Offensive Halloween Costumes: Where do we draw the line?

As funny as this video is, it got me thinking. At what point does a disrespectful or offensive costume become completely inappropriate? There are hundreds of articles making the rounds on social media at the moment about the banning of offensive costumes, withdrawal of profane fancy-dress outfits and constant listicles on the “dos and don’ts” of Halloween costume etiquette with numerous essays on cultural appropriation appearing as well.

The question is, are we living in a ‘cry-baby culture’ in which anything can be seen as offensive, or are these distasteful get-ups demonstrating how society needs to change its attitudes? Every Halloween, the same costumes come up time and time again. Native American headgear, Nazi uniforms  (Prince Harry Nazi blunder circa 2005 comes to mind), mental patients with a bloody axe, sexy [insert ethnic minority] girl, and countless more. Where do we draw the line?

107440, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - Friday October 25, 2013. Julianne Hough dresses up as Crazy Eyes from 'Orange is the New Black' as she attends the Casamigos Tequila halloween party in Hollywood. The 'Safe Haven' star wore dark makeup to play the character from the hit Netflix series. Photograph: © Devone Byrd, PacificCoastNews**FEET BE AGE AGREED PRIOR TO USAGE** **E-TABLET/IPAD & MOBILE PHONE APP PUBLISHING REQUIRES ADDITIONAL FEES** LOS ANGELES OFFICE: +1 310 822 0419 LONDON OFFICE: +44 20 8090 4079Chris Brown attends Rihanna's Halloween party at the Greystone Manor Supperclub in West Hollywood. Chris Brown left the party at the end of the night in a Lamborghini. Rihanna, left a few minutes later in a black Escalade. Pictured: Chris Brown Ref: SPL453946 311012 Picture by: Ultrawig / Splash News Splash News and Pictures Los Angeles: 310-821-2666 New York: 212-619-2666 London: 870-934-2666
Photos via Huffington Post
Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 23.23.44

Celebrities often take the brunt of this. The above pictures are just examples of controversial get-ups that people flag up. Julianne Hough as ‘Crazy Eyes’ from Orange Is The New Black, blackface and all, Chris Brown as a terrorist, Ashley Benson as the recently deceased ‘Cecil the Lion’, and who could ever forget Heidi Klum’s jaw dropping imitation of ‘Goddess Kali’.

All of these celebrities faced huge criticism. Hough was immensely castigated for her blackface imitation of the black character and had to publicly apologise, whilst Hindu-American leaders demanded an apology from Klum for ‘posing as a sacred figure’ and ‘using the religion to advance her selfish agenda’. The Internet was in uproar over Ashley Benson’s ‘Cecil the Lion’ outfit; it was too soon apparently, the wounds still fresh in the world’s consciousness(!) The actress later issued a sincere apology and donated to the World Wildlife Fund to make up for the mishap.

Obviously there is a scale of how offensive costumes can be and they all need to be kept in context of the bigger picture. How can Hough’s blackface be on the same level as a dead lion costume? Of course, it isn’t. Frankly there is no comparison. Blackface plays on hurtful stereotypes whether we accept it or not. Ultimately it represents a time when white performers would put on dark paint and act out incredibly racist and offensive stereotypes. People feel that the symbolism behind blackface is an incendiary and insensitive way to imitate another race, no matter which way you interpret it. Moreover, historically blackface contributed to the proliferation of harmful stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. Some feel this is unacceptable on various levels; however, people will still debate this. If you are dressing up as a black person, a celebrity for example, it cannot be racist because they are black. It’s not a form of mockery, it’s imitation and not maliciousness. Which in a way, I can see why some people would have this opinion, but I still find it difficult to wholly agree.

The costumes are as problematic as they are polarising. Racist or not, the likelihood is that the costume will be seen in ill-taste by somebody. It’s a risky move as far as dressing up is concerned due to its historical connotations. Cultural appropriation plays a major part in this problematic debate. For example, all the ‘PocaHottie’ and ‘Hot Indian Warrior’ costumes essentially sexualise a minority group and play off stereotypes that have a negative impact on their daily lives. Trivialising and sexualising these biases only underemphasise a real societal issue, which is racism. The debate is on-going.

How are we supposed to know where to draw the line? Whether it is racism, religion or even mental health, opinions seemed blurred. What is deemed as harmless to one, is seen as abhorrent to an other. After all, even the supermarkets get it wrong.


Via BBC News

In 2013, Asda and Tesco faced fierce repercussions for advertising the above fancy dress costumes. The criticism focused on the fact that mental illness already has a potent stigma attached to it, scary costumes only perpetuate this. Society already fear and misunderstand mental health as it is. This type of stereotyping helps criminalize and escalate the damaging stigma. This harmful branding prevents some people from getting the help they desperately need, in fear of being judged for the ‘maniacs’ depicted in media and culture, in this case specifically Halloween costumes. Both stores withdrew their products immediately and made a very public apology for any offence caused. They both donated a considerable amount to the mental health charity, Mind.

Even more recently, over the past week or so, two costumes in particular have been igniting outrage. Firstly, a costume inspired by Caitlyn Jenner’s ‘Vanity Fair’ cover has been controversial. Despite this, retailers are selling it anyway.

Caitlyn Jenner
Via Mirror

Whilst Jenner herself said she wasn’t offended, the Trans Community have other opinions. Transgender activists have said the profit “will only lead to greater transphobia and marginalization of an already at-risk community”. Others argue that if you’re a celebrity, you’re fair game when it comes to Halloween. Do the underlying elements of vulnerable members of the community really come into play here? Or is it just dressing up?

Another costume, the infamous ‘Anna Rexia’ outfit, has been making the rounds since 2011. However, yesterday Buzzfeed reported on Jessi Davin’s response. The 26-year-old has suffered with anorexia since the age of 19 and she posted about the harsh reality of the fatal eating disorder and why these costumes are making a joke of the disorder.

Via Buzzfeed

“Want to dress as ‘Anna Rexia’?” Davin says, “Just go as a vampire, or a zombie. Because 1/3 of us are dead.” It’s a harsh reality.

It seems that the main issues with the controversial outfits are that they encourage stereotyping, creates caricatures and downplays major issues some individual’s experience on a day-to-day basis. For example, something that is serious, like a medical illness or casual racism, may become trivialised. When something becomes trivialised, it feels like the problems don’t matter.

In my opinion, some public outcries can be somewhat extreme. I mean who is truly offended over a dead lion costume? In a way, it’s satirical and current. However, it’s clear that some boundaries need to be set and taken heed of. It’s kind of obvious what can cause offence, but others are more subtle. A little bit of mindfulness when dressing up this year can only do good.

Besides, isn’t Halloween supposed to be about horror? It’s important to discuss these implications but aren’t these ‘controversial’ costumes irrelevant and out of context of the holiday? We’re supposed to be spooky looking! Let’s scare the sh*t out of your mate – not offend them.

pumpkin dance

To say the least, this is an interesting debate and one that isn’t going to RIP any time soon.

What do you think: are we a ‘cry-baby culture’ or is it important to flag the issues up? Comment below – I’d love to know what you think.


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