From Mean Girls to Frida Kahlo – a Feminist Discourse on Halloween

Direct from the college campus, guest blogger Emily Sannini describes the dangerous and unfair attitudes towards girls’ Halloween costumes, and the best way that you can have an awesome, feminist Halloween.

When Simone Marean, GLI’s Executive Director, came to me with the topic of being a feminist on Halloween, this instantly popped into my head:

…and I bet it popped into yours too. This infamous scene from Tina Fey’s genius movie Mean Girls sums up what a lot of girls feel is expected of them on Halloween. In case you’re somewhere where you can’t watch the video (like a college campus with 0 bandwidth at peak internet hours…like me….), here’s the choice quote:

“In the real world, Halloween is when children dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In girl world, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut, and no other girls can say anything about it. The hardcore girls just wear lingerie and some form of animal ears.” -Mean Girls

This seems to be the pervasive attitude on Halloween here in “girl world” – that this will be the one and only night when it is ok, and expected of you, to dress provocatively.

There’s a lot to deal with here, but let’s start with what this sentiment says about the other 364 days a year when, apparently, girls aren’t “allowed” to dress in skimpy outfits. Who’s giving us this permission on October 31st? And why don’t girls feel like they have full agency in what they wear on any given night? In a perfect world, girls should express themselves how they like without fear of negative social repercussions. The pressures of Halloween go beyond possibly forcing girls into some rather ridiculous costumes; it’s symptomatic of the larger trends about what’s acceptable to wear at a party, and the pushback we might get when we don’t “follow the rules.”

The Mean Girls clip also suggests that every girl in the world has a secret desire to dress incredibly provocatively, but that they’re not comfortable acting on this desire any other day of the year. In a society where we closely associate dress with sexual promiscuity, this is a dangerous notion. It’s unfair and incorrect to paint all girls, and women, as people who are secretly more promiscuous than they communicate. This attitude lends itself to the destructive idea that a girl is “asking for it” when her boundaries are violated.

We also need to be wary of getting into the territory of slut shaming when we’re talking about costumes on Halloween. By slut shaming, I mean harassing or making girls feel embarrassed because of the choices they make in their sex life. According to Mean Girls, this is the one night out of the year when girls get a free pass from being called a slut. But how untrue is that when we’re describing our costumes with that very word? Tons of girls describe their costume as a “slutty ____,” and what’s more problematic is girls judging each other’s  values, worth, or sexuality based on that costume. We need to respect our fellow girls’ choices on Halloween, and every other day of the year, and have an honest conversation about social life and expectations without descending into offensive, destructive name-calling.

Still, when we’re talking about a feminist conception of Halloween, there’s plenty to critique. The idea that girls wear something revealing and call it sexy on Halloween is symptomatic of a skewed set of expectations facing girls every night that they go out. And for whom are we doing all this dress-up? When it comes to going out, guys do more of the agenda setting with girls’ outfits than girls, and that’s not fair. GLI girls know that being authentic means deciding how to present yourself on your own terms. Not on the terms of boys, not on the terms of other girls, and not on the terms of the party you’re going to.

And you know what else? Limiting girls to just wearing ‘sexy’ outfits on Halloween makes for a pretty boring assortment of costumes. So, if you’re feeling pressure to wear…well…very little on Halloween, but don’t want to go in that direction, here are some alternative ideas:

1.     Be funny. Everybody appreciates a weird, quirky costume that’s a pun, or that’ll make people laugh. One year, I dressed as a remote control stuck in the couch by sticking numbers onto a black tracksuit and wearing a sandwich board made of couch cushions. Silly costumes are a way to show your sense of humor and your creativity.

2.     Do something that’s totally you. Dress as your favorite poet, president, TV character, singer, or historical feminist (you know you’ve always wanted to break out that Emily Dickinson dress). Your friends will love it, and new friends will find out something interesting about you right off the bat.

3.     Go in a group. Last year, I had a friend who managed to get 10 people, boys and girls, to dress as Frida Kahlo and have a big party.  Group costumes are a way to assure that you’ll spend time with people you respect, and who respect you.

It’s corny, but true: the best way to have an awesome, feminist Halloween is to be authentically you. Let your costume reflect who you are, have a great time with your friends, and don’t let the haters get you down. Brush off any hateful comments if your costume isn’t sexy enough, and just do you.

That’s how you have fun any night of the week.

  1. Norwegian girl

    I use the holiday to dress up as something I or other people fear. Last year I was the bearded lady, I put on glue and cut of hair. Everybody I met got scared. What you are talking about is a society that like girls to be dressed as good girls, behave as good girls and have Halloween as an excuse to show some attitude. And being both sexy and a good girl is the currency for US woman. I hope you will find a way to not let other people judge you, and my advice is to stop judging others. Then the hole sphere disappear and we can focus on what is fun.

  2. Anonymous

    I couldn’t agree with you more! This blog is awesome! It is very depressing that we live in a world where we are judged and perceived based on what we wear. Like showing a bit too much skin automatically means were “asking for it”… Yet when hiding too much skin you’re perceived as “prude”… It’s such a conflict! Why can’t we just wear what we want without the repercussions of nasty mislabels?

  3. Kailee

    This is an awesome article!


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