Taking back “Slut-o-ween”

The New York Times puts the "trick" in "trick or treat" -- for the second time this week!

Topics: Broadsheet, The New York Times, Love and Sex,

In a naked bid for a traffic boost this week, the New York Times online followed its Monday opinion piece on slutty Halloween costumes with … a Thursday Styles piece on slutty Halloween costumes with photos of slutty Halloween costumes. The costumes pictured include an umpire in short skirt and pigtails, a witch in a bustier and garter belt, a devil in what appears to be a diminutive red pleather romper and some kind of Little ‘Ho Peep getup — all modeled by a slender, buxom blond. One photo’s caption reads “Post-post-feminism?” and another, not so subtly, reads “Tricks.” No surprise, “Good Girls Go Bad, for a Day” is currently holding court at the top of the Times’ “Most E-mailed” list. Badass Broadsheet readers from far and wide sent us the link to the piece, poking fun at the gallery of Maxim photos dressed up as cultural criticism.

The not-so-new bulletin here is that costumes for women and girls of all ages tend to be revealingly clad caricatures of stereotypical male sexual fantasies. But while the practice may not be new, its pervasiveness is. The piece notes that costume manufacturers no longer really make costumes for women and girls that aren’t sexy in some way. And while research has found that costumes for young girls were always gendered — girls in previous generations tended to be cupcakes while boys dressed as computers, say — nowadays “the girls’ costumes are designed in ways that create the semblance of a bust where there is none.” Just what you want for your 6-year-old.

The piece does do some legitimate delving into the whys and hows of the trend. Dressing up as a sexy version of a fairy-tale character can be a way of riffing on society’s implied lessons about femininity — Pat Gill, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells the Times that dressing as a sexy version of a fairy-tale character or other archetype “can be a way to embrace the fictional characters women loved as children while simultaneously taking a swipe at them.” Deborah Tolman, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University, adds that “it is possible some women are using Halloween as a ‘safe space,’ a time to play with sexuality. By taking it over the top,” she told the Times, they “make fun of this bill of goods that’s being sold to them. Hey, if we can claim Halloween as a safe space to question these images being sold to us, I think that’s a great idea,” she said.

The problem, experts say, is that it’s hard to separate ironic reclaiming from unthinking collusion in a sexist tradition. “I love to imagine that there’s some real social message, that it’s sort of the female equivalent of doing drag,” sociology professor Adie Nelson told the Times, “but I don’t think it’s necessarily so well thought out.” And the tradition of women dressing almost exclusively as sexual fantasies, while men around them dress as diverse icons from vampires to Dick Cheney to the Beastie Boys, highlights our culture’s message that women are sexual beings first and members of society second.

So while we don’t want to knock women for playing around with sexuality and gender roles, it would be nice to broaden the spectrum a little with some more clever costume ideas. To that end: Have you seen any great costumes in recent years? Thought of a fun way to turn convention on its head this year? Or are there any fun ways men can play with sexuality and gender roles on Oct. 31? Share your thoughts on how we can take back Slut-o-ween and make it a more equal-opportunity holiday — your devoted Broadsheet writers are dying for suggestions.

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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