Well, it is that time of year again. Time for us to start searching the internet, pilfering our friends’ and relatives’ closets, and rummaging through the local Goodwill in order to find just the right Halloween attire for this year’s festivities. Of course, in the end, you want your outfit to be unique and original, but at the same time you also want your costume to be recognizable. The only way to be recognizable is to be obvious, and the only way to be obvious is to be stereotypical— which should be, but is not always, acceptable.
Stereotypes exist in order to create context in our lives. Generalizing is a way for us to make sense of a very complex and diverse world. When we come into contact with other people and other cultures, we consciously make our encounters simplified by making categories of the images and ideas that we have observed so that we do not have to work as hard interpreting similar situations later on. Though these fixed images and ideas become stereotypes, they are based on our observed reality.
So why is it offensive to recreate stereotypes in the form of Halloween costumes if they are interpretations of our perceived reality? Jelani Cobb, Professor of African studies at Rutgers University, believes “[t] o treat a character like Batman or Superman as a Halloween costume is one thing, but to treat an entire ethnicity as a costume is something else. It suggests that people conflate the actual broad diversity of a culture with caricatures and characters.”What Jelani and others who look down on these costumes fail to acknowledge is that there’s often truth behind the over-simplified versions of reality. Do cowboys wear ten-gallon hats, belt buckles, jeans, and boots wherever they go? No, but those items— which are easily recognizable as ‘cowboy’ attire—are not just manifestations of a stereotype; they truly are worn by men and women who manage cattle and ride horses. Cobb has a good point, but he assumes that when people dress in this manner they do so to be directly offensive, which is not always the case.
On the flip side of Cobb’s argument, there are others who believe that by not embracing stereotypes, we can cause greater harm than good. Fabio Vighi, author of Sexual Difference in European Cinema: The Curse of Enjoyment, suggests that “the problem with today’s PC attitude towards sexually or racially charged expressions is that instead of eliminating the offensive effect it actually enhances it” whereby it is then “bound to return, or explode, in the Real of psychotic racist/sexist behavior.” So, when we are being PC, we are forcibly repressing part of our interpretation of the world, and when the repressed interpretation is inevitably released, it cathartically reveals itself to be an elevated state of offensiveness—bordering on the deranged. Thus, by being able to outwardly express stereotypes, such as with Halloween costumes, we are actually being able to embrace our perceived reality, which allows us to make better sense of the world.
Unarguably, Halloween costumes have become more and more outrageous over the years, and maybe this is because we are restricting ourselves in our everyday lives, being PC and socially cautious. In the classroom, confronting and discussing stereotypes is acceptable, but anywhere else in society the discussion instantly becomes taboo. Why? We are all different, we are all judged, and we are all stereotyped everyday by everyone. Why hide the fact? Let’s embrace our differences and our similarities while simultaneously showing that we can rise above them. Furthermore, let’s preserve Halloween as the one day a year where we are able to express our interpretation of the world guiltlessly because after all, the vast majority of people who wear stereotypical costumes do not intentionally seek out to offend anyone, let alone an entire culture.
Mark Leszczynski, Senior