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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Voices / Viewpoint

The creepy buildup of sexism

A post-Halloween look at the morphing trends in women’s costumes, and why that gender divide hurts everyone so badly

The Women’s Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence; this piece was written collectively by its team of advocates and by co-executive directors Donna Macomber and Vickie Sterling. Follow the organization on Facebook or visit its website. You can reach an advocate on the WFC’s 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.


Let’s face it: no matter how independent our news or ad-free our dreams might be, as 21st-century humans we’re all marinating to some degree in a hypersexual brew.

But the routine fare offered by mainstream marketers would just seem juvenile if it weren’t profoundly affecting culture at every turn. It’s climate change of a whole new order.

Halloween is clearly just one spike on the commercial graph. While in theory it’s the most playful, creative, and freeing day of the year for everyone’s self-expression, most retailers still manage annually to dredge up the worst sexist sludge to boost sales.

What’s scary is just how transparently the marketplace has done so.

Demeaning costumes aren’t new, of course, nor are women and girls retailers’ only targets. But today’s gender divide in merchandise could not be any more glaring.

In recent years, there’s been a morphing trend for women’s costumes: basically, to just Sexy Whatever.

* * *

Whatever career or character we’d like to portray, whatever the attributes of our choice (powerful, authentic, you name it), we’re urged primarily to look like a male-fantasy audition, even if that’s totally unrelated to the costume.

It’s part of a broader backlash of “sexy” being trumped by “sexist” — a portrayal happening mainly to women and becoming the main way we’re portrayed.

While men and boys clearly must deal with receiving their own distorting messages of power and hypermasculinity, their costumes have changed very little over the years. Meanwhile, more hypersexualized costumes appear each year for women.

Sure, we can modify them or just make our own, as many do, but that’s not the point.

However it’s told — with costumes or cameras — the message to the world is pretty clear: it’s open season on women’s bodies, whether to sell magazines, sell beer, or just mock cellulite.

As a country churning out more callous headlines — from sexual harassment by politicians to sexual assault by fellow soldiers, from viral footage of teen rape to guys bonding around sharing these videos — we need to unpack the bigger commercial message.

Media creates consciousness; it sets a tone and tells a story about what matters and who doesn’t. It’s time we think critically about the just-for-sex spin put on so many images of women and masquerading as a joke.

* * *

Nowhere is marketing more disturbing these days than as it’s applied to sell costumes aimed at little girls. Pink colors and princess themes still dominate.

Such costumes could be fun and harmless if others got equal press. But without question, not all choices are created equal: girls get fewer options up front, especially in career costumes, and right up the age-range, there’s a similar disappearance of fabric and relation to an actual theme.

Girls are rapidly indoctrinated to the understanding that, for them, it’s all about beauty, and that message puts true power in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, boys also get that message about girls. And while that’s not news either, it’s critical to realize what is.

As predators and child pornography become the subjects of a growing number of headlines around the country, retailers are pitching sexualized costumes for girls — even toddlers.

In recent years, Halloween nightlife for kids has included adult-themed lingerie, G-strings, toy stripper poles, and tiny high heels for infants. This trend parallels the increasing popularity of school-girl costumes pitched for adults.

And this, in a dominant culture that still equates revealing clothes on women — and now girls — with “asking for it” when they’re harmed or assaulted.

But the reality is, no one ever asks to be harmed through their clothing, and kids didn’t ask to grow up in this commercial, hypersexual world. On Halloween, and every other night, we need to ask whose fantasy life is it all really serving.

* * *

Understandably, many parents and activists are fed up, and are working to reverse this whole narrative. They’ve created some terrific online resources that are well worth checking out: The Representation Project is one, as is a boycott campaign called Sexism Sells, But We’re Not Buying It.

Some great activist sites for men and boys include the Good Men Project and the Men’s Resource Center for Change.

Good examples of sites specific to raising healthy daughters include: A Mighty Girl, Girls Can’t WHAT?, and Powered by Girl.

And just to plug it for next summer, the Women’s Freedom Center hosts two free and fabulous weeks of a Quest camp for girls in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, where we explore media literacy and all kinds of adventurous fun.

And we always encourage bringing sons, brothers, dads, and friends into the broader conversation here, because speaking out about social justice taps the best in each of us and helps rid society of the false notions of gender we’ve all been taught.

For way too long, patriarchy and profits have been a lame excuse for lousy programming. As kids, and as humans, we’re all way too creative and colorful to get painted with any one brush.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #229 (Wednesday, November 13, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

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