Every October, I look forward to my favorite holiday: Halloween. I trick or treated well into my twenties, by dressing up in a costume with a lot of facial makeup and pretending to be a teenager (because other people’s free candy is way better than candy you buy yourself). Now that I’m unmistakably too old to demand treats, I can help other people avoid some serious cultural mistakes in their quest for the best costumes. Here are some things you should not try on.
1. Moana or Maui (from the movie Moana)
This one is actually a little tricky, especially for kids. It’s okay to get a cool shell necklace, a bandeau top, a fringey skirt, slap a flower in their hair and run around screaming that they need to return the heart of Te Fiti. It’s NOT okay to wear traditional tribal tattoos, or, god forbid, put on brownface. If you make or buy a “magical fish hook”, try to get one without the traditional etchings on them — my daughter’s preferred Maui toy is a wrought iron coat hook we got from a blacksmith in a re-created colonial village. And for god’s sake, don’t get a Polynesian hair wig to put on your little Anglo-Saxon kiddo; even Disney thought that was a terrible idea. This guide written by a Fijian is a great way to figure out if you are within the boundaries of cultural awareness.
2. Pocahontas or any kind of “Indian Princess”
It doesn’t matter if you, like everyone else, have a great-grandmother who was one-fourteenth Cherokee princess, you need to stay away from the sexy Pocahontas outfits. Usually called something really gross like “Indian brave” or “sexy squaw”, these costumes are demeaning, they trivialize a real history of colonialism and oppression by “borrowing” the appearance of a marginalized culture, and completely sweep under the carpet a serious problem of sexual assault towards Native women (see the Canadian inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women). As if that wasn’t enough, there are actually real live Native people around, and they think you look tacky. Don’t be the classless white person who wears a feather headdress to Coachella when it’s really meant for Lakota warriors, and don’t try on a Halloween costume imitating a culture we tried to systematically eradicate, okay?
3. Basically, anyone from a culture that isn’t your own.
Let’s assume you weren’t going to put on some blackface or yellowface, and just address why you might need to wear someone else’s inescapable cultural identity like a costume. You think it’s clever to throw on a parka and some Ugg boots, and call yourself an Eskimo? Newsflash: they’re called Inuit or Yupik, they have a rich and vibrant culture, and, with the ongoing anti-seal-hunt campaigns being waged by PETA and other animal rights activists, they are struggling to survive in parts of the world where a bell pepper costs $17. You want to wrap a towel around your head and call yourself a Muslim terrorist? Women in veils are being banned from public transit in Montreal. It’s pretty tasteless to try on an identity that you can then take off and go back on your merry way with no consequences but people thinking you’re insensitive.
4. Dressing up as a mental patient.
The mentally ill often have a hard enough time in the world without having to see representations of themselves played for laughs, or being reminded of a time (not so long ago) when they were forcibly institutionalized or lobotomized. Remember when you were really sad about Robin Williams’ death and it turned out he was depressed? That’s a mentally ill person struggling with the world. Similarly, given the casting of all these mass shooters in the US as “mentally ill” rather than “dangerous sociopaths”, there is a stereotype that people with mental illness are going to snap and kill someone, possibly several hundred people. This is untrue and really stigmatizing.
5. Dressing up as someone recently accused of sexual assault.
I’m looking at anyone who thinks it would be hilarious to dress up as Harvey Weinstein and go around slapping people on the ass; anyone who would dress up as Bill Cosby and make jokes about slipping roofies in people’s drinks; or anyone who would dress as Trump and go around grabbing women by the genitals. I’m looking at you and thinking that you must be an enormous jerk.
6. Dressing up like Nazis or Anne Frank.
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You probably saw the costume being billed as a “World War Two evacuee girl” somewhere in your social media, along with commentary like “what were they thinking?” This is less of a homage to the teenaged girl and her family who died at the hands of the Nazis in WWII, and more of a chance to grab money from people who don’t realize how much this trivializes her experience. The recent resurgence in Nazis wearing swastikas parading in the streets and threatening Jews, Muslims, and other minorities (yes, this is 2017, and yes, this is still happening) also means that these costumes are particularly fraught with tension and meaning.
7. Tread carefully when cross-dressing.
A lot of guys never feel comfortable wearing women’s clothing at any time of the year except Halloween (which is a shame, because skirts are super comfortable and air out your genitals admirably), so there are always a lot of cross-dressed costume choices. DO NOT dress as a famous trans person — Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, or Chelsea Manning. These women have struggled HARD to get where they are and playing their identity for laughs because you feel risqué in a dress, is rude and disrespectful. Being trans isn’t funny. It’s not a “man in a dress”. It’s someone’s life, and a dangerous life at that, when you consider how many trans people are attacked and murdered every year. Did you watch Boys Don’t Cry? Did you like it? Yeah.
So what can I wear?
Any comic book, movie, or book character you like (unless you have to do blackface, then stop). The little girl who ran through her dad’s BBC interview. Any animal onesie you can buy on Amazon (bonus: they’re super comfy and some have pockets for stashing candy). Anything on this list. Ridiculous couple costumes are also always a hit. When I was a kid, I got a plastic garbage bag, poked holes for my arms and legs, tied it around my neck, and filled it with multicolored balloons: I was a great bag of Jellybeans.