I just received a catalog in the mail of Halloween costumes. It is one of those things that I think they put in everyone’s mail boxes in the neighborhood this time of year. It advertises at least 500 different cheap, made in China costumes. Any costume advertised for a woman or girl over the age of 12 is a “sexy” costume, apart from a select few such as the “ketchup” costume (which is designed to make you look like a bottle of ketchup.. for real) and the Olive Oyl costume (although they also make a “sexy Olive Oyl” version as well with a shorter skirt). I guess they thought the Olive Oyl character didn’t already seem vulnerable enough.
This phenomenon of “sexy Halloween costumes” brings us to some basic points in feminist discourse about women’s bodies. Obviously, I don’t think feminist thought is entirely homogenous, but I do present these basic statements as points of agreement for many feminists. Once we get these straight, then it might be possible to debate finer points of discussion, like “How can I dress for Halloween as a feminist?”
On the one hand, the oversexualization of women’s bodies is problematic. Why should women have to choose between costuming as a sexy (read here: vulnerable and exposed) woman and a ketchup bottle? Aren’t there some other choices available? Can we look like human beings, perhaps even human beings who are aware of their sexuality without appearing cold, vulnerable and restricting our comfort and mobility? Can we claim power in other ways than representing ourselves as sexual objects? Either by presenting ourselves as sexual subjects or by claiming power in other ways—such as physical, emotional, or intellectual strength?
On the other, a woman should be able to walk down the street without fear of violence, no matter what. This means no matter whether she’s dress in a sexy way to gain attention from men, or whether she’s dressed in a sexy way to express her own power as a sexual subject, or whether she’s dressed in a deliberately non-sexy way, or whether she’s not dressed in anything at all. No woman is asking to be verbally or physically violated no matter her physical representation. If you are a woman, you already know that you could cover up every inch of exposed skin in an opaque shapeless sack, and you would still experience street harassment. If you are not a woman, you should be aware of this: street harassment is a daily reality for most women.
So here’s the double bind for most feminists trying to choose a Halloween costume: If I choose to wear a sexy costume for Halloween, am I doing so just because I want to present myself in a socially acceptable (read: sexually desirable) way in conformity with the general oversexualization of women’s bodies? If I choose to wear a costume which is intentionally non-sexy, am I presenting myself in an asexual manner so as to deny my natural sexual subjectivity and/or to buy into the false notion that “chastely” dressed women will remain safe from sexual violence? In other words, women’s choices about how to present their bodies are so severely restricted to the point that it is difficult, even impossible to know whether I would ever be able to tell whether I would ever want to wear a sexy Olive Oyl costume or not.
Okay, now you’re all caught up. Go forth and theorize.