From Wonder Woman to Wonderbras
Though some Jews reject Halloween because of its Christian origins, others fully participate in what they consider to be a neutral, mainstream celebration. Either way, it’s difficult to escape the flood of candy, jack-o-lanterns, and synthetic spider webs as well as the latest Halloween “fashion.” Anyone who has watched the evolution of women’s Halloween costumes over the last several years may have noticed that Cinderella and the Hershey’s Kiss have long gone out of style in the wake of more risqué get-ups. The New York Times article "Good Girls Go Bad, For a Day" prompts questions about feminism and femininity on the night of October 31st. Why have so many girls grown up to trade in Wonder Woman costumes for little more than Wonderbras?
Decades after the second wave of the women’s movement, one might expect more of a gender-neutral range of costumes. But instead, there seems to be a discrepancy in the market: a man who wishes to dress as a Police Officer can buy a costume that actually looks like one. But a woman, on the other hand, can only find a female Police Officer costume that is most suitable for a strip club (not to mention warm, balmy weather… which is unusual for late-October).
In the past, Halloween was a time when women and girls could assume male gender roles by dressing as farmers, football players, or astronauts. These roles offered access to powerful public identities that women could not always embody in their day-to-day lives. But today, Halloween is a time that many women use to play with their sexuality, temporarily transforming their self-image into something (or someone) that is sleazy, playful, or farcical. “It’s a night when even a nice girl can dress like a dominatrix and still hold her head up the next morning,” said Linda M. Scott, the author of “Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism” (Palgrave Macmillan) and a professor of marketing at the University of Oxford in England.
Maybe Halloween is offering room for post-feminist expression. But if this were true, why isn’t the Halloween market encouraging men to be sexy too? If Halloween really is all about dramatizing one’s sex appeal, why isn’t there a sense of even-handed sexiness for women and men alike? And who defines “sexy” anyway? Since when did “sexy” become synonymous with scantily clad?
Purim, another costume-oriented holiday, doesn’t generally highlight sexiness. But in recent years, Purim has often reinforced traditional gender roles encouraging girls to dress as the pretty Queen Esther and boys to dress as the noble Mordechai. Although it may not be as common within mainstream Jewish communities, Purim has also opened up space for playing with opposite identities, particularly gender-variance. Additionally, the changes in how the Purim story's characters are valued are indicative of evolving notions of feminism. Twenty years ago, girls prancing around the synagogue as Queen Vashti were few and far between. And it’s fair to say that those few girls who did choose to personify Vashti by honoring her refusal to be paraded naked before a drunken horde, didn’t earn popularity points among their peers. Since then, however, there has been a shift in consciousness. Feminists have come to appreciate Vashti not as a villain, but as a woman who preserved her own dignity. Concomitantly, Esther is now understood not only for her beauty but also for her courage in saving the Jewish people. I suppose these changes are reflective of the deeper meaning of Purim and other dress-up holidays: things aren’t always as they appear.
So what are we to make of this? Is the sexualization or tantalizing “beauty” of girls’ Halloween costumes bothersome? Or is it okay to celebrate a day in which we can be nothing more and nothing less than eye-candy?