Applying Psychological Science, Benefiting Society

Halloween Costumes: All in Good Fun?

Jack O Lanterns

By Efua Andoh and Leslie Cameron (APA Public Interest Directorate Communications Staff)

Halloween is meant to be a fun-filled, family friendly event for people of all ages and backgrounds. We all get to dress up in a funny or scary costume, go out trick-or-treating, have a few good laughs, and overindulge on candy. Sadly, every year, problematic Halloween costumes and decorations undermine the fun for everyone. 2014 has been only slightly different than other years by adding a few new twists on disturbing old themes.

Halloween this year has the distinction of including the “sexy Ebola nurse” among the usual slew of overly sexualized costumes for women and girls.

Sexy Ebola nurse costume

Image source: Brandsonsale.com

Other costumes have hit the offensiveness trifecta by combining blackface with mockeries of domestic violence (Ray Rice and Janay Rice).

blackface-rice

Image source: Instagram

We have also seen a few instances of ugly and disturbing Halloween decorations that callously depict lynching scenes.

Despite the condemnation these costumes and decorations have received, some people remain resolute that the outrage is overblown and a symptom of political correctness gone too far: “It’s all in good fun… What’s the big deal?”

Where to begin?

Sexualized Costumes

Firefighters, princesses, pirates, superheroes, skeletons, ghosts, and zombies – in the U.S., kids and young people have been dressing up for Halloween for 100 years or more.

But costumes for girls aren’t what they used to be.   Lindsay Ferrier writes in HuffPost Parents about how sexed up costumes for tween girls are these days.  Elementary school Robin Hood becomes sexpot Robin Hood at around age 11. Psychologist Rebecca Bigler and co-author Sarah McKenney talk about how limited girls’ choices are (mostly sexy and short) compared with boys’ (scary, funny, nerdy, powerful).

If you shop for costumes online, you find that while girls can dress up as firefighters, for example, the message even little girls’ costumes sends is not about fighting fires. The firefighter costume for teen girls is even worse. Adult costumes say pretty much the same thing – for women and girls, how hot you look matters, who you are and what you can do, does not.

Is this really a big deal?  APA’s Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls talks generally about how sexualized images of girls and women affect girls.   These images are everywhere – advertising, merchandising, and products (like dolls, clothes, and makeup), television, music videos, music lyrics, magazines, movies, video games, and social media and the Internet. They undermine girls’ confidence in and comfort with their bodies, generate shame and anxiety, are linked with eating disorders and depression, and can hurt the development of a healthy sexual self-image.   So yes, it is a big deal.

What can parents do? Parents can encourage girls to explore their strengths, to pick costumes that experiment with and express what it means to be strong, active, important, and powerful.  What would a firefighter costume for a girl who really wanted to be a firefighter look like?

Blackface

When it comes to blackface, a recent YouGov poll shows that a majority of Americans (57%) find dressing up in blackface at Halloween to be unacceptable versus those (30%) who don’t. However, far too many individuals are still unaware of the extensive history of this offensive practice. As Jenée Desmond-Harris of Vox.com and Mark Anthony Neal of TheRoot.com demonstrate, blackface dates back to minstrel shows in the mid to late nineteenth century and continued as a vital part of the vaudeville and Broadway scene for much of the twentieth century. And although it has fallen out of favor in more recent popular entertainment, the practice reemerges consistently. Beyond Halloween, it occurs year round at college parties or even in fashion spreads.

Blackface caricatures rely on and reinforce the crudest and most damaging stereotypes about African Americans and identify them as appropriate targets of ridicule. It doesn’t even matter whether the blackface is intended to do so. It still causes harm to the group that it is targeting. Harris interviewed David Leonard (chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender, and race studies) who said that blackface caricatures may even further contribute to implicit bias and discriminatory treatment of African Americans. Racist caricatures of other racial minority groups are problematic as well. In a similar manner, the use of redface (Native American), brownface (Latino) and yellowface (Asian) devalues and minimizes the rich and diversified cultures of each of these groups for the convenience of making them the butt of a joke.

According to APA’s recent report on preventing discrimination and promoting diversity, Dual Pathways to a Better America, “an enormous toll is exacted on human capital when systematic biases, stereotypes, and discrimination are perpetuated.” This toll consists of a cascade of adverse cognitive, affective, motivational, and behavioral effects such as anger, anxiety, depression, and diminished self-esteem among others.

Given the harm that these sexualized and racist costumes have, we have to ask ourselves – are these jokes really all that funny? Is it really “all in good fun” when these costumes damage the self-esteem and psychological well-being of others? Here’s hoping we can all have a happy Halloween this year.

Top image source: Flickr user Pedro Ferreira via Creative Commons

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