Monday, September 23, 2013

That Time of Year- Halloween Costumes = Racism, Sexism, and Discourses of Oppression in Marketing Strategies

The eversodelightful George Takei* posted the following image  in his Facebook page this morning. 

At first, yeah, ouch, that's cold, right? 

Okay, well, I think before I was even done processing that initial reaction, I was already onto the overanalysis portion. So hold onto your butts and prepare yourselves for what's to come. 

Look at it again. There are three boys, dressed as superheroes. And a girl dressed as...

Annie. Or, rather, Little Orphan Annie.

So let's deconstruct  this a little.

Because sure, all four characters are orphans (hence the joke in the picture). But which is defined more by their orphan status than any of their actions? The girl.

And in their individual stories, who does the rescuing? The male characters are the saviors in their narratives. They're superHEROES, aren't they? They have angst and conflict, but they win, and they do the fighting. They beat the baddies themselves- sometimes with help, yeah, but still, direct confrontation between the main protagonist and the badddies in these narratives ultimately leads to the badddies getting beaten and the goodies coming out victorious.

In Annie's narrative,  sure, she's the protagonist, and she demonstrates a lot of strength and optimism in the face of a lot of terrible things. But she's not really the hero of her story (let's focus on the musical, since that's more familiar)- that could either be FDR and the Secret Service members that inform her and Warbucks that the people claiming to be her parents are impostors (by sweeping in at the end like a deus ex machina),  or even Daddy Warbucks himself, since he adopts her and gives her the family of which she dreamed. She gets what she wants in the end, but it's circumstantial and because other people give it to her. She has little to no agency the entire time.

So this speaks to a dialectic between fiction in general and comics specifically. While they exist, examples of well-rounded fictional female characters that are agents within their stories are of a far lower number than males with the same characteristics. Books, movies, TV- females that are the ones doing the doing and aren't focused  on some arbitrary Thing (or some traditionally feminine Thing like having babies or finding a man) are few and far between.

And then there are comics, where it's even  more difficult to find female characters that aren't used as the plot device for males or aren't objectified. I've said before that I'm struggling to write a piece about DC specifically, but really, while say Marvel is better, and Dark  Horse is even better than Marvel, overall, women and girls are still more often than not side characters that drive men's stories in comics, or their stories revolve around and are dependent on the actions of male side characters. And yes, they often die.

Women are too frequently brushed to the side in comics and superhero movies and merchandizing. Joss Whedon notes it, and it pisses  him off- which is pretty telling  and important, since  he's in charge of the Avengers films and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, even a five-year-old girl notices it (and  actually, so does Joss's daughter, heh). It's like girls aren't expected to care or want to be heroes- they're just supposed to be rescued. Or be pink princesses

And then we get into the costume industry itself. Starting with  children, doing Google image searches with various forms of "child" along with "Halloween costume" bring up results that are usually pretty much the same. Here's the result for "child halloween costume." As you can see, the vast majority of the results are pictures of white children. There are a few children of color (gonna go with CoC from here on out for efficiency's sake), but notice how a lot of them are of characters specifically of color already (like friggin' Dora the Explorer, or Princess Tiana). A few generic ones have CoC, but they're very few and very far between. 

So while sure, the picture posted by Takei may be about "my kids," so one  would expect some similar physical characteristics among the younguns (although why be so traditionalist? What if the family adopted???), the fact remains that it is a photoshopped image of four separate children's costumes- and yes, all of them are white.

Think  I'm being hyperbolic? I wish  I was. Here are the Google  Image searches  for "Batman" with  "children costume," too. "Wonder Woman." "Superman." "Princess." "Prince." Y
eah, there are a few CoC in each, but  the fact that they stand out so much drives the point  home, rather than refutes it- they're the exceptions proving the rule. 

It's that time of year- go to the nearest Halloween store, or just hit the costume section at your nearest Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Shopko, etc. Divide the number of images of CoC by the total number of images of becostumed  younguns. I bet it'll be a single-digit number. Hell, it's prolly under five.

And then, while you're at it, head on over to the adult section. While this very easily could become entirely about the sexxed up stuff (which has lots of gender issues- the more "mature" costumes for dudes are funny, like  these- many of which are also insulting to women because they're cross-dressed in some way, which is in itself supposed to be a joke- while the "mature" ones for women are excuses to show T&A, like  this example, or just a GI search for "women costume  halloween"), just do a ratio of white-to-non-white and  see what happens.  I suspect it's prolly a little better than for the kids, but not by much.

And  then you get this shit  here. Adrienne at Native Appropriations has  written extensively on why this is absolutely not okay.  But let me  put in my own words why it's not okay for white people to dress up as Native Americans for Halloween.

A white person in a "Native American" costume  is dressed up as a stereotyped version of the peoples their ancestors raped, murdered, and stole land from in order for them to eventually have said costume in the first place. It's entirely colonialist and insensitive- and, frankly, kind of sick. Who are they, Norman  Bates? Do they feel the need to dress up like their victims in order to feel at peace? Well golly, Bob, howdy, I'm so sorry you feel bad about the history of violence between your ancestors and my own... Not. A legit way to feel better wouldn't involve further exploitation.

Tribute?  Bullshit. A tribute would be a real official apology from the government and some actual assistance in building some gorram infrastructure. It does not honor me when a white suburbanite dons feathers and a tomahawk and goes, "BOBOBOBOBOBOBO!" while drunk at a party. There's no reverence in that.

And also,  the costumes just say shit like "Native American." Generic, stereotypical iconography, and lumping everyone together in one huge amorphous hodgepodge. Never mind that every individual indigenous Nation has its own culture. The fact that you can get "Native American Princess" costumes today, in the fucking TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY demonstrates how white people are willfully ignorant of the diversityof indigenous cultures and are more concerned about projecting  their own values onto indigenous ones, rather than actually honoring them. Newsflash: THERE WERE NOT, NOR ARE THERE, NATIVE AMERICAN PRINCESSES OR PRINCES. Hierarchies of power and social capital, absolutely. But the concept of "royalty" wasn't a thing for North American  indigenous peoples. Hereditary titles sometimes, maybe, but those titles didn't work  in the same way as the titles people from colonial countries and kingdomes did (and yeah, a few that still do). 

So what's my point?

Well, it's that the Halloween/costume industry  is both a reflection and reinforcer of current discourses of sexism and racism in society  today, be they literary, specifically comic-book-oriented, or generally hitting at the (white) cultural zeitgeist in the U.S. That picture of those kids proves it. 

*And OHMYGOD, please say it right- it's "Tah-KAY," not, "Tah-KYE," people- it's Japanese, and would need an "ai" at the end instead of an "ei" to be pronounced the way you think it is. This is one of those tiny pet peeves of mine that irks me far more than is necessary, but I cannot STAND it when someone  says  his  name incorrectly. Prolly because 1) I took Japanese in high school, 2) it speaks to a larger discourse of ignorance of different cultures, and 3) I'm used to getting my own name mispronounced all the bloody time, so I take it personal for other people when theirs are said incorrectly.  

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