Every year I hear a lot of feminist rants about the sexual objectification of women from Halloween costumes. There’s no question that American women’s Halloween costumes are often just an excuse to wear lingerie in public in a (more-or-less) socially acceptable way.
(Just in case you’re reading this and you’re not from America, here’s some context from the movie Mean Girls to tell you basically everything you need to know on this one):
Most of the rants I see take for granted that the sexual objectification of women is obviously inherently bad. I’m going to bracket that assertion for a moment and start with a point that I have never heard raised before in this discussion:
What if the real problem isn’t sexual objectification? What if the real problem is that women are only allowed to pretend to be sluts once a year even if it’s what they want to do all the time?
Any good student of culture will tell you that most long-lasting conservative cultures have rituals of escape. Indeed, often the most constraining cultures have the most surprisingly escapist rituals of all (e.g. the Amish and Rumspringa). These rituals are often only tolerated within those cultures because participants are viewed as having stepped outside of their normal social selves. The simplest, and very common, way to do that is by wearing masks or costumes (although other versions involve the use of intoxicants, religious trance or possession, or simply defining the participants as temporary outsiders as many coming-of-age rituals like Rumspringa do). But the point is that those rituals often involve people doing things that they are assumed to secretly want to do much of the time, but which normal social rules don’t let them do as regular members of society.
Sound a little bit like women dressing up for Halloween in America?
Basically, our culture assumes that women all want to be sluts all the time, but we don’t let them do it because… reasons. For all that we generally encourage women to dress much more sexually than men all the time, we don’t really let women loose sexually 363 days of the year (the other day they get some leeway for is their birthdays). Throw a costume on them, though, and suddenly women get some freedom to play a slut for a night before they go back to being their regular chaste selves.
Maybe it’s because I’m a slut all the time, or maybe it’s just because I’m genuinely hypersexual (you know, sort-of the polar opposite of an asexual). But to me, this idea is a huge problem. NOT (just) because women get all the sexual objectification for their Halloween trick/treat and men don’t, but because there’s another message coded in there: the only way you’re allowed to be a slut is if you pretend it isn’t really you. If we gave women legitimate sexual freedom the other 363 days of the year, their motivation to dress slutty for Halloween would almost certainly diminish considerably.
Before I got into the BDSM scene took up the life of a sluttastic dilettante, I always used to dress up in the sluttiest costumes I could find for Halloween–prostitutes, slutty fairies, you name it. Several years later, I usually forget to actually assemble a Halloween costume because I get to dress like that all the time (or not) if I want to… in a context where it’s way more socally acceptable and fun (see below). There’s no real thrill associated for me with “dressing up” as a slut at this point. I just get to BE one, which is waaaaaaaaay more fun.
So here’s a crazy thought: rather than criticizing the social institutions of Halloween for encouraging revealing costumes for women, why don’t we criticize the social institutions that make that so appealing for women who get stuck in carefully maintained de-sexualized lives the rest of the time when they’re not dressed up? Maybe those costumes are a fucked-up form of liberation for women who don’t get to be sexually free the remaining 99.4% of the year.
And maybe the biggest problem is that we tell women they have to pretend to be someone else before they’re allowed to be sexually free.
Okay, so I’m sure some of you reading this are still pretty pissy with me for hand-waving over the whole objectification thing, and that’s understandable. I’m going to try to address some of the key points of this huuuuuge question here, but recognize there’s a book’s worth of relevant information and analysis for this, so I’m inevitably going to miss a lot of things.
But I’m going to suggest that, fundamentally, ### “sexual objectification” is mostly only a problem based on equal opportunity, relative power, and social context. It’s not actually inherently bad.
Ack, I can feel lots of you revoking my feminist card as I write this, but hear me out, please! …I’ve got a pretty nice ass. I’ve walked down the street in short skirts. I’ve walked into bars in short skirts. I’ve stripped in a variety of contexts. And I’ve walked around kink events in everything and nothing. I’ve been ruthlessly objectified in all of those contexts, and I assure you, IT FEELS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. It often feels a little bit gross to be objectified when you weren’t trying to do anything sexy, and it often feels downright scary in contexts where you feel like your physical safety might be in question.
But go to a kink event–where many people have gleefully pre-consented to objectification–and the experience changes dramatically. On top of that basic intentional difference of respectfully sexualized context, there’s also a much greater sense of equality: men get ruthlessly objectified as much (or perhaps even more) than women. The fact of being objectified in no way reduces someone’s social status or personal power. Finally, perhaps I’m naive, but I’ve never really worried much for my physical safety there, so objectification almost never feels like a threat.
The thing is that lots of us–both men and women–actually really enjoy being objectified. Sure, I assume that’s more common among kinky folk than the population at large, but I know lots of men and women who will guiltily confess that they enjoy being cat-called walking down the street. Many of us also enjoy being obviously checked out. It’s an ego-boost, it’s flattering, and it’s sometimes just downright funny. The problem, as I’ve said, is that even those of us who often enjoy it don’t enjoy it in all contexts: the elevator look from your waiter is not the same as the elevator look coming from your massage therapist which is not the same as the elevator look coming from your boss. Each of those scenarios changes the aforementioned dynamics of equal opportunity, relative power, and social context. (And of course, there’s always personal preference, since some people would find an elevator look uncomfortable in basically any situation).
All of this is to say that if women feel socially pressured to wear extremely revealing Halloween costumes when they don’t want to, that’s a big problem. It’s also a problem if women keep getting put on sexual display in contexts where a. Men aren’t b. Women feel disempowered in general and disempowered sexually in particular and c. Women feel unsafe. But change the fundamental composition of the social context, so that things look more like the world of the BDSM scene, and I really don’t think that sexual objectification is a big problem. I realize that the rest of the world doesn’t look like the BDSM scene, but I sure as hell want it to.
Notice that a huge part of why the sexual objetification of women is such a big problem most of the time is that women often feel like there may be serious consequences for refusing OR accepting blatant sexual advances. When those consequences are vastly reduced–and when a culture shifts from slut-shaming to slut-embracing as the BDSM culture has attempted to do–then a lot of the underlying fear that accompanies sexual objectification mostly kind of goes away or becomes irrelevant. And when women feel empowered to objectify men too, the sense of threat likewise diminishes.
… All of which is to say, I don’t think the problem is objectification itself. The problem is all the social baggage around it.
In sum: stop criticizing Halloween costumes for being sexually revealing. Criticize social pressure to don said costumes, by all means. But remember that the bigger problems are that society makes women put on a disguise to be slutty and really only lets them do it once a year, and that the problems associated with sexual objectification are more about the social context of that objectification than objectification itself.
Change the fucking social context, not (just) your clothes.