. It's definitely better because if you're taking the time to research the appropriate historical detail chances are you're trying to be aware and respectful of the original culture and learning stuff in the process.

But let's take it back to the issue of blackface. Say I was into African history and wanted to do something with that. Say I really admired Yaa Asantewa for how she fought against the colonialists and so I dressed up as her for Halloween or some other event as an attempt to start conversation about her and raise awareness of the history of colonization in Africa.

Would that be blackface?

My instinct says yes. Despite my good intentions, there is the whole history of black-white relations to consider, as well as the ongoing racism and continued use of blackface by the media and individuals. It's the same reason why white people cosplaying as Drow is problematic, despite the Drow being a fictional race.

Then we take it into Kimberley's experience and ask: is that yellowface? Does it carry the same weight and connotations as a white person dressing up as a black historical figure?

The line here isn't as clear for me because the Asian American history and experience is different from that of black Americans.

I'm also coming from a different perspective; that of a white woman living in Japan. I don't have a kimono or yukata here, but I do wear jinbei sometimes in the summer, and if I had a yukata I'd probably wear it to festivals and stuff. When I went on a family spa trip in California I wore my jinbei around instead of the bathrobe because it was more comfortable.

Do I engage in cultural appropriation? If not, how/when would the line be crossed? Does it make a difference that I have a BA in Asian Studies and can speak the language fluently enough that I'm going to be attending school here in the spring?

I really don't have any answers to this. It's a really tricky subject that involves consideration not just of current power dynamics and racial history, but also of the context as well as the person's knowledge and intent.

Anyway, since I have just written a novel on how I have no idea how to answer your question, I'll shut up now :P

ShifterCat said...

I don't have a problem with people dressing up as historical and mythological figures from other cultures, so long as they've done their homework and are being respectful.

Going as "a samurai" shouldn't be any more disrespectful than going as "an English Renaissance nobleman"... unless you buy that horrible yellowface outfit, whose makers clearly had no clue what they were doing.

I am planning, for a future Hallowe'en, to make a pair of kitsune costumes for my husband and myself, with the help of some Folkwear patterns. I'm hoping that the addition of fox ears and a tail will keep people from asking, "Oh, so you're a geisha, right?"

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with sexy costumes, but since most store-bought costumes are generic and stereotypical, what you get when you wear them is a very pre-packaged and stereotypical kind of "sexy". I think that the sexiest costumes are those whose wearers use their own style and carry it with confidence.

Pre-packaged sexy costumes for men do exist, but they're few and far between, and with a few exceptions (such as "cave boy"), they cover more skin.

plenilune said...

my comment isn't about halloween costumes per se, but it's something similar that's been bothering me for a few days now.

as a fan of the boston red sox, i've been watching a lot of postseason baseball. they're currently playing the cleveland indians and the other day i noticed some fans in the stands wearing what i can only describe as redface. there were 3 guys with their faces painted like the indians mascot (a grinning crimson-faced caricature which i find so appalling i can barely look at it). they also were adorned with the plastic headband and fake feathers. i will mention that other fans also wore headband & feathers combo, although i find that less offensive. (is it?)

this was a few days ago and i haven't been able to shake the image nor the uncomfortable feeling it's giving me. how is this acceptable? how is it that i haven't seen anything decrying this? granted, the sports world is full of offensive mascots and objectionable gestures (the braves tomahawk chop, anyone?) but for me, this completely crosses the line.

any thoughts?

Sovawanea said...

Tekanji: I think maybe I might just be taking things too literally, but I guess by in a respectful way I would imagine that someone of a different race would just be wearing the clothes of the time period and maybe have an appropriate prop to help explain the history, but would stop short of actually using paint to change their skin color, or make-up to change facial characteristic, etc. Maybe I'm being too literal here, but is that still blackface, yellowface, etc?

Plenilune: My high school mascot was the Redskins and even with the best intentions (my school tried very hard to try and justify the horrendous name- it consulted various experts to try to get accurate dress styles for the mascots who did not wear read face paint and were real people, tepee design and even had a recorded disclaimer about the pride of the Native American heritage of the State of Oklahoma and how the depiction and name were not meant to be offensive, yadda yadda...would changing the name really have been any harder than doing all of that and still upsetting and offending people?)most, if not all depictions of indigenous groups as mascots are troubling and go way over the line. The feathers might be less offensive than the stuffed mascot suit caricature, but I don't think it is that much better.

Elaine Vigneault said...

Re. Ninjas:
My husband and I dressed as "fucking ninjas" for Mardi Gras (dildo numchucks). But some people didn't 'get it' and they thought we were porno terrorists. All black clothes, all but eyes covered can be lots of things other than ninjas. So, we didn't intend to offend, but we did.

Lisa said...

It is a delicate line. I would say that dressing up simply as another race, or as a racial stereotype, is a big ol' no-no. It is objectifying, along with all the old blackface baggage.

Dressing up as individual or character though should be okay. Black people can be superman; in the 1990s I saw white girls go as Tina Turner, copying her signature look quite recognizable.

I live in China, and the options here are mostly non-white. I once went as Song Qingling, copying her conserviative qipao worn with a cardigan and sensible shoes, and my (Chinese) boyfriend went as Sun Yat-sen. That same year, another white friend of ours dressed as a Shanghai traffic guard, with the uniform and flag and hairy mole and thick Jiang Zemin glasses. It was spot on, but was also mocking a person type/occupation enough to be.

