Dressing Like a “Slut”: A Feminist Reflection on Halloween Costumes

“Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”

Around Halloween I tend to hear women say one of two things; either:

I wanna be a sexy [insert costume name here]!

Or:

Oh my God, there are so many slutty costumes. I can’t believe anyone even wears these.

Every Halloween women’s costumes become a big deal and it seems that everyone is talking about them. As the Mean Girls quote above explains, Halloween is a time for girls/women to dress like “total sluts.” Now I don’t want to suggest that women who wear sexy Halloween costumes are sluts. First of all, I hate the connotations of that word. Second of all, I am not about to go around slut-shaming other women. If you want to dress in a costume that is revealing, that is fine with me. I can’t say that I have never worn a revealing costume (one year, I was a sexy sailor). Everybody likes looking sexy. There is nothing wrong with sexy.

That being said, I do think society has put more pressure on women to wear sexy costumes than men.

Take a look at men’s costumes—they are all designed to make them look powerful, scary, or funny. For example, a man’s costume will never be labelled “sexy Batman”; it will simply be labelled “Batman.” Not that there aren’t costumes for men that are supposed to be revealing and sexy, there are just a ton more for women.

Again, there is nothing wrong with having sexy costumes for women or sexy costumes being worn by women, but there is definitely more pressure on women to dress sexy for Halloween. Let’s look at another quote from Mean Girls:

Karen: Why are you dressed so scary?
Cady: It’s Halloween.

Last year, I dressed up as Harley Quinn. I don’t have the money to get an actual Harley costume, but I put together my own that I was pretty pleased with. No bit of my skin was showing except for my neck and face, and I wore heavily applied clown makeup that would have made the make-up artists from The Dark Knight proud. I didn’t get many compliments on my costume. Now, I wasn’t dressed sexy so I wasn’t expecting to get hit on, nor was my costume made very well, so I also wasn’t expecting the “great costume” compliment. What I also didn’t expect, but I probably should have, was the reaction from men and women about how scary I looked. I looked like a deranged clown. In other words, I looked like Harley. The few people who knew what I was going for complimented me, but mostly I got a “Why are you dressed so scary” sort of attitude. Ace, who was with me, dressed as the Scarecrow and got a similar response. I’m not going to lie. I found it a little aggravating that on Halloween of all times people thought I was being weird for dressing “scary”. All I had was some clown makeup on and I was being a weirdo, but the men with zombie makeup on that were chewing on bits of plastic body parts? That was okay.

Women wearing revealing and sexy costumes is fine, even empowering, but I do think women are pressured to wear them, because of the male gaze. Women are trained from very young that not only are they being viewed, but must perform for those that are viewing them. Everything in the media shows the male gaze, shows men staring at women’s bodies and objectifying them and teaching women that the purpose of being sexy is to fulfill men’s fantasies and to be viewed by men. It is no surprise then that more costumes for women are labelled and designed to be “sexy” and that women feel more pressured to wear sexy costumes.

Now I’m not saying that all women everywhere only wear sexy costumes because other people are making them, but there is something to be said about societal pressure. If everyone in a room is dressed like a ballerina and you walk in dressed like Black Widow, people are going to comment, even if both costumes are sexy, you still stand out just for being different. Just standing out by not wearing a sexy costume, and having that constantly commented on, can be enough pressure for a lot of people to conform to what everyone else is doing.

I further have to comment on what is considered “sexy.” In general, our society has a very limited understanding of what is sexy. Yes, if I walked down the street wearing nothing but Victoria’s Secret lingerie I’m sure people would say I look sexy. But I have also been told I look sexy when wearing jeans and a t-shirt, or sweat pants. My point is that there are many ways for outfits to be sexy and we shouldn’t teach women that the only way to do that is by showing a lot of skin. I’m not going to lie, showing skin helps, but sometimes being sexy is about mystery and confidence. We should be proud of our bodies and happy to show skin if it pleases us to do so and to be comfortable in our bodies, but what the media teaches is sexy is often only what men think is sexy. Now, that is not to say guys find girls wearing lingerie sexier than they do girls wearing a pretty dress, but when it comes to sex and attraction, men do tend to be more visual. The media then caters to that, and thus teaches that if women want to be considered attractive by men, the only way to do that is by wearing revealing sexy clothing, and that is not the case.

