2014-10-31-Costume

Although the term “fantasy” implies a “play of the mind”, the marketing illustrations for children’s Halloween costumes reverberates throughout many other dimensions of the gendered social life depicted in this fantastical world. For example, the participation in the paid-work world and financial success for men and of physical attractiveness and marriage for women is reinforced through costume names that reference masculine costumes by occupational roles or titles but describe feminine costumes via appearance and/or relationships (e.g. “Policeman” vs. “Beautiful Bride”). Although no adjectives are deemed necessary to describe Policeman, the linguistic prompt contained in Beautiful Bride serves to remind observers that the major achievements for females are getting married and looking lovely. Costumes for suffragettes or female-modeled police officers, astronauts, and fire fighters were conspicuous only by their absence.

Gender stereotyping in children’s Halloween costumes also reiterates an active-masculine/passive-feminine dichotomization. The ornamental passivity of Beauty Queen stands in stark contrast to the reification of the masculine action figure, whether he is heroic or villainous. In relation to hero figures, the dearth of female superhero costumes in the sample would seem to reflect the comparative absence of such characters in comic books. Although male superheroes have sprung up almost “faster than a speeding bullet” since the 1933 introduction of Superman, the comic book life span of women superheroes has typically been abbreviated, “rarely lasting for more than three appearances”. Moreover, the applicability of the term “superhero” to describe these female characters seem at least somewhat dubious. Often their role has been that of the male hero’s girlfriend or sidekick “whose purpose was to be rescued by the hero”.

In 1941 the creation of Wonder Woman (initially known as Amazon Princess Diana) represented a purposeful attempt by her creator, psychologist William Marston, to provide readers with a same-sex superhero:

“It seemed to me from a psychological angle that the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity. … It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous, but it’s sissified, according to exclusively male rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. “Aw, that’s girl stuff!” snorts our young comics reader, “Who wants to be a girl?” And that’s the point: not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength.”

Nevertheless, over half a decade later, women comic book superheroes remain rare and, when they do appear, are likely to be voluptuous and scantily clad. If, as Robbins argued, the overwhelmingly male comic book audience “expect, in fact demand that any new superheroines exist only as pinup material for their entertainment,” it would seem that comic books and their televised versions are unlikely to galvanize the provision of flat-chested female superhero Halloween costumes for prepubescent females in the immediate future.

The relative paucity of feminine villains would also seem to reinforce an active/passive dichotomization on the basis of gender. Although costumes depict male villains as engaged in the commission of a wide assortment of antisocial acts, those for female villains appear more nebulous and are concentrated within the realm of erotic transgressions. Moreover, the depiction of a female villain as a sexual temptress or erotic queen suggests a type of “active passivity”, whereby the act of commission is restricted to wielding her physical attractiveness over (presumably) weak-willed men. The veritable absence of feminine agents or symbols of death may reflect not only the stereotype of women as life-giving and nurturing, but also the assumption that femininity and lethal aggressiveness are mutually exclusive.

Building on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the language we speak predisposes us to make particular interpretations of reality and provides the basis for developing the gender schema identified by Bern, the impact of language and other symbolic representations must be considered consequential. The symbolic representations of gender contained within Halloween costumes may, along with specific costume titles, refurbish stereotypical notions of what women/girls and men/boys are capable of doing within the realm of their imaginations.

Nelson and Robinson noted that deprecatory terms in the English language often ally women with animals. Whether praised as a “chick,” “fox,” or “Mother Bear” or condemned as a “bitch,” “sow,” or an “old nag,” the imagery is animal reductionist. They also noted that language likens women to food items (e.g., sugar, tomato, cupcake), with the attendant suggestion that they look “good enough to eat”. Complementing this, the present study suggests that feminine Halloween costumes also employ images that reduce females to commodities intended for amusement, consumption, and sustenance. A cherry pie, after all, has only a short shelf life before turning stale and unappealing.

Nelson, Adie. 2000. “The Pink Dragon is Female: Halloween Costumes and Gender Markers.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 24(2):137-144.

 

Wonderwoman

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