Post by WAVAW Relief Staff, Jane
Halloween has always been one of my favourite holidays. The carnivalesque, liberatory nature of becoming someone else for an evening surpasses in excitement and anticipation all other festivities. What’s not to love about excessive amounts of candy and face paint? Seeing friends and family become more flamboyant, sparkly, and wacky than at any other time of year is a cause for celebration and delight. So why do I always feel a gnawing trepidation as the end of October nears?
The transformative power of a holiday like Halloween is not lost on me. I think we should all get to shed our everyday clothes, behave outside of social norms, and challenge ways of being in our bodies and performing our identities way more often than we do. (Can we have Halloween every weekend?) What concerns me is the ways we choose to celebrate Halloween. Wrapped up in all the costumes, face paint, and spooky music are serious issues of identity politics and performance; two things feminists have been talking about (and arguing, and protesting) for a long time. Acknowledging the ways in which we are differently affected by dressing up, playing roles, and wearing costumes follows in the footsteps of feminists who have worked for a long time to highlight the ways that gender intersects with race, class, age, language, religion, ability, sexuality, body size, Indigeneity, and all of the other parts of our identities that shape who we are.
I won’t pretend that I can address the entirety of this tangle of identities in this post, and their significance goes far beyond what mask or cape we may (or may not) be donning this weekend. What I want to point out here is that the costumes we choose to wear participate in systems of privilege and oppression, and without even realizing it, playing roles or wearing costumes perpetuate social hierarchies.
The wide circulation of the poster campaign “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” has brought many of us up to speed on why dressing up as an “Indian,” geisha, Black person, or Mexican person is not okay. In our white supremacist culture, the ability to dress like a group who white people have systemically oppressed for centuries without experiencing any of the associated violence, stigma, and loss is indicative not only of privilege, but works to further oppress people of colour and Indigenous people. Erasing the significance of our histories and of white people’s impact on them is not just a reminder of historical violence; it is violence right now, in action, every Halloween. Trans activists have been telling us similar things from their perspective in their discussions of why it’s not okay to dress as Caitlyn Jenner this year.
Being conscious of how you dress for Halloween is important, and when we think about the broader contexts of white supremacy and cissexism, picking costumes seems somewhat more straightforward. Participating in rituals of dressing up and role playing become more complicated when we explore the ways in which these rituals inculcate us with understandings of “good” or “normal” gender, race, sexuality, body size, etc. By and large, when we dress little girls as princesses and little boys as superheroes, we perpetuate gender stereotypes. When we exclude fat and disabled folks from the purview of dress up, we insist that some bodies are not capable or worthy of social inclusion. We deny the recognition of the emotions and desires of fat and disabled folks at so many turns, but it is particularly interesting to me that on a night when many of us are permitted to transcend our daily selves and become someone else, the bodies of some people are actively marked out, policed, and excluded.
When describing Halloween, I want to describe the one night out of the year when you don’t have to be normal, you don’t have to be yourself, and you can connect with and relate to people in radical new ways through your identity. What I often witness, however, is an increased enforcement of normalcy through costumes and role playing. Even when we’re supposed to be someone else, our costumes tell us from childhood who we are, and what our place is in the world. Halloween costumes indicate to us whose struggles we ignore, whose bodies we reject, whose genders we demean, whose histories we devalue. What’s most haunting about Halloween for me is the ways in which it upholds a network of oppressions, disguised by fun costumes.
I don’t want to strip Halloween of its power, stop participating, or lose faith in it as an occasion for imagination, transgression, and creation. The transformative power of Halloween is alive and well. It sparks every time we put on a mask, animal ears, outrageous pants, a wild dress. Radical transformation is always present on Halloween; so tangible you can almost feel it against your skin and taste it as you pull your costume on, or help someone else with theirs. But it needs care, thought, and discussion. We still have a long way to go until Halloween is a night of liberation and not oppression. But I’m hopeful, because it starts with all of us, in whoever we choose to be this year.