I am a Culture, not a Costume

by Nathan Baumgartner

Opinion Contributor

2015 seems to be our year, depending on who you ask. With such matters like the national legalization of same-sex marriage happening in the US, itself reflecting increasing support for it in the US per a Pew Research Center poll, Halloween just happens to fall on a Saturday. That’s right: for the first time since 2009 – when a majority of students here at Canisius were just starting high school or finishing up middle school – we lucked out. As a result, people will be putting in extra effort to make sure that their costume looks right. I’m anticipating last-minute runs to Party City, Spirit Halloween, and the like in a race to make sure their costumes blow people out of the water.

However, there is often a time where people purchase, make, and/or wear costumes which could be perceived as offensive. Case in point: lately, my Facebook feed has been filled up with BuzzFeed videos about people of certain ethnicities (Native American, for example) trying on costumes which are supposedly meant to reflect their traditional dress. The result: Latinos and Latinas in taco costumes, as if that is the only representation of their culture. The consensus at the end of all of these videos is quite clear: none of them would go out and wear these outfits, largely because they play off of stereotypes. Many of them found these costumes offensive: an opinion reflected by the poster ad campaign, “We’re a Culture, not a Costume.”

The message of this campaign is quite clear: it seeks to rid the world of cultural insensitivities brought on through Halloween costumes. Yet a simple search on Google for “Caitlyn Jenner Costume” will show that “the costume that’s all the hype this Halloween” per the words of manufacturer Toynk Toys is indeed available online. This company, according to their website, operates on the philosophy that the company “aims to deliver an ever expanding array of cool costumes, trendy toys and hot collectibles to you, our valued customers. Our team comes together each day, working hard to improve our customer’s’ experience. It’s not really considered work, when we know that our products bring adventure, joy and happiness to life. It’s no wonder that we love what we do and we love doing it for you. Meet our team and thank you for shopping with us.” Despite Jenner herself remarking that “I don’t think it’s offensive at all” while referring to this costume, she does continue to elaborate and say, “I know the community does. And they’ve gotten a lot of criticism for doing it.” Jenner consequently comments on her status as a medium between the Trans and non-Trans community. As a transgender ally myself, I understand the thought process behind apprehension towards this costume: Ms. Jenner has been seen as one of the most prominent figures of the transgender movement in the United States. In the words of Addison Rose Vincent, an outspoken transgender activist who started a petition on Change.org calling for the ban of this costume, “I’m signing because this costume mocks the validity of a transgender’s identity, implying that a man wearing a dress is the same as a person dressing to their comfort and identity.”

The perfect Halloween costume does not mock the identity of another person, group, etc. Wearing a cultural costume can be very tricky: not representing the culture in a proper way can often be perceived as offensive. Yet, if someone does her/his/their homework while preparing for Saturday, the rewards can be worthwhile. I would love to see someone wear the traditional German Lederhosen and do it correctly for Halloween, all the while avoiding the cliché German accent (Klaus on How I Met Your Mother is only a stereotypical accent, along with other examples in US-American pop culture) and going around with a stein. In my opinion, if and when someone were to actually represent Southern German, Austrian, and Swiss culture in a positive way, the effects of that can be particularly rewarding. But in order to do that, one would actually have to travel to Germany instead of the Target on Delaware Avenue: the manner in which Lederhosen is produced is very particular, and so if you find a pair for less than $200, some concerns should be raised. Come to think of it, chances are if you find a “cultural” costume on a store shelf in Target, Walmart, wherever you do your shopping, it’s stereotyping a group of people.

Stereotypes and offense comes in all shapes and sizes. Whenever you see the adjective “slutty” (pardon my language here) in front of a profession, chances are that you should not buy that, either: according to another opinion article written by Lyndsay Rush on the feminist news source The Every Girl, “Any guy worth your time will appreciate creativity over cleavage.” And I know for a fact that certain professions would appreciate it, as well: any costume, say a “slutty” nurse, can potentially be seen as disrespecting that profession. Again, it’s perfectly acceptable (and encouraged) to go out as a nurse or doctor. But take into consideration that people like my mother have worked a long way to get to where they are: basically, actually dress like that profession.  Sexualizing a profession hinders that progress, especially when it comes to women, who have been systematically oppressed by society. It’s that simple.

When it comes to purchasing or making a Halloween costume, ask yourself, “If I were to identify as this culture, person, etc., would I be offended?” If your answer deviates from “no,” then you probably should not buy it. And if you do make the decision to dress in an outfit deemed socially “provocative” a la Mean Girls, please know that that outfit does not mean you automatically consent to sex. While I wait for the day where I received news that my mom decides to wear her work outfit as a costume (near as I can tell, that has yet to happen), the simplest of costumes can be exhilaratingly awesome. Spending hours upon hours (or dollars upon dollars) on makeup does not mean that your costume is better than someone else’s who just threw things together at the last minute.  And please no blackface. No whiteface, either. Own your body, and own your skin.

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