Monday, October 28, 2013

A Princess is not a Good Halloween Costume

One of the first Halloweens I ever experienced as an active participant, I picked to be Boba Fett from The Empire Strikes Back. This baffled my parents, as they did not understand how a character that has around a minute of screen time could capture my imagination so well (and little did I know that I was being a Disney character from the future!). But I have to give myself some props for that choice--yes, it was reflective of popular culture and yes, the costume came out of a box, but I was being something that I found inspiring but that was ultimately someone I would never want to be: a bounty hunter, a killer, the very "bad guy" that had outwitted my favorite "good guy" of the times, Han Solo.

As I've mentioned before, Halloween is a ceremony of reversals; a time when kids are invited to explore the side of humanity that is not embraced by the wider society. By indulging in our darker side, letting it out, feeling what it's like to even pretend to be the "bad guy" for a night, we allow ourselves the choice: we are not bad guys because we choose not to be bad guys, not because society tells us it's wrong. We feel what it's like to know that we can embody these bad guy tendencies, we know that we have a capacity for it, and we reject it out of our own free will. This is powerful stuff.

But this is not the attitude of the machine that currently markets Halloween. Instead, we see the most popular costumes every recent years are what the kids want to be, not what they want to dare to be. For boys, Spider Man generally clocks in at number one, with "super hero" coming in at number two or three. The generic term "princess" leads the list every year, and usually the second or third most popular for girls is "Disney Princess." While there are some "bad guy" favorites peppered in, like pirates or ninjas, even a general perusal of any Halloween store or display will show the prevalence of commercially successful "good guys."

Two of my daughters this year are being Minnie Mouse. She's benign enough, I suppose, and is someone who has captured their minds since our recent move to Southern California (I would have preferred something else, but I was glad enough they both weren't Cinderella [and, for the record, Indiana Jones and a parrot round out the other two girls]). We spent some time in a Disney Store while gathering the proper Minnie Mouse ingredients and I noticed something: a girl can get from a Disney Store the costume for just about any princess, but there are no villains. None. No Ursula, no Maleficent, no poison apple wielding Wicked Witch Stepmother, no dragons. Sure, a boy (or girl) can choose Captain Hook, but he's the closest that Disney will come to a bad guy. You can make the argument that Disney's research teams know that the good guys will sell better, but this limit of choices directs children toward the proper branding of Disney values, and this leads to a better customer in the future. You don't have to believe me, but that's where their money is going and why it's going that way, so you might as well.

Dressing as a good guy for Halloween, or even your role model, may seem like a good idea. And I'm sure it won't make your kids evil or anything. But the drive to be pretty is instilled in us enough, do we really have to use Halloween as another venue for that? Does a young girls need another avenue for feeling like glamor is adult and desirable and linked to her value? Look at where this leads in the world of young adult Halloweens: The "slutty-everything" costume.

The slutty-everything costume is just another dark insight into our looks-obsessed society. We use a holiday to be validated, to dress in a way that we normally wouldn't (or, maybe, would) so that we can feel approval from friends and strangers (now, arguably, the slutty-everything costume fits into the ceremony of reversals paradigm, but that's only if the person doesn't usually indulge in approval mongering). The precursor to this can be none other than the princess costume--to get approval of the glamorous and beautiful looks of a full-grown princess.

Now, I don't damn the practice and, as I said before, not dressing up as something evil doesn't make your child evil (or, if it does, I'm not qualified to say so, so you shouldn't listen to me if I do say something like that, dude). But we as parents should encourage the cutting of sheets for ghosts and the dawning of conical hats for our little witches and the wielding of sabres in our small pirates. There are so many other days a year to reinforce the superficial values of society; there are so many other days a year to preach the goodness of super heroes and firefighters and the bravery of soldiers. Let them howl at the moon, let them drink blood, let them outsmart Han Solo, let them be briefly empowered by the darker side of what makes us human. If we do not feel and reject that darker side, are we truly human? Or are we just another product on the assembly line?

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