This media use of the male gaze not only tells women that the only way to be sexy is wear revealing costumes, but further implies that women cannot be sexy unless they are this ideal unrealistic body type. Recently, a sexy Ursula costume has been made available to women. The problem with this is that this costume is not even being made for plus-sized woman. Ursula is a plus-sized character, and the manufacturers aren’t even making a plus costume. Now, there are Ursula costumes for plus-sized woman, but none that receive the label “sexy”. An Ursula costume for plus-sized women, got it. A sexy Ursula costume for plus-sized women? Of course not, because they don’t fulfill this ideal and unrealistic body type for women that is perpetuated by the media. I hate body-shaming just as much as I hate slut-shaming. Being sexy does not mean that you look like a Barbie doll. Let’s broaden the idea of what it means to be sexy. Why do we allow the media to give us this narrow definition of what is sexy?

Granted, I have seen more variety this Halloween than any other year. The fact that I have seen several different styles of Captain America costumes is encouraging. It shows that costume companies realize that some women might want to wear the more revealing costume and others don’t. I personally, have always wanted my costume to look as close to the character I’m emulating as possible. For example, if I am going to dress as Poison Ivy, I would probably wear a very revealing costume, but if I am going to dress like female Captain America I want my costume to mimic his armor and mask as close as possible. Also, on a more practical note, where I am in October, it’s cold and if I am going to go out in a costume, I want to look good but not freeze to death.

All I ask is that manufactures and designers of costumes for Halloween give women a variety of options to fulfill the costuming needs of various women.

And to anyone dressing up this Halloween, make a vow not to slut-shame, body-shame, or simply shame women for their choice in Halloween costumes.

15 thoughts on “Dressing Like a “Slut”: A Feminist Reflection on Halloween Costumes

  1. As for the whole “male gaze” part of the argument. Media representation of what men think is sexy is in my estimation a pretty poor estimate of what men actually think is sexy. This is not to say there isn’t media fixation on a certain type of “sexy” and that it isn’t damaging to women, there definitely is and it definitely does. But I think you missed the mark somewhat by generalizing male (as in individuals) taste as you did. For instance, Of the three Captain America-esque costumes above, I agree with your rankings of each one. In fact, I think your whole discussion on what constitutes sexy is spot on.

    And honestly? I’m more prone to wonder why girls going sleeveless aren’t cold out of their mind more than how sexy they are (Is cold-shaming a thing?) ps. The Harley-Quinn/Scarecrow costumes sound fantastic.

    • This is actually a good point you bring up. I’ve noticed a trend lately of poorly written internet articles about “What men really like”, and most of them seem to have formed a consensus that lots of the things women think are sexy, men don’t. This doesn’t in any way negate the fact that media pressure and female over-sexualization is real and terrible problem, but it does pose an interesting question about who’s creating the ideals of female “sexyness” and how they’re getting perpetuated.

      • Yeah that’s what I was getting at. I mean because if you put ten guys in a room and ask them what is sexy, you’re going to get eleven answers (I’m sure it applies equally to girls). There are definitely guys I know who go for the popular image of sexyness and that only, but I know a ton of guys who look at say American Apparel ads and make noises (and not especially good ones).

        I admit though that this is based who I hang out with that the popular perception may be much more popular outside my friend group. Speaking of friend groups, the whole portion of the article talking about how it was seen as weird that a woman would wear a scary costume befuzzled me. But thats probably because I’m into cosplay culture. So I think perspective is really important when talking about these sort of things.

