Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Halloween: A Night of Vampires, Ghosts, and -- wait, is that supposed to be a Devil?

On Thursday night, I attended Take Back the Night’s “What is YOUR costume?” event. I had never heard of this group before, but after a few minutes I learned that these students regularly hosted student-only forums to discuss concerning topics, allowing anyone and everyone to share their thoughts. With Halloween just around the corner, it seemed inevitable that Thursday night’s topic would emerge: the controversy regarding students’ costumes and the way they express themselves through their spooky (or in this case, promiscuous, risqué, or offensive) disguises. The forum consisted of a small audience with the participation of four student-panelists who provided several unique accounts of past Halloween costume experiences and diverse opinions on the issue at hand. By the end of the night, it became clear to me that while Halloween is a time of fun and festivities, the tradition of donning Halloween costumes does not open the floodgates for complete and utter freedom of expression. Just as one cannot shout “fire!” in a public area, one must be mindful of their costume choice.

Firstly, before any questions were posed, the group showed a YouTube video that essentially captured the heart of the night’s talk. The video featured a clip from “Mean Girls” (in which Lindsay Lohan fails to see the “real” dress code for girls costumes) and about a dozen slideshow images showing different controversial Halloween costumes. This successfully set the tone for the discussion because it gave the audience an idea (or rather, imposed some “standards”) of costumes that are generally acceptable and costumes that are generally offensive. One point I found particularly interesting in the video was the comparison of old-fashioned “blackface” makeup versus the “racial” costumes of today. The video noted that while the use of blackface makeup became a racist and bigoted symbol, many kids (as well as adults) are still seen trick-or-treating as Native Americans and other minority groups – without any questioning whatsoever. Personally, I know that I would find it offensive if someone imitated my culture in a joking manner. Unfortunately, the call to wear funny and ridiculous costumes often leads to the use of offensive and hurtful costumes, and meanwhile people simply use Halloween as a safeguard to deter others’ judgments.

The question that was presented dealt with the boundaries of expression in Halloween. Before any of the panelists or members of the audience were allowed to comment, the moderator noted that Take Back the Night would not tolerate the use of “whore,” “slut,” “manwhore,” and several other terms that would alienate others – this way, the discussion could commence without the creation of any harsh judgments or ill-will. Furthermore, it allowed everyone to voice their opinions and comment on the issue at hand from a common basis, rather than polarizing views and pitting people against one another. The floor then opened up to the panelists, who shared their various opinions on the limits of expression in Halloween. They stated that girls and guys equally shared the blame. While girls can be found wearing promiscuous or risqué costumes – revealing their bodies in ways one would never find socially acceptable on a typical day – guys are notorious for wearing offensive costumes, usually with the intention to impress others. In addition, the panelists also expressed that there is a fine line between festive costumes and offensive costumes, a boundary that is routinely ignored every year on Halloween. For example, someone in the audience shared their experience of seeing someone wearing a “Jesus-on-the-cross” costume at Fell’s Point. This incited another comment by a concerned student, who stated that if she ever saw someone wearing such a costume, she would be “so directly offended and hurt because that person is attempting to make a mockery of my beliefs.”

Personally, I found myself agreeing with all aspects of the group’s platform. For one, I think that it is completely unacceptable for people to suspend all social dress-code norms for the enjoyment of one night, whether it be girls deciding to expose their bodies or guys trying to make themselves look “cool.” When people do this, they not only tarnish their individual image, but they misrepresent their body of peers. For example, if a female Loyola student decides to reveal her body in a promiscuous manner, then others may falsely assume that other female Loyola students may make the same decision. In addition, by making one poor costume decision one is falsely projecting the way they may present themselves on a typical day. To this end, I truly think that Halloween is a time of fun in which one should enjoy oneself, not an excuse to behave in ways that are simply unacceptable. I hope that Halloween will restore itself as a holiday that people look forward to – one of spooky costumes, carved pumpkins, and endless amount of candy – rather than the degenerated mess that it has become today.

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