Wearing "ethnic" (as if all apparel weren't culturally derived!) clothing as a "costume" is really tacky and stupid. But the rest of the time, calling it appropriation is silly. The Japanese copied the Kimono from the Chinese back in the 600s. The "Chinese" Qipao is actually a merger of the Manchu outfit and the Western dresses of the early 1900s; it has become the iconic "Chinese" dress despite being created from two non-Chinese sources.

ShifterCat said...

"Wearing "ethnic" (as if all apparel weren't culturally derived!) clothing as a "costume" is really tacky and stupid."

Here's a question: what's the difference between "ethnic" and "period"? I've seen people wearing SCA garb for Hallowe'en. The ethnic background for most of that is European, though the people wearing it aren't always of European descent. Wouldn't wearing an authentic-style Japanese noble's garb be akin to that?

I will admit that there's some self-interest in this question, since I've bought the patterns for a kimono, hakama, and kataginu and am planning to put them together some time next year. (Although with the fox tails and whatnot, we'll technically be dressing as mythical creatures.)

Anonymous said...

I love the thoughtful dialog going on here!

A few years back, co workers couldn't understand why I as a white, American woman- was offended when someone won first place for "funniest costume" at work as a Jamican rasta. The costume WAS blackface and a rasta hat with dreaklocks and a tie dyed tee shirt. AND our company has the gall to insist that they have diversity sensitivy. Yeah.

Anonymous said...

How about the Padstow (in England) "darkie day" tradition, where people blackface themselves and parade around the town?

Many people consider that racist, but for some reason most of the locals see it completely differently. So should we also consider the motives for dressing in a certain way eg. tradition, heritage, or is it still inexcusable?

More details on the issue here: http://www.amren.com/mtnews/archives/2005/02/police_race_inq.php

Anonymous said...


Is how the above should have read

Phil Thibedeaux said...

Oh, how I wish we could just say most people do understand blackface as being a problem...

Is black makeup mitigated by "accuracy" the way that cultural costumes seem to be less offensive if they're historical or well-researched?

For example, if a white American college student smeared black or brown shoe polish on his face to go as "Bill Cosby" for Halloween, the average person might condemn the costume as racist, and if a photo were published in a national newspaper, the dominant reaction would probably be outrage, even if the student was quoted saying, "I am a huge fan of Bill Cosby; he changed my life."

But if a white American college student who is studying special effects used cutting-edge, modern makeup and costuming to turn himself into a dead ringer of Bill Cosby, would the reaction be the same? If a photo were published in a national newspaper, I'd wager that the dominant reaction would be, "Wow, that's amazing," especially if the student were quoted saying he was a huge fan of Cosby, who had changed his life.

RMislander said...

Dressing as a ninja or samurai isn't really offensive to me; I actually enjoy those costumes. It hinges more on historical impact and prevalence, I think. Blackface is historically a means of creating the stereotype of the lazy, black buffoon. The centuries of oppression perpetuated by such entertainment as blackface gives the costume much more force. Native American costumes are somewhat iffy; but it I guess it depends. The Cleveland Indians and the chop, as someone mentioned, is somewhat offensive; Chief Illiniwek was permanently retired from the University of Illinois due to its offensive halftime dance. On the other hand, the Seminole tribe actually endorses Florida State's Seminole mascot.
Yes, ninjas didn't always wear black, as that was more of an outgrowth of kabuki theatre, but certainly not offense-worthy. As for the mustachioed samurai, I can see how that might bother some people (the samurai costume is fine, the mustache might offend), but it doesn't really bother me.
Speaking of mustaches on a random aside, I wonder if any Italian-Americans were offended by the absurdly stereotypical Mario brothers, two of my favorite characters from video gaming.

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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
suzan said...

i find it interesting that everyone says that mythological costumes should be done only with great care to represent the culture correctly. i've gone as goddesses from many different pantheons before and my costumes were always rather abstract. tara, the tibetan goddess of balance? painted my entire body sea green, glued googly eyes into my palms and one between my eyes, and wore a very pretty (though not representationally correct) homemade purple "sari" (it was really just five yards of pretty purple cloth). a few years later i went as bastet, again, not as a pure representation but with cat ears, braided, gold-beaded hair, a painted-on cat nose, and lots of geometric gold and black fabric and jewelry (certainly not period appropriate).

while i think there is definitely something wrong with going as a race, it seems to me that mythological characters should be excused from any sort of "exact" representation-- they're abstract concepts as it is and open to tasteful interpretation.

of course, this is coming from someone who went as "rivers cuomo's girlfriend" by wearing a cheap "chinese" brocade corset dress, black leggings and boots,s a straight dark brown wig, and very pretty butterfly wings last year. it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the few people who got the snide reference after i told it to them thought i was being unnecessarily aggressive. everyone else just thought i was "madame butterly," which, in the end, i guess i can't argue that i was.

N1nj4G1rl said...

Since I can't get the stupid trackback thing to work I'm doing it the old fashioned way. I posted a continuing question that came from this post on my blog.
Happy Samhain!

RMislander said...


Speaking of blackface and offensive costumes...

costlules said...

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