The Scary Truth About Halloween and Sexism

By Maddie Granato, Age 23

If we’re being honest here, I hate Halloween. I’ve detested the holiday since I was a little kid, when October’s influx of previews to scary movies flooded my regularly scheduled television program and left me (and still do, if we’re really being honest) with nightmares. While I have become a bit more desensitized to Halloween’s traditional terrifying tactics, there’s still something about the night that’s unsettling to me: the oversexualized, at times absolutely ridiculous (pizza slice, anyone?) ideas of what “normal” costumes look like for women.

Every year without fail, stores are lined with “feminine” costumes, which have somehow begun to automatically emphasize cleavage, bare midriffs and synonyms for “sexy” to label even the most unambiguous outfits  (see: sexy nun. Yes, you read that correctly).  As a young woman, it’s become nearly impossible to find a commercial, store bought costume that isn’t tight, skimpy or designed to put my body on display.

In doing some research for this post, I wasn’t completely shocked to find that gender ideals run rampant in children’s Halloween products too, where names and designs often undermine what would otherwise display some sort of visible gender parity. At Party City, for instance, when boys are pirates they are “rebels”, “rascals” or “captains.” When girls are pirates, they are “cuties” and “lassies”, complete with tutus and corsets. The word “sassy” appears several times among the selection of girls’ costumes, but not once among boys’.

These examples not only perpetuate dominant stereotypes but also emphasize gender ranking or the idea that one gender is more important or valuable to society than the other.  In a culture where too many continue to grapple with the idea of women in positions of power, one could easily argue that Halloween has become yet another opportunity to reinforce patriarchal expectations demanded of women and girls, in which we passively play just minor roles.

This seemingly inescapable, hyper-polarization of gender roles so apparent in children’s costumes becomes even more obvious in the options available to adults, where, according to mainstream suppliers, the only women who seem to enjoy the holiday are fit, busty and beautiful. The overwhelming representation of the ‘perfect’ body image featured on the majority of costume packaging sells more than just a revealing outfit. Emphasizing this one ideal not only supports a form of body shaming, but also excludes women of color and of different ages and sizes from participating in mainstream Halloween culture and also suggests that the only type of woman allowed to wear a provocative costume is young, slender, and white.

An absence of diversity in images displayed on costume packaging implies that there’s something unappealing or unacceptable about straying from the created norm. Women are forced to contemplate, stress and fuss over the way we look every other day of the year – shouldn’t Halloween, in all of its guts and creepy glory, be the exception to gender expectations instead of the rule?


While groups such as A Mighty Girl and Take Back Halloween are great resources to those who’d like to stray from the restrictions of mainstream costume shops, it’s also important to note that the ultimate issue is not so much what women and girls choose to wear, but about societal boundaries placed on the imaginations of those who wander outside dominant gender norms.

Though I might opt for a Cady Heron-inspired zombie bride ensemble come October 31st, if one of my friends decides that this year’s “Donna T. Rumpshaker” get-up is more her style, that’s her choice. Because I am a feminist (who also happens to hate Halloween) does not mean I will spend my night “slut-shaming” and imploring women to cover themselves. The Party Citys of the world should not have the power to dictate what is and what isn’t socially acceptable for women to wear; just as we who choose to take a back seat to provocative costume wearing shouldn’t feel inclined to judge others who do.  As spoken word artists Hannah Halpern, Amino Iro, Reina Privado and Asha Gardner recited in their 2013 poem “Halloween,”

“But no matter what garments we wrap ourselves in / a woman’s status as trick, treat, or geek is not up for discussion/ a woman dressing, acting, or being should be her choice/ if a woman wants to wear a skimpy outfit let it be her choice/ if a woman wants to cover up let it be her choice/ if I want to be a [expletive] monster, then let it be my choice.”

Looking to shake up your costume this year? Check this out. My personal favorite: bee-yonce.

Young Women Rising encourages Connecticut women ages 18-35 to raise their voices about issues they care about. Each writer speaks for herself as an individual and Young Women Rising as a whole does not intend to endorse the views of any particular writer. If you’re interested in submitting a guest piece please contact us at

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