“In the real world, Halloween is when kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it.”
So said Lindsay Lohan’s character in 2004’s hit film “Mean Girls.” Although the movie was a satirical depiction of young women’s issues, Lohan addressed a very real trend in Halloween attire.
Dr. Ellie Walsh, an assistant professor of history at Gannon University, said she has noticed costumes becoming increasingly suggestive over the last two decades.
She believes several factors contribute to racier costumes, one of them being a more sexualized society. She cited TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which follows the families of contestants in child beauty pageants, as an example.
“Children are dressed and made up as adults,” said Walsh, who teaches women’s studies in addition to history courses.
Walsh also said that today’s advertisements cater heavily to men, referencing Jessica Valenti’s “Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters.”
“Sexuality itself seems to be defined as distinctly female in our culture,” Valenti writes. “After all, while billboards and magazine ads may feature a ripped guy from time to time, it’s mostly women who make up what sexy is supposed to be.”
Many Halloween costumes, Walsh said, are extensions of this outward, commercialized sexuality.
Years ago, the “sexy maid” and “sultry nurse” were more private matters reserved for “Playboy.”
“What has changed is that now it’s more generalized, more mainstream, more acceptable,” she said.
For Jake Slease, a senior chemistry major, Halloween is nothing more than a reprieve from reality.
“It’s one night out of the year when you get to be someone you’re not,” he said. “If that’s what you want to do, go for it.”
Slease’s view follows that of third wave feminists, who aim to subvert sexism by embracing provocative dress.
But Walsh said she wonders if a negative reputation is inevitable.
“How do you separate that day?” she said. “Is that woman going to be looked at differently when it’s not Halloween anymore?”
Besides, Walsh said, sexy maid and sultry nurse costumes are not necessarily straying from the norm.
“Adopting mainstream sexual stereotypes does not turn the world upside down,” she said, “it keeps it spinning on its sexist axis – largely for the male gaze that objectifies, commodifies, and does not foster authentic male-female relationships in which sexual satisfaction is mutual and humanistic, not commodified.”
Still, she said she agrees with Valenti’s view of the conundrum.
“If we don’t approve of the porn culture that tells us our only value is in our ability to be sexy, we’re prudes,” Valenti writes in “Full Frontal Feminism.” “If we accept it and embrace it, we’re sluts. There’s no middle ground to be seen.”
Walsh said that the answer lies in the motivation behind the costume.
“What’s important is the audience,” she said. “Are women doing it for themselves?”
Kyrene Haynes, a senior physician assistant major, considered the audience before dressing up this year. She said she avoids risqué costumes because she wouldn’t want her relatives to see her that way.
“I have family on Facebook,” she said. “I wouldn’t want my older brothers to see that.”
She also said she wants to set the best possible example for her younger sisters.
Valenti may sum it up best.
“The same society that puts forth these narrow views of women in pop culture also thinks we’re expendable, that we’re only good for one thing – men’s enjoyment.
“So remember, this is definitely a screwed-if-you-do, screwed-if-you-don’t situation,” she writes. “You just remember to say, ‘Screw them.’”