More often than not, these conversations have to do with gender, and at younger ages than we might have thought. I remember one Halloween when my daughter Sophie was three. She saw a huge gorilla walking down the street—her favorite animal—and insisted on meeting him. She was startled when she found that the gorilla was actually a woman—with a baby “gorilla” in a pocket on her front. “How can that gorilla be a woman?” she kept asking, as we walked down the streets collecting candy, insisting that “gorilla costumes are for boys.”
It may seem like a small point, and after all, Halloween is a time for enjoyment. Of course, it is only one day. We do know though that costumes in general help to shape kids’ experiences. That’s why it’s all the more important to make sure kids have options in their role-playing and pretend: on Halloween, but also on other days.
Research has suggested that Halloween costumes are indeed “hyper-gendered,” even starting with costumes for the youngest girls. In a 2000 study, Dr. Adie Nelson, a professor at the University of Waterloo, found that girls’ costumes were often gendered with the image of the passive femme fatale. Less than ten percent of costumes on sale were gender-neutral, and boys’ costumes offered a much wider range of roles than those for girls. In an update to her study ten years later, she found that the proportion of costumes hadn’t changed much. Rather, girls’ costumes are often sexualized and emphasize the “ornamental” aspects of being a girl, rather than female strength or power.
When we help children shape their disguises, and choose their toys, we’re helping to shape their images of themselves. As sociologist Carol J. Auster of Franklin and Marshall College argues, costumes and other ritualistic disguises can impact children’s views of themselves long after Halloween. Their costumes, among other “environmental signals,” influence the role models they select and the kinds of people they decide they want to be. In a 2015 New York Times article, Auster suggested dropping gendered marketing for costumes in order to allow a child to “pursue interests that he or she cares about and has a talent for.”
Recently, in the face of these issues, some companies have started responding. As of last year, Disney’s costumes no longer have gender labels, and Target’s toys are no longer “gendered” either. However, these changes only scratch the surface of a more perverse societal trend. While it’s easy to see this trend at its extremes—say, the reality show Toddlers in Tiaras—and point a finger at the heavily-made-up toddlers and their moms, the ubiquity of more tamely gendered disguises and toys can make it hard to realize anything is wrong. Rather than shocking us, these toys can lure us into accepting their messages, and even preaching the same doctrines ourselves.
So, as we get our kids dressed up as ballerinas or pirates, lions or butterflies, it’s worth asking:
- Does my child feel he/she has a wide range of options in his choice of costumes?
If not, this is a chance to talk about how specific costumes aren’t only “for girls” or “for boys.”
- Is my child constantly returning to very “gendered” costumes?
If so, it might be worth stocking the dress-up bin with a few more neutral ones and encouraging a broader range.
- Is choosing a costume fun for my child?
Getting dressed up should be a joyful experience. Whether because they’re sensitive to fabrics or scared of ghosts, or because of family or cultural preferences, some kids just don’t “do” Halloween. If they’re the only one at their school not dressed up, that’s fine too. After all, play and pretend can take place all year—and we don’t have to get dressed up to pretend!