Thursday, October 31, 2013

Boo! What's So Scary About Halloween Costumes

The following article was published at The Conversation on 31 October 2013.

As October inevitably draws grizzling about the premature appearance of mince pies and puddings on supermarket shelves, so too does it prompt laments about American cultural imperialism and consumerism.

Halloween is now a fixture in the Australian calendar. Spooky decorations and themed confectionery are a familiar sight in shopping centres and around 100,000 Halloween pumpkins are grown out of season for carving into Jack-o-Lanterns.

Halloween has its origins in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which coincided with the end of the harvest season and heralded the beginning of winter. While there are many Celtic and European traditions that precede Halloween’s commercialisation in the United States—try carving a face into turnip instead of a pumpkin, as is believed to have been the practice in Ireland— its adoption in Australia has largely followed American customs absorbed from film and television.

Groups of Australian children circulate suburban streets in costume on Daylight-Savings-lit Halloween evenings “trick-or-treating”. Their quest for sweets prompted a 30 per cent increase in confectionery sales in 2012, according to a study of Halloween’s contribution to child obesity published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Adults from Generation Y, and to a lesser extent X, are also embracing Halloween more warmly than their parents. Halloween parties and nightclub events are common.

With the growing celebration of Halloween by children and younger adults, the practice of wearing costumes has followed. If you hear knocking at your door on Halloween, you’re most likely to encounter pint-sized witches, vampires and  ghosts (the last-minute sheet with eye holes cut out).

However, in North America, and  also among the growing number of Australian adults who participate in Halloween, costumes are not necessarily tied to supernatural or “scary” characters. Costumes are just as likely to mimic iconic film and television characters, celebrities, and politicians. For instance, the most searched-for costumes this year include Miley Cyrus, Minion from Despicable Me 2, Walter White of Breaking Bad and musicians Daft Punk.

For young women, “sexy” costumes comprise a sizeable proportion of the commercially made designs available in a way that is not replicated in similarly themed costumes marketed to men.

There are “sexy” women’s versions of common costumes, including animals, pirates, devils, fairy tale characters, and military personnel. But there are also extremely objectifying women’s costumes, such as the “sexy slice of pizza”,  “sexy bucket of hot fries” and dozens of other combinations of “sexy” with types of food. By way of comparison, a male slice of pizza costume is decidedly unsexy.

There is an entire branch of racially problematic sexy costuming, notably of “geishas”, Native American, Inuit and Middle Eastern women.  The racist stereotyping across costumes for both men and women has been cleverly countered by the “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” campaign originating from students at Ohio University.

Costumes have the potential to permit  the permit the wearer to subvert ordinary social expectations. Nancy Deihl, a scholar of costume studies, points out that “Any time you’re allowed to wear a costume, you’re also allowed to engage in activities outside your normal behaviour.”

Historically, as Valerie Steele observes, women’s sexy costuming at masquerade balls from the eighteenth century onward transgressed conventional expectations of feminine propriety. Today, in the West, where girl and women are encouraged to prioritise sex appeal, sexy costumes do not readily permit the wearer to step outside the norm, but instead to remain firmly within it.

There is nothing wrong with the existence of sexy Halloween costumes for women, or with women wanting to be found attractive. (Even despite the fact that popular demands for men’s costumes rarely call for “sexiness”.)

What is problematic, however, is when the options available for women become so narrow that there is little choices to be anything else. The changing nature of girls’ Halloween costumes shows the requirement to be sexy is now transforming how girls dress up too.

In past decades, girls’ costumes were designed to recreate a particular thing or being, such as a pumpkin, cat, clown or devil. The emphasis in these same themes in modern girls’ costumes is on short dresses, stockings and even thigh-high boots that are then accessorised to faintly resemble a pumpkin, cat, clown or devil. The word “naughty” recently slipped across from the plethora of “naughty” women’s costumes to a Walmart “Naughty Leopard” costume intended for toddlers.