        • I’m going to agree with you about cosplay culture versus popular culture. The friends that I have who cosplay would never think a scary costume was weird. The point of cosplay is to look as close tot the character you are portraying as possible. That is what frustrates me about the Halloween costumes for women. I want to look like a female Captain America. No matter what gender I don’t think Captain America would go into battle with his/her body so exposed. I should also point out that the costumes that are less revealing are almost all over 100 dollars and way out of most peoples budgets for one Halloween costumes. So I’m either going to have to make more money or learn to sew like my awesome cosplayer friends. 🙂

        • You’re absolutely right that perspective is important, and I also think it’s easy to get lost in our own perspectives. People seem to have a tendency to decide that because our circle of friends has a healthier view of sexuality and women in general that it must not be that serious of problem. If we look around us though, the treatment of women around the world should make it abundantly clear that it is a problem, and the dominant cultural perspective is still “women are first and foremost sexual objects, but not sexual beings in their own right”. It’s wonderful to remind ourselves that not everyone thinks this way, and gives me hope for humanity, though within it is also the inherent danger of brushing the problem aside as not that big a deal.

          • That’s so true and such a difficult thing to remember and realize. I have great friends so when I was went out more into the world I was shocked at how much sexism and double standards I faced. It’s an aggravating lesson to learn.

      • The idea of who is creating what is sexy is an excellent point. Many men and women I know are not impressed by what the media shows them is sexy. This goes with revealing clothing, body types, and even race, which I did not touch on in this article, but when I looked up various costumes I saw no men or women of color. But the media perpetuates that only one type of person is sexy and it really is harmful to all parties involved.

    • I actually did not mean to generalize males as individuals. In this article I wrote,

      “Now, that is not to say guys find girls wearing lingerie sexier than they do girls wearing a pretty dress, but when it comes to sex and attraction, men do tend to be more visual. The media then caters to that, and thus teaches that if women want to be considered attractive by men, the ONLY way to do that is by wearing revealing sexy clothing, and that is not the case.”

      Men as far as science and sexual attraction has taught me, are more visual when it comes to attraction so the media throws up pictures of mostly naked women everywhere to grab the attention of men, this then teaches women that this what men find attractive. I completely agree with you that all men don’t actually think for example, less is more, when it comes to women looking sexy, but that is what the media has enforced so the perception is that it’s true, even if it’s not.

      I’m sorry if I was unclear with that. I try to explain things as clearly as I can, but in this case I guess I fell short.

      I also agree about warm clothing. The whole point of my Harley costume was to look awesome and be warm, because I didn’t want to freeze to death. LOL! It really is frustrating when shopping for costume and knowing you are either going to freeze or have your costume covered by a coat the whole time. And thank you! We thought that the Harley/Scarecrow costumes wear pretty awesome anyway!

  2. Actually, when you think about it, men’s costumes are pushed to be just as “sexy” and “Sexual” as women’s costumes. It may appear visually different, but then what women find sexy is expressed differently from what men do.

    After all, the things women as a large rule find to be sexy are: power, strength, wealth, and danger. Typically the domains of the “Alpha” male. Now look at the three costumes for men you have pictured. A Gangster (powerful, wealthy, athletic, sexy), a pirate (dangerous, often wealthy by turns, highly dangerous, take charge, and sexy). and Batman (a man of extreme wealth, insane physical power, highly dangerous, and who is known to boss around people who can literally wreck planets like you would be able to crush a paper cup).

    Looking at a wider array of mens costumes you will notice trends that often either show off the sexual nature of the man (often rather crudely) or ones that show off the various secondary sexual characteristics such as highly developed muscles, expensive clothing, or some other variation of power. Things that women find highly sexy and sexual.

    So yes, women’s “slutty” costumes show of legs, boobs, and ass, traites that are often markers for a woman healthy enough for reproduction. But men’s costumes show off “wealth, strength, and dominance” traits often used by women to determine if a man is a suitable mate.

