This time of year brings with it a slow reminder that Halloween is coming. Spirit Halloween signs begin to appear advertising employment opportunities for the multitude of pop-up shops set to open in usually barren buildings. I try my best to avoid these shops because there’s still immensely problematic costumes being sold at said shops that I would gladly use to make a fall bonfire.
Halloween has become one of my favorite festivities throughout the years, during one of my favorite seasons of the year. A day where anyone can transform into whatever they want is pretty cool…up until the racist, offensive, and appropriative costumes come out of the woodwork. The one aspect of this upcoming Halloween that’s different from prior years is that this will be the first in the era of 45. With the increase in racial tension, racism, and xenophobia, one questions if the Halloween costume industry, with its already problematic past in appropriating and offending cultures and people of color, will have an even worse selection this year.
Problematic costumes have existed for decades, even centuries, but in order to consider what possible costumes are to come, reflecting on the ones that have graced the public eye over the last couple of years is crucial. Celebrities and the general public both have donned some of the most unbelievable costumes and dared to walk out of their doors. One cannot erase the Crazy Eyes (from Orange is the New Black) costume that Julianne Hough wore back in 2013, or Heidi Klum’s Hindu Goddess Kali costume from 2009 (amongst others since Klum is infamously known for not only her Halloween party but the offensive costumes she wears.) We also can’t forget the time in 2005 when Prince Harry was caught in a Nazi costume (how relevant to the current times). These are only a few of the costumes that public figures have worn knowing they are in the public eye. There have been thousands of instances where people would put on blackface, brownface, or even yellowface in order to “pull together” a costume. At this point, I can’t help but wonder what made that act even remotely close to a good idea in people’s minds. Terrorists, “illegal aliens”, geishas, and most costumes that have “sexy” written before the name of the person or character the costume is trying to portray have still taken over the many pop-up costume shops and have probably become top sellers over time, maybe even more so now.
Why haven’t we received better and more inclusive responses from the costume industry?
It’s no surprise that major costume retailers like Party City, Halloween Adventure, and Spirit Halloween haven’t made an official response to those who have protested against the sale of these costumes in the past. Only recently did Spirit Halloween give an insensitive and naive response to the backlash over a Border Patrol costume they sell, stating that the costume “carries similar sentiments akin to that of a police officer, military costumes, firefighter, doctor and more.” But, in a time where more people are being called out by people of color for appropriating cultures, why haven’t we received better and more inclusive responses from the industry or any sign of moral growth? The costume industry doesn’t have a history or reputation for being righteous in this way, and even after decades of sales, it doesn’t seem like that’ll change anytime soon. There have, however, been forces that have attempted to change this.
Over the years, there have been campaigns and movements created by individuals and organizations throughout the country that have attempted to bring awareness to costumes that portray real people as characters. In 2011, a group of Ohio University students launched “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume,” which was a campaign determined to create a discussion around getting rid of the stereotypes and racism portrayed in offensive costumes.
“During Halloween, we see offensive costumes. We don’t like it, we don’t appreciate it” Sarah Williams, President of the Students Teaching About Racism in Society group (STARS) at the time, told CNN. “We wanted to do a campaign about it saying ‘Hey, think about this. It’s offensive.’” The campaign included posters that showed people of color holding pictures of individuals wearing costumes that were offensive to the ethnicity and culture of the person holding the photo. The campaign gained full support from Ryan Lombardi, Dean of Students at Ohio University, with him stating that the campaign is “a clean way of raising awareness of how the costumes you choose might be offensive. In many cases, students aren’t doing it maliciously, but they might not realize the consequences of their action on others.”
It wouldn’t shock me to see people throw out their inhibitions of dressing up as, say, an “illegal alien” because 45 is in office.
DoSomething.org’s “1 Star for Hate” campaign was another attempt at deterring people from wearing offensive costumes but aimed more towards the variety of costumes that Amazon carries on their site. The campaign, which launched in 2015, encouraged people to leave 1-star reviews on offensive costumes on the site as well as a comment, with the campaign even providing this amazing text to paste: “I thought wearing this costume would boil an entire culture down to a racist stereotype. And I was right! Turns out, I was representing the culture in a super inaccurate and unflattering way! We want this costume taken down!”
These campaigns, in addition to colleges and universities setting regulations and standards on what costumes one shouldn’t wear, have attempted to diminish the unfortunately persistent trend of people purchasing and wearing offensive costumes. But it’s hard to measure whether the campaigns and changes schools have made have reduced the widespread behavior. More and more people have openly called out celebrities that have worn horrendously offensive costumes. They’re likely to do the same for people within or even outside of their circle of friends. However, it wouldn’t shock me to see people throw out their inhibitions of dressing up as, say, an “illegal alien” because 45 is in office. This is likely the case. People have become emboldened by the election of the equivalent of a Cheeto and are apt to show America’s racist colors now more than ever. The increase in racism and xenophobia over the past couple of months are clear signs that the progress these campaigns and schools have made will, unfortunately, regress because of the charged mindsets of those who side with the current president, which results in the continued stereotyping and ridiculing of PoC and other cultures.
If the costume industry addressed the complaints and actually made changes to the costumes they sell, they would lose out on millions of dollars. That’s something they clearly care more about than the PoC who feel ridiculed. According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, U.S. consumers spent $3.1 billion on costumes in 2016. I think that the loss of this portion of those sales would be devastating to the industry.
Costumes depicting stereotypical versions of PoC have been around for centuries, with blackface being the most infamous.
As much as people want to deny it and claim that costumes are festive and meant to poke fun, the costumes are degrading. Costumes depicting stereotypical versions of PoC have been around for centuries, with blackface being the most infamous. Minstrelsy and minstrel shows are a part of the dark but true history of blackface and continue to show up in today’s culture; not only during Halloween but in many other instances throughout the year. Redface, which has a similar dislike and shameful history during Halloween, also has its shameful spot in the film industry and in sports. Over the past 10+ months since the U.S. presidential election, 45 has sided and encouraged this discrimination. He made it the heart of his campaign. Most of what was seen in the news months after the election were reports of multiple verbal and physical attacks on PoC. The costume industry will undoubtedly use this opportunity to capitalize on this hatred.
After years of campaigns, movements, and protests, it’s clear that the costume industry isn’t budging. However, there are still opportunities for them to make changes in order to consider the perspectives, cultures, and experiences of PoC. The ideal solution would be if one costume manufacturer sets up a plan to remove costumes that stereotypically represent people, especially PoC. There’s no doubt that millions of positive responses will come of this, and once they do, other manufacturers will likely follow suit. Any other possible solutions that entail only eliminating a portion of these costumes are not true solutions because the costume industry will continue to utilize the fact that there’s always going to be people who will buy the crap out of these offensive costumes and will call them “fun” or “just a joke.” All of these costumes need to be eliminated in order to trigger positive change in this industry, but there’s a chance that this year will end up like the last: with more of these costumes and fewer signs of change. Unfortunately, there will always be places where people will gladly buy problematic costumes and will likely complain when they are no longer available to them because these places still have thriving racism and xenophobia, and the costume industry is using this to their advantage.
With the horrible and even enlightening times, we’re currently in, there will definitely be some people who will make sure this hatred that’s been brought to light after 45 was elected will spill into the already murky pool that is Halloween and it’s racist and hurtful past. There are multiple signs that Halloween will be worse this year, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to push for change in the costume industry, including those affected by the offensive and appropriative costumes, as well as people who’ve worn said costumes or refused to call out any of their folks for wearing them. The current U.S. climate shouldn’t have to be the only reason that a stop to production of these costumes should happen now, but this change is severely long overdue.