As October winds down, the Halloween excitement hits St Andrews… I mean, you can just feel the energy with the overload of seasonal lattes and the smashed pumpkins littering the side streets. Post reading week, the mad dash for costumes ensues – whether it’s snatching up the sequin skirts at H&M or last-minute Amazon scrolls (note: next day delivery may take weeks in this town). Truth be told, Halloween reigns supreme in my holiday hierarchy. While there are devoted Christmas enthusiasts, personally, Halloween holds a special place in my heart, being a Libra who dedicates all of October either planning birthday festivities or scheming the perfect costume.
For me, there’s a nostalgic feeling of ‘Girlhood’ in the air as I gather with friends, soaking in the familiar melodies of Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. The utter chaos of applying fake blood, the subsequent inevitable carpet stains, the struggle to squeeze into a corset that was your size a week ago— it’s all part of the ritual. And, of course, the designated hair-braider making her rounds to each girl adds to that special camaraderie. Yet, a shift that goes beyond the scrutiny on widely-perceived predator Michael Jackson’s discography (And let’s be honest, what’s Halloween without the ever-recognizable beats of Thriller?)
A notable shift is in the balancing act of defining what constitutes an offensive Halloween costume. The pressing question of Halloween in 2023 is: might one inadvertently become a victim of cancel culture?
Recently a slew of articles have been published concerning ‘Costumes that Cannot be Worn in 2023’ by popular news outlets such as Cosmopolitan, The Independent, Buzzfeed, and USA Today. These include supposedly “banned” outfits like Marilyn Monroe, prisoners, Oompa Loompas, anything involving a kimono or sombrero, police officers, schoolgirls, and even Playboy bunnies. The latter, once a ubiquitous choice, is now considered by some to perpetuate “rape culture” in light of allegations against Hugh Hefner. These popular costumes are listed alongside the undeniably inappropriate blackface costumes.
An anonymous third year female student who unapologetically wore her playboy bunny costume last year said she felt “confident and empowered as opposed to objectified.” Does the personal feelings of the costume-wearer matter anymore or is it rather a matter of what is deemed “offensive” given current events? This student admitted she knew it could be seen as objectifying for others but for her personal choice, she felt the opposite and isn’t that what counts?
Others beg to differ, noting that it truly doesn’t matter the intention behind a costume if it isn’t your issue to be offended by. No matter as outlandish or as far-fetched as one might think, some of these costumes have been legitimately cancelled such as this debate on Oompa Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A popularly circulating article by the Mirror was recently published on the “size-ist” implications and their lesser-known background story is that they are “African pygmies that Wonka enslaved in his factory.” The conversation extends beyond the Oompa Loompas, questioning the appropriateness of embracing all of Dahl’s characters, considering his appalling anti-Semitic legacy. While these are disturbing realizations of a beloved childhood author and his creations, these characters have also transcended their origins and became part of popular culture. The conclusion of the article is that it’s essentially better to be safe than sorry. As if a child wearing orange face paint and trick-or-treating in an Oompa Loompa costume is a punishable offense.
Another anonymous female student, who is planning to dress as Marie Antoinette this Halloween, noted that it is bizarre that people could be upset by her Marie Antoinette costume “as if there aren’t so many real global issues to get mad at.” She aired her frustration at the potential uproar that might come from her choice as dressing as a notoriously oppressive French queen who lived centuries ago. She urged that people channel their concern and energy into the several current events of oppression affecting living people today, but also understood that it’s ultimately subjective about what counts as offensive.
Another student I spoke to regarding his pimp costume from a few years back explained that it was his girlfriend’s couple costume idea and yet, he got some suspecting looks that night and it made him question if his costume went too far. His take? “If it’s not who I really am, what’s the issue about a funny costume?” After a deep dive into his introspection, he concluded that it’s the intention that holds more weight than the threads of his questionable costume.
Halloween is meant to be a time of imagination and creativity… where people can experiment with outfits, makeup, and identities. However, the ever-expanding list of “off-limits” costumes ends up limiting the diversity of characters and ideas out of fear of “cancel culture”.
While the intent behind this heightened sensitivity is clearly rooted in a desire for respect of all cultures and social issues, there is a risk of sacrificing the playfulness that defines Halloween. Consider this… what other holiday on the calendar dedicates an entire day to dressing outrageously, drinking copious amounts, and then waking up to do it all over again for an entire weekend? If we delve into the details of every costume, it’s surely possible to find problematic origins in a line-up of students.
However, there must be a distinct line drawn. Placing KKK “costumes” and schoolgirl outfits on the same level of offensiveness defies logic and misleads the agenda of addressing genuine cultural insensitivity.
So, maybe there are two ends of the spectrum. I’m glad we’ve collectively progressed to a point where blackface and horribly offensive costumes are rightfully shunned by society. Though, it seems we may have leaned too far in the opposite direction. Striking the right balance between cultural respect and the light-heartedness of Halloween is the key to keeping this spirited holiday alive.