A bizarre thing about Hallowe’en is that we seem to feel like donning costumes absolves us of many of the expectations society has of our regular, unmasked selves. This can be a positive, liberating thing – costumes are the next best thing to the internet when you want to feel anonymous! But there are also a great many…less desirable side effects. Remember when Julianne Hough went in blackface to a costume party a couple of years ago? I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she knows blackface is not acceptable in her daily life, but for some reason, it did not logically follow that it might be something of a faux pas on the 31st of October as well.
I remember reading about that story for the first time and wondering to myself how anyone could have greenlit literal blackface. But when you look at some of the other costumes that are available for sale at Hallowe’en, you get the sinking feeling that Julianne Hough is not the only one who doesn’t realise that costume parties don’t take place in an alternate reality where it’s still the 1950s. I did three Google searches: “halloween costumes for kids”, “halloween costumes for girls” and “halloween costumes for adults”, and the horrors I’m about to show you were honest-to-goodness first page results under the Shopping tab.
Enjoy. Or…don’t. You probably won’t. I certainly didn’t.
We’re starting off strong with this eclectic mix of appropriative elements from all over the Middle East and North Africa. I can’t decide what offends me more: the fact that this costume looks like a white man’s fantasy of a harem girl, or the fact that a costume for young girls – not women, girls – features a bare midriff and supportive bust. Leaving aside the sexualisation of pre-teens for another time, this is pretty bad. The ad copy on the site reads: “[…] She’ll be the one with the secrets and the powers this Halloween. But whose wishes will she choose to grant? This costume provides absolutely everything a little girl could want in order to feel like that mysterious spirit dwelling in the lamp […]” because as we know, ambiguously Arab women exist to grant wishes and look mysterious.
By the way, “genie” is a corruption of “djinni”, spirits created of smokeless fire who are said to have their own societies in a reality overlapping the human one, but mostly inaccessible to humans. I only wish this costume were banished somewhere equally inaccessible.
2. “Fun World Girls Egyptian Queen Halloween Costume”
Contrary to their depictions in popular media, Ancient Egyptians were not chalky white like Liz Taylor or vaguely tanned like characters in a Ridley Scott movie. Ancient Egyptians were varying shades of brown and black and had facial features that wouldn’t look out of place in modern day North Africa but would make the audiences of lowest common denominator costume porn blockbusters feel very uncomfortable for some reason. Continuing in the tradition of “a tan is totally the same as dark skin” is this costume, which combines all the offensiveness of white people drunkenly doing the “Walking Like an Egyptian” dance with all the inappropriateness of sheer skirts on pre-pubescent girls. Not only that, but the tacky blue chiffon dangling from the unfortunate model’s arms doesn’t even match the rest of the outfit. Talk about adding insult to injury. Did they salvage those sad sleeves from the Genie Child Costume designer’s scrap bin?
3. “Day of the Dead Child Costume”
It needs to be stated for the record that despite what you’ve probably heard at least one drunk sorority sister say, Dia de los Muertos is not “Mexican Hallowe’en”. I am not an indigenous Mexican person, or even any kind of Mexican person, so I don’t feel comfortable trying to explain the true meaning of the festival, but I found this five page article that lays things out pretty nicely. Suffice it to say that there is nothing about this travesty that isn’t offensive, from the face paint to the cartoonish sugar bones and a skirt that looks like it might have been rejected from a similarly racist Carnevale costume.
4. “Indian Boy Toddler Costume”
Dressing your toddler up for Hallowe’en is kind of like throwing a one-year-old a birthday party: the child doesn’t know what’s going on and won’t remember any of it later, but it’s an excuse for parents to take a lot of pictures and subtly brag to other adults about how great they are at parenting. This costume (which will give your “tiny tot a chance to take a trip back in time [to] the days when America was untamed land”, per the ad copy) is going to end up on some overbearing parent’s Facebook page this Hallowe’en weekend. We can only hope their friends treat the purchase of a matching “Indian Tomahawk Axe” and “Indian Feather Harvest Headband” with the contempt such decisions truly deserve.
5. “Wanna Nookie Costume”
Dearly beloveds, this is the one that broke me. I’m at a loss for funny things to say about this monstrosity, so I’ll just quote from the product description instead:
“Be an island broad with all kinds of charm. The Wanna Nookie Costume grants you two tickets to paradise that include one doozy of a babe to warm you when the ocean breeze sets in. The ample bodysuit adds girth to your physique and loads of character, turning an otherwise lackluster Tiki party into a knee-slapping good time. Spruce up this already hysterical costume by adding a wig and some floral leis to the ensemble. All you will have to do is sit back, relax, sip a Mai Tai (or three) and allow everyone to bask in all of your beach inspired glory. Mahalo.
This costume, which manages to combine racism, fatphobia and what I think is meant to be transmisogyny into one horrifying package, perfectly exemplifies why appropriative Hallowe’en costumes are not just insulting, but actively harmful. The ridiculing of Hawaiian culture, language, dress, names and even Hawaiian bodies is a mean-spirited mockery at best and a deliberately racist caricature at worst. There is no way that this costume isn’t offensive, and the makers of the costume knew that, which is why they gave it the purposefully mocking name of “Wanna Nookie” (a phrase which is making me wince each time I’m forced to type it).
But the best part is that the “you may also like” section features a “Ride a Camel” costume, which does for Arab men what “Wanna Nookie” does for Hawaiian women. This isn’t just a one-off: it’s an industry based on the routine humiliation and derision of anyone browner than the white actors hired by Hollywood to play brown people in Oscar-bait films. The reason these costumes are billed as “hysterical” is that the people who buy them think it’s funny to laugh at people whose names and cultures are different from theirs. The reason they’re “mysterious” and “exotic” is that brown people and their cultures are little more than one big old curiosity shop to white tourists who want a cheap thrill.
This Hallowe’en, I’m planning to go in costume as a person who doesn’t wear costumes, not because I really have anything against dressing up (I don’t), but because I would rather not be in any way associated with the kinds of people who dress their babies as parodies of the people their ancestors genocided. There’s something really unsettling about that: “we did our level best to exterminate you, and now we’re wearing your skin to a costume party!” Other cultures are not costumes. Every one of the cultural and historical practices lampooned in these costumes (which, by the way, were only five of dozens that I found over the course of my two minute search) has real meaning to real people, past and present. As a Muslim, I truly believe in the existence of djinn, and while I loved Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin, I’m less in love with dressing pre-teen girls in discount belly dance costumes and calling it “mysterious”. I mean, do we really need to tell people that even on Hallowe’en, blackface and brownface and yellowface and redface are still very much not okay?
I don’t get white people. I don’t get why Julianne Hough thought it was okay to paint herself brown because she loved a show on Netflix, or why people who swear they’re not racist think it’s okay to paint their children’s faces with dots and call it “Mexican Hallowe’en”. I don’t get why I had to write this article, or why dozens of people before me had to write similar ones. I don’t get why people think putting on fancy dress makes them less accountable to those of us whose cultures and beliefs they’ve turned into cheap pageantry. I don’t get why we’ve decided to devote a holiday to that.
Happy Hallowe’en and all, but I think I’m gonna stick with plain clothes for this one.