    • I completely disagree. The male costumes have nothing to do with what I and most women find sexy. This power, wealth, and dominance is a male power fantasy, and has very little to do with what women find attractive. To explain this better I would point to this comic from Shortpacked, which talks about similar things in comic books:

      http://www.shortpacked.com/2011/comic/book-13/05-the-death-of-snkrs/falseequivalence/

      What most women find attractive is actually something that makes a lot of straight men uncomfortable, because instead of a male gaze it forces them to see things through a female one. There are several examples of this, since you have a Thor icon I will point this out, many women find Chris Hemsworth aka Thor attractive, however, on almost all of Tumblr (which is largely female fangirls) what has dominated is fangirl love of Loki, not Thor or any of the other Avengers. Loki is slender, elegant, and cunning, basically the complete opposite of Thor, and I see way more women going gaga over him. However, because Loki is not a stereotypical Alpha male, men don’t find him very appealing. This is seen in the Loki Halloween costume available online.

      http://www.amazon.com/Disguise-Costumes-Avengers-Licensed-XX-Large/dp/B0081P6I1G/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350606467&sr=8-1&keywords=loki+costume

      The male model in this ad is decidedly more muscled and in a more aggressive pose. The exact opposite of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and that is because the manufactures of the Loki costume are trying to appeal to men more than women. I could also point out Cillian Murphy, who played Scarecrow in the Batman movies. Most of the women I know talked more about him than Christian Bale’s Batman or Tom Hardy’s Bane. In fact, his scene in the third movie is the thing I most often hear women say was their favorite part in the new Batman movie. And since Cillian Murphy played the Scarecrow his female fan-base in the Batman fandom online has exploded.

      And finally, I would point to animes like Ouran High School Host Club, which as been said to be one of the most perfect examples of the female gaze that a person could find. All the men are slender and largely non-aggressive or dominate, though I will grant that they are wealthy.

      I’m not saying that no women are attracted to Alpha male types, but just like with how the sexy female costumes aren’t necessarily what men find a attractive, that is more than true with the male costumes and what women find attractive.

      • This is a totally valid point and is very much along the lines of AwakenedSamus’ previous post. Which also means it’s a bias view based on our personal community perspectives. I would wager to guess that within popular culture most women really do find Thor more attractive. Case in point: the vast majority of the women in my office were drooling (almost literally) over one of those topless firemen calendars and all of them were super stoked when that movie Magic Mike came out. I think women are just as guilty of falling for the media generated sexual stereotypes as men are.

        However, Lucius oversimplifies things quite a bit and doesn’t take into account the existence of women like you and your friends. I also feel like calling men’s costumes “sexy” is a bit of stretch. While they may appeal somewhat to sexuality, the main point here is that women’s costumes ONLY appeal to sexuality. They can’t be anything else. Personally, I see more humorous male costumes than anything close to sexy. Because men can be funny. Women can only be sexy, or else they’re useless.

      • Interesting, so it is preferable to go with the manipulative trickster who is feminine, than a brutally honest and powerful individual who stand by what he believes.

        But let us look at this a bit further. What is Loki but Dangerous, powerful, and an alpha male. Certainly, while he lacks the ripped thews of the Odinson (who didst cause spontaneous female orgasms in every theater when he strode out shirtless). But make no mistake, Loki is an alpha male. He is no feminine beta male as you claim women truly desire. HE is cunning, vicious, handsome, and deadly. He is Power as much as Thor is.

        You brought up Oran high school host club. This is interesting. Yes, they appear feminine, but let us take a closer look at them. They are all alpha males who were/are incredibly wealthy, incredibly powerful, and highly manipulative. I’ve watched the show, and they are truly masters of these arts. You say they do not “dominate” but think about what happens in each episode? They are subtle, but they dominate and control the entire encounter. In essence, they are little different from the gangster suit which shows wealth and style. One must not, also, forget that until recently, women highly desired the incredibly muscled, dominant man.

        And let’s face it, while many a woman may talk about desiring the “nice guy” and ones that appeals to that “feminine” style of male, often enough in the actual dating scene, what happens? It is the dangerous, the alpha male, the one those costumes so often portray, is what women desire.

        • First let me address some things with Loki and The Host club.

