Killing Sexy Halloween: The Ethical and Practical Complications

Why adults have so much trouble convincing girls not to wear revealing costumes

AP Images

Sexy referee. Sexy tiger. Sexy hamburger. Every year, Halloween costume companies offer women a host of skimpy outfits to wear on October 31st. And every year, a lot of people—concerned parents, writers at the New York Times and CNN, cable talking heads—try to convince women, especially young women, not to buy them.

"There's always the mommy bloggers who get really angry, and then there's people like me who get really angry," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes and an expert on adolescent sexuality and self-esteem. But, Wiseman admits, the complaining about sexy Halloween ends with "limited success." Young women keep buying, and wearing, suggestive costumes.

That's probably because most of the anxiety about the sexualization of Halloween comes from adults—the very people teenagers are inclined to ignore. If sexy Halloween is going to die, girls themselves will have to kill it.

Perhaps the most persistent argument that adults make against sexy Halloween is that women in revealing costumes are asking for trouble. The idea that wearing an abbreviated costume makes a woman a target of unwanted sexual attention from men is repeated endlessly in columns and on blogs. "Dressing girls like grown women for Halloween communicates that they have the sexuality of adults, in the bodies of children," a sociologist told CNN in a recent article. "A girl dressing up as a sexy nurse will only prompt men to ask her when she starts giving out sponge baths," a Tulane student warned her classmates in the campus newspaper last year.

But there's also been a more subversive attack on sexy Halloween, where humor is the primary weapon. It basically says, "Look how ridiculous it is that girls dress so sexy on Halloween!"

It's a point that first surfaced in pop culture, rather than in op-eds, in a short scene from the 2004 film Mean Girls (which used Wiseman's book as its inspiration). The new girl in high school experiences her first American Halloween and learns for the first time the holiday's unwritten rule: "Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut, and no other girl can say anything about it." Cue a montage of girls in lingerie claiming to be bunnies and mice:

There's no danger in this scene—no girls getting ogled or exploited for wearing sexy clothes. Instead, the movie makes fun of these girls, exposing them as vapid and vain, yes, but not asking to be harassed.

The sitcom Modern Family also had a mini plotline a few years back making fun of high school girls' fixation on being sexy on Halloween. Dimwitted mean girl Haley Dunphy goes through a series of costumes, each one more preposterous than the last: sexy black cat, then sexy nurse, and then, finally sexy Mother Teresa ("I'm her back when she was hot!"):

The silliness of sexy Halloween has gained so much traction that costume companies have started capitalizing on it. Tongue-in-cheek sexy costumes available for purchase include sexy watermelon slice, sexy Chinese takeout box, and (thank you, presidential debates) sexy Big Bird.

Does humor actually diffuse the more unsavory aspects of sexy Halloween? Deborah Tollman, founder of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality told the New York Times that sending up sexy Halloween can be empowering for women because it allows them to "make fun of this bill of goods that's being sold to them."

Wiseman is less sanguine on the potential for using humor to subdue sexy Halloween. To her, silly costumes like sexy watermelon slice simply prove that "we can take anything and make it sexy."

There are, of course, people who think there's nothing wrong with sexy Halloween in the first place. In a 2009 column for The Stranger, Dan Savage called Halloween straight people's answer to a pride parade—and encouraged heterosexuals to embrace the chance to flaunt their sexuality:

People I know to be reliably pro-pleasure lefties—people who are all for recreational sex and legal drugs and strap-on dildos—sound like religious conservatives when Halloween rolls around. A children's holiday has been transformed into an opportunity for stupid straight people to dress up in revealing outfits and make sex-crazed spectacles of themselves in public. And isn't that just sad? Nope. It's awesome—and long overdue.

A female contributor to the feminist website Feministing made a similar argument that year: "What's wrong with having a night where we can say 'This is my body, and I'm not ashamed of it, or of using it to express my sexuality.' In fact, the only about that that seems wrong to me is the fact that it's limited to one day, when the other 364 days of the year turn that idea on its head."

The only problem with these defenses of sexy Halloween is that they don't work with girls and teenagers. Sure, grown women can use Halloween as an excuse to put on the corset or tight dress they'd be too embarrassed to wear the rest of the year. But youth should be a time when girls don't have to express their sexuality. As one mother put it in a CNN article, "Dressing up as a sexpot is not part of my vision for a happy, healthy childhood."

So if fear, humor, and acceptance are all ineffective ways for girls and their parents to respond to the sexy Halloween trend, what's left? Anger, says Wiseman. The answer is to get girls themselves—not their mothers, or their teachers, or any of the other well-meaning adults in their lives—mad.

"I always want kids to get angry at adults who don't merit their respect," she said. "I don't think adults who create these [costumes] and then market them to kids deserve children's respect. I think they deserve the children's anger."

When Wiseman talks to girls about Halloween, she says she tries to get them to realize, "I'm impressionable. I'm a 12-year-old girl. And you're deliberately marketing these things to me so I feel insecure and feel that I have to be this way in order to be a beautiful girl." Harnessing adolescents' already-existing suspicion of adult authority figures is really the only way to kill sexy Halloween, according to Wiseman.

It's looking good for the teen-fueled protest against sexy costumes. Julia Bluhm, the 14-year-old who successfully petitioned Seventeen to reduce the use of Photoshop on photos of models featured in the magazine, has recently set her sights on Halloween. Earlier this month she posted what she called "A Halloween rhyme (and a call to action!)," which included the lines, "For the girls who don't want to be Monster High, The selection is sadly and disappointingly dry ... When did Halloween become a sexualized fashion show? If we're not "Devil Demonica", where can we go?" Bluhm managed to convince the adults at Seventeen to treat teenagers with more respect. She seems as good a candidate as any to urge her peers to demand the same from the adults who peddle sexy Halloween costumes.