As Halloween gradually weaves itself into Australian culture, commercially made costumes are also finding their way on to our shop shelves. While cultural differences mean that we’re not likely to see the racism of “sexy squaw” costumes or a local equivalent gain acceptance, it is hard to imagine that the overwhelming trend of sexy women’s costumes won’t also be imported, along with the inedible pumpkins.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Miley Cyrus, Sinéad O’Connor and the future of feminism

This article was published at The Conversation on 8 October 2013.
Since her tongue-poking and “twerk”-filled performance at the American Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus has been the subject of intense media discussion. This has only magnified in the past week, after Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor wrote an open letter to Cyrus, imploring her to “refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you".
Cyrus did not react well to being chided by one of her idols andher tweets in response have provoked two further open letters by O’Connor. Fellow musician Amanda Palmer has appointed herself as intergenerational umpire, offering an open letter to O’Connor in which she maintains that Cyrus has orchestrated her own plan to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot".
Some people have been left wondering why one young, white American female pop singer is generating this much attention. Certainly, Madonna deliberately pushed the boundaries with controversial video clips and an erotic photo book, Sex, before Billy Ray Cyrus’s “achy breaky heart” had even settled on Miley’s mother, Leticia.
One of the tensions driving the international debate about Cyrus is the now-entrenched difference between second- and third-wave feminisms. In 1963, prominent feminist activist Gloria Steinem went undercover to work as a Playboy Bunny. The resulting exposé of the harmful aspects of women’s work in the New York club exemplified how feminists once largely agreed that there were exploitative practices inherent in women’s employment in industries connected with sex.
The movement fractured as some women came to disagree with views of pornography and sex work as oppressive. From the 1990s, third-wave feminist rhetoric about “choice” has challenged the idea that stripping, pole dancing, or posing naked are enforced by a male-led – or patriarchal – society.
Michaele L. Ferguson, a political scientist, explains that “choice feminists” see anything a woman says she has chosen to do as “an expression of her liberation". It does not matter whether a woman elects to run for parliament or to ride naked on a wrecking ball — as does Cyrus in her video for her most recent single — as a woman cannot freely choose to be oppressed.
Third-wave – or choice – feminists have been critical of O’Connor’s initial letter. They have suggested that it exhibits“slut-shaming”, which refers to the denigration of women who transgress sexual expectations for their gender. Like Amanda Palmer, third-wave opinions contend that O’Connor denies Cyrus’s “agency” or control over her career. Finally, they also criticise what they see as O’Connor’s misguided assumption that she can judge what is and what is not “empowering” for another woman.
In contrast, women who uphold second-wave feminist ideals haveexpressed admiration for the way in which O’Connor’s letter draws on her own experience as a successful female musician to caution against the workings of male-controlled music industry that markets sex appeal. This week, former Eurthymics singer Annie Lennox has also highlighted the impact on young girls of an industry “peddling highly styled pornography with musical accompaniment".

Second-wave responses also agree with O’Connor’s questioning of the long-term effects of Cyrus’s “choice” to cultivate a highly sexual persona. O’Connor emphasised that at 46 years old, she has not found herself “on the proverbial rag heap” as do many middle-aged female artists “who have based their image around their sexuality". Shaping a career around sexual desirability in a culture that fetishises the appeal of young women means accepting a built-in expiry date.
The third-wave perspective that lauds Cyrus’s choice to be a “raging, naked, twerking sex-pot” rests on the problematic idea that gender equality has been achieved and that women are already fully liberated. Can we really say that the career choices available to female musicians are equivalent or comparable to those available to male musicians?
In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, American journalist Ariel Levy proposes that women’s “choices” to express their sexuality through exhibiting their bodies for men are created by selling them an extremely limited model of sexuality in the guise of sexual liberation. Levy’s view is approximated by O’Connor’s plea to Cyrus:
They [the music industry] will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its [sic] what YOU wanted.
Third-wave feminists would argue that O’Connor’s statement suggests Cyrus possesses a false consciousness. Cyrus only thinks she wants to lick sledgehammers and simulate masturbation with a foam finger because she has internalised patriarchal ideas about women. However, a second-wave orientation would counter that it’s impossible to talk about free choices in a world where gender inequality persists and women’s options are overtly and unwittingly constrained.
A war of words among privileged entertainers seems a trivial story in comparison with the major political and social upheavals of the present moment. Nevertheless, the stoush between Cyrus and O’Connor attracts page views, not only because of our thirst for gossip. We are also interested in this debate because we remain uncertain about the rights and freedoms of women and how best to foster them.