          I never said that women are attracted to “feminine beta males.”
          Obviously, straight women wouldn’t want to date someone who is basically female. However, I think what characters like Loki and the Host Club show that at least physically (because I’m willing to grant you that the dangerous, powerful and wealthy stereotypes still hold for both), they do not fit the stereotype of the alpha male, yet many women still find them attractive. Loki women find physically attractive, however it ends there. Thor, women find attractive, but it is not simply because he is physically strong, it’s more his ideals. Most women do not want the “manipulative trickster” it’s Thor ideals that make him appealing. Women may comment on Loki being hot, but given the choice I’d think they date Thor because of his ideals not his power or physical strength. I would further argue that what is actually appealing about power is knowing how to use it. Thor’s power is not appealing because he controls a kingdom or can wield his hammer, but because he uses the power he has been given for good. It’s not power in and of itself but the use of it.

          The Host Club is the better example. They can be very manipulative, but especially at the end all the boys use their power and wealth for good and to help Haruhi save Tamaki. They finally mature and use their wealth and power for good, whereas before Haruhi would often get annoyed at how the boys behaved and thus would be uninterested in them.

          Now, about the costumes, since that is really what this article is about, and then I will get back to another point you made. I think The Dungeon Master makes an excellent point in saying that men’s costumes appeal to sexuality, but many women’s costumes are only sexual. For example, many of the female costumes might as well just be a bikini in order to show the most skin possible. Men are usually all covered up, though granted, the costumes do try to emphasize muscle and physical power. But really if women were designing the costumes for men, what would they look like? The Dungeon Master brought up Magic Mike (another classic female gaze movie that actually does show the more standard physically appealing male form). In movies like Magic Mike a male cowboy costume would probably be cut off denim shorts, cowboy boots and hat, maybe work gloves, and some rope. No shirt no real pants, this sounds similar to many costumes for women, but not many Halloween costumes for men will reflect this.

          And finally I want to address the last comment about women essentially saying they want a nice guy but going for the bad boy. I’ll admit there is an appeal and attraction to bad boys (points again to Loki), but a long lasting relationship with one is a different story. In the second X-Men movie Jean Grey says, “Girls flirt with the dangerous guy, they don’t bring him home; they marry the good guy.” I think that is very true. Power, wealth, physical strength are all good qualities, but the dangerous part is strictly fantasy. I would further argue that perhaps both our points can be incorporated to help understand things better.

          Chris Hemsworth is extremely attractive, but I probably found him most attractive when I saw pictures of him holding his new baby. Now, this can play into some of things you mentioned power, wealth, strength are all qualities that a couple who wants to have children would look for, but a man with a child says something else to women, that he is loving, tender, caring, and self-sacrificing. These I would argue are much deeper and more important qualities to women and really to men too. I should also stress that women aren’t the only ones attracted to wealth, power, and strength. Those are all good qualities that men would find appealing too for various reasons. After all, would a man really want a women who couldn’t defend herself or has no power or agency over herself or in the world around her.

          Now to circle back around to costumes and hopefully tie everything together. I do agree that women find things like power and strength portrayed in men’s costumes sexy, in the same way that men find the more revealing women’s costumes sexy. However, again I would argue that men’s costumes have sexual attributes, while women’s costumes are purely sexy. I would further argue, as did in this post, that these ideas portrayed in costumes are a very narrow idea of what men and women find sexy. Both the male and female costumes are sexy, but in the narrowest terms. Women don’t only go for the uber “alpha” male type and men don’t only go for the hyper “sexualized” female. It’s much more complex than that, but the lack of variety and the narrow focus in this costumes on what is sexy stereotypes women AND men. It says this is the only way men and women are sexy or appealing to each other, and that is just not true.

          I’m sorry for writing you a book. I hope that what I’m saying is clear and I am so happy that this article as gained so much response and that people are actually taking the time to think about these issue.

          • There are actually quite a few scholarly articles that suggest the “nice guys” are in fact what women desire for marriage and family. But the same articles also suggest that women will cheat on those same partners with more the more aggressive alpha male types. The reasoning being that stability is ideal for long-term family care, while getting impregnated by an alpha ensures your offsprings viability. Fortunately, many humans are thoughtful enough to overcome their own biological programming.

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