Research shows that Halloween costumes can be objectionable, even offensive.
Every October we are advised, you're one camera phone shot away from being remembered not for your accomplishments, your credentials, or for all of the good you have done in your community, but for your ill-advised Halloween costume.
Sure enough, every year, Twitter feeds are buzzing with apologies for ill advised costumes-gone-wrong as trick or treating seems to have taken a tasteless turn. So we have some ideas of what not to be.
But where do we draw the line?
Sure, costume selection depends on where you are going and the composition of your intended audience. But in general, when it comes to selecting a Halloween costume, we must choose carefully, remembering that we live in an age of increased sensitivity.
If you have your heart set on dressing as an infamous serial killer or controversial political figure, think carefully: is there really nothing else you can be? Why put a damper on the celebration by wearing something that might offend someone?
And once you have settled on an appropriate character, it is time think through your accessories. In the wake of high profile violent attacks, you may have to go as a police officer without a gun, or a pirate without a sword. The same rules apply to your little ones, who are facing similar costume policing rules on school grounds.
When it comes to costume selection, although people react differently to different characters and images, research reveals there are some commonalities regarding the impact of different types of costumes.
Halloween Costume Too Sexy?
Some Halloween costumes are marketed to scare, others to seduce. But with what impact on the viewers? Research shows that when it comes to costume sex appeal, there can be too much of a good thing.
Sharron Lennon et al., from 2016, determined that women wearing sexy Halloween costumes promote objectivization. In their article, "Women’s Revealing Halloween Costumes: Other-Objectification and Sexualization," they discuss the differences between costumes for women and for men. They note that costumes for women were more revealing in terms of body coverage and tightness. They also acknowledge the media link between revealing dress and sexual objectification, and predicted that revealing Halloween costumes worn by women could result in sexual objectification.
Sure enough, their study results showed that both male and female study participants objectified women wearing revealing costumes. In addition, they found that men rated costumed women higher on sexually objectifying traits than did women.
Regarding the practical application of their research, Lennon et al (ibid.) note that because their results demonstrate that revealing Halloween costumes contribute to the sexualization of women, Halloween parties could be perceived as "sexually objectifying experiences."
They view this result as particularly concerning in light of some research that links Halloween parties and sexual assault on some college campuses.
But there are other reasons to watch what you wear this Halloween.
Political Costume Correctness
Some people have emotional reactions to certain types of costumes. These sensitivities should be considered in advance in order to avoid problems.
Simon Kelly and Kathleen Riach discuss several aspects of Halloween in "Halloween, Organization, and the Ethics of Uncanny Celebration" — from 2018. Among other issues, they point out that Halloween, which is really a "celebration of the uncanny," actually constitutes a "holiday" that occurring primarily after dark.
Different in both theme and practice from more traditional holidays such as Christmas or Easter, the authors note one potential issue that has become a part of planned Halloween festivities is what we can wear to the celebration.
Regarding costume incorrectness, Kelly and Riach remind us of the scandal that occurred in the fall of 2013. Online retailers and supermarket chains in the United Kingdom made headlines over selling costumes for adults depicting "escaped mental patients" and residents of a "psycho-ward." Costumes included straight-jackets, medical gowns splattered with apparent blood, syringes and other medical instruments were deemed insensitive to the mental health community — to both patients and caregivers.
Costume sensitivity has increased since then. Halloween revelers are advised to steer clear of anything involving weapons or blood, anything sexist, racist, or that discriminates against any group of people, or dressing as famous criminals or controversial political figures.
Avoiding the Costume Police
The best way to avoid costume confrontation is to steer clear of controversy.
Thinking through your costume ideas on the front end will prevent misinterpretation and misunderstanding of your intentions in costume selections.
Have a safe, happy, and controversy-free Halloween.
This article was originally posted in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 3,00 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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