Last year, several colleges made national news when tensions flared over culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. The good news is that the issue launched thoughtful dialogues all over the country. The bad news is that not everyone agrees on what’s harmful and what’s humorous – so it’s up to students to make their own choices and deal with the consequences
My daughter and her roommate struggled with this dilemma over their recent fall break. One rainy afternoon they raided our attic in search of costumes. The girls dragged down three giant plastic tubs labeled “dress up clothes” and began excavating the contents — heeding their school’s guidelines on acceptable Halloween attire.
A wrinkled tan suede dress with decorative fringe and attached wampum bag? No appropriating indigenous cultures. A sexy nurse’s outfit, with stethoscope and lab coat? No objectifying women’s work. Two dreadlocked wigs with yellow and green beads, for the Jamaican bobsled team ensemble? No way.
As the girls dug through the bins, they kept shaking their heads. A sparkling mermaid tail, a glass slipper, and a pair of shiny harem pants were tossed aside. Bye bye Ariel, Cinderella, and Jasmine. Post-feminists don’t dress as Disney princesses. A set of camouflage army fatigues drew raised eyebrows; our nation’s heroes shouldn’t be mocked.
With rejects piled high, the girls pulled out the remaining items: a red-and-white polka dot jumpsuit, a rubber chicken, and a rainbow Afro. They recoiled in horror. No clowns, not when a fear of malevolent circus performers was sweeping the nation.
What, I asked, would they like to be — and what does Halloween actually signify for college students? In ancient Celtic culture, the holiday known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve began the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the annual time devoted to remembering the departed. The Celts believed that on October 31st the line between the living and dead would be blurred, and the condemned would return to earth to wreak havoc. To defend themselves, the Celts dressed up in frightening costumes and tried to banish evil spirits.
But on today’s college campuses, it’s not just Halloween that’s celebrated — it’s Halloweek, with parties every night, often requiring students to purchase or improvise half a dozen different costumes. It’s an extended masquerade ball that has nothing to do with the holiday’s classic activities — trick or treating, pumpkin carving, apple bobbing — and everything to do with dressing up and drinking and playing with your identity.
In fact, some students don’t reserve costume parties just for Halloween. Throughout the school year, many mixers — particularly those hosted by fraternities and sororities — feature a variety of themes, often with a masculine/feminine twist. Think of the scene in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, when Renee Zellweger believes she has been invited to play the favorite British party game of “Tarts and Vicars”, at which the women are clad in lingerie, while the men are garbed as Anglican priests. Variations on this theme occur regularly, but as long as they’re at private parties college officials can’t do much to prevent bad taste. It’s during Halloweek that public displays of questionable costumes inspire heated debate — and students have to negotiate the boundaries.
For Halloween 2016, my daughter and her friend opted to play it safe. The animal kingdom was benign (at least ladybugs and bumblebees, if not endangered species such as pandas and snow leopards). Food would be fine — but what teenage female wants to socialize dressed as a bunch of grapes?
Ultimately, the girls abandoned the dress-up bins and turned to the Internet. Within moments, they found their dream Halloween costumes, representing historical heroines. Come October 31st, they’ll be going as Viking warriors. Horned helmets, anyone?
Nancy M. Better is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as magazines including SmartMoney, Fortune, and Glamour.