Cleavage, fishnets and stilettos are a common sight at college Halloween parties, but is this just good fun or does it reinforce damaging gender roles?
"It seems like dressing sexy is the norm," notes UNCA senior Alicia Adcox.
And when students leave the house Oct. 31 with bare midriffs, they may have been making a political statement, says Sarah Judson, an associate professor of history at UNCA.
"Isn't that one of the ways oppressed people can fight back — by taking the stereotypes that are imposed on them and transforming them to meet their own needs?" asks Judson. "Women are using the weapons of the weak to … re-appropriate their own sexual identities and … as a symbol of their own emancipation or empowerment."
But those stereotypes, she maintains, may hurt women's mental well-being and social status, because they "reinforce ideas about women's subordination — how their only value is sexual, and that they should be sexually available to men at all times.”
Store-bought costumes, continues Judson, also support a single, narrow definition of beauty. "They have the bustier, or you're the sexy black cat or witch. Nobody's being the really cute, sexy, overweight seamstress or something. It reinforces this mainstream way of being attractive."
Adcox, though, says she enjoys the opportunity to let loose without being judged. "It's that one night a year when girls can dress up however they want. If they want to dress as a slut, it's socially accepted."
Classmate Grace Schermerhorn, who’s studying literature, disagrees.
"I'm really insulted by the fact that it feels like our only option as women is to dress sexually," she explains. "If you don't have the time or the creativity to come up with a homemade costume, you can't buy one that has more fabric than one of the children's costumes. When there is pressure on you to dress [sexy] and those are kind of your only options, it goes past sexual liberation to degradation."
As a feminist, says Schermerhorn, she believes such costumes demonstrate society's excessive emphasis on women's bodies. And those who don't play along may pay a price.
"I hate the idea that the only thing society wants from you is physical attractiveness — and, to get that, you have to show a lot of skin and make sure you look good," says Schermerhorn. "I could see myself when I was younger, coming up with an idea for a costume that was clever and making fun of something, then being mocked because it doesn't fit in with this idea of being a sexy peacock or something."
Adcox, though, feels people shouldn't take Halloween so seriously. "All the costumes you see are supposed to be sexy, but I don't necessarily feel pressure. I like being able to dress up as something crazy and just go out and have fun, even if I look like an idiot," she explains. "At the same time, it's not super important to me. This year, I probably won't even go out."
Judson, however, cites a fundamental difference in the men’s and women’s costumes she’s seen in stores. "It's really gendered: The male costumes are pirates and zombies, and the girls all have to be about being beautiful and sexy. My daughter wants to be a ghost, and she really likes this costume that has little white, high-heel shoes and a beautiful white wig. Even a ghost, they've figured out how to gender."
Those costumes, says Judson, send kids the wrong message. "Adult women can choose to play or not. But the children's costumes mirror the exact same messages and gender ideals. Many of the little-girl costumes have fishnet stockings, low-cut bodices and short skirts. It's creepy; it's another example of the oversexualization of children."
Men, however, don't face that same pressure. "The idea of men being sexy for Halloween is kind of weird to even think about," says Schermerhorn. "I doubt men are going to strip off their shirt and walk around in the cold. I think it would be pretty funny to ask men what they're going to be for Halloween and say, 'Are you going to be the sexy version of that?'"
Still, UNCA junior Trevor Metcalfe says he feels pressure to be creative. "I think, with guys, there’s an incentive to be funny rather than sexy — the funnier, the better. All the girls’ costumes are sexy versions of things; with guys, it's just ridiculous things like bananas and hot dogs. You want to have something to make people laugh; the more outrageous the better. It is its own kind of pressure."
For Judson, however, "It comes back to how you best want to represent your own self. What are the values you want for your community, and how do you want your community represented?"
— Megan Dombroski is a senior journalism student at UNCA and an editor at The Blue Banner, the student newspaper.