There’s an increasing and amplifying cultural trend in our society that I think is in need of a temporary cease-fire, or at least a little reappraisal. The Halloween Whore. It’s a trend that’s been slowly increasing for some years, but when Tina Fey made the joke in the movie Mean Girls- “Halloween is every women’s opportunity to dress up like a whore, and for men to dress up like women”- it became apparent that the trend had crossed a certain cultural threshold. Last Halloween some friends and I strolled up and down the crowded, energized streets of Vancouver’s main downtown bar district, and on all sides the streets teemed with masses of sexed up nubility. There were nurse outfits, soldiers, wonder women, leather, fishnets, buoyant breasts and more than a cheek or two. On one level it's a man’s dream come true, a chakra two bonanza . But alas, despite the rather tempting fruits of this cultural expression, I think it should be questioned on a few grounds.
The first concern has to do with a lack of mature embodiment that this expression has taken. Much of what I've witnessed on recent Halloween nights are a lot of young women who look rather awkward in their outfits, sort of knock-kneed and uncomfortable. I’m all for sexual expression, liberation and the overcoming of what Foucault calls biopower- the power wielded over bodies through social control- but the trend of the Halloween Whore doesn’t seem to be truly a case of liberation. It strikes me that the trend has regressive, vulgar and slightly dark aspects. Instead of dressing up like a whore in a spirit of play and carnival, it seems as though many young women are largely whoring themselves, and this is a critical difference. It doesn't feel very "sex-positive", to use a phrase from the sex columnist Dan Savage. Rather than a victory of sexual liberation, it feels like women once again placing themselves under the strictures of a rudimentary and predatory male gaze. Gloria Steinem has said that, "Pornography is about dominance. Erotica is about mutuality. Erotica is as different from pornography as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain." I'm not against women dressing up in sexy, erotic outfits. Far from it. But someone who owns their sexuality and is expressing it healthily is very, very different than someone who’s pressured into displaying herself in a way that advertises her sexuality and leaves her feeling awkward, uncomfortable and powerless. This, according to Steineim's definition, would be pornographic, and this is sadly a part of what I've witnessed on Halloween nights.
But even the more embodied and seemingly empowered expressions of the Halloween Whore are problematic too. They seem to be more an extension of Girls Gone Wild raunch culture than anything else, an attempt to find meaning in a postmodern world where, as Leonard Cohen put it, things are sliding in all directions, with nothing left to hold on to any more. And as value and meaning continue to slide and slip and disappear into our secular consumer quagmire, it’s a natural move to explore licentious transgression as the newfound path to wholeness and fulfillment. But in the end, to quote Cohen again, it looks like freedom but it feels like death.
In a recent podcast Dan Savage, somewhat contra my view, strongly supports the sexual expression of Halloween night. For Savage, the sexually explicit extravaganza of Halloween could become a sort of “straight pride parade”, where straight folks can celebrate and live out their sexuality in a way that’s “all really healthy”. I support Savage’s basic vision here; I just don’t really see this happening yet. So the question arises, what could we do to create the type of more positive event that Savage envisions? Perhaps it’s in the costuming. Savage mentions wearing “crazy-ass revealing costumes” where we display our sexuality publicly. Maybe we need more creative sexy costumes, not just the stock run-of-the-mill hooker get up that’s so dominant, and so boringly cliché. Knee-high boots, a short skirt and boobs falling out does not instantly equate to healthy sexual expression.
Maybe we need to see more famous female characters, or fantasy outfits, or Lady Gagaesque art-project chic, or something else. Something more than the dreary porn inspired mimetic uniformity that we see out there now. And we can’t let the men off the hook here either. Half the time a good majority of the men don’t dress up at all on Halloween night, they’re just wearing the same clothes they’d wear to a club on a Friday night. This lopsidedness makes me uneasy, and generally leads me to conclude that the night’s still more about sexual exploitation than liberation. So men, what might it look like for us to dress up and be sexually expressive in this “straight pride parade” too? Could be interesting, and our creative endeavors- Roman soldiers, Indiana Jones, Clint Eastwood, James Bond?! What or who would you be?- could set the tone for an altogether different kind of festival night.
However, before we officially make Halloween solely about sexual expression, another key reason to reappraise this general trend is precisely that it’s taking away from the diversity of expression to be found on Halloween night. There’s recently been much interest in Continental philosophy in the concept of the “carnivalesque”, found in the work of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). The carnival, a long standing tradition in Western culture, and of which our modern day Halloween is a somewhat pale remnant, has been described thus: “Carnival acts through strategies that ape, parody and indeed parallel the dominant social order. There is a calculated inversion of existing social forms and cultural configurations…Carnival is a finite interlude of licensed mayhem, but carnival is also an artful and highly orchestrated tilt at sacred establishment icons”. (1) Some of the best costumes I’ve seen in recent Halloweens were the multiple versions of Sarah Palin, the ‘dead’ John McCain, the Top Gun guys, the band of Arabs, the riffs on Barack Obama. The overemphasis on Sex plugs up creativity and undermines the full potential of this important cultural event. The carnival is supposed to be about the temporary transgressing of fixed societal norms, the subversion of taboo and convention, but what boundary is the Halloween Whore really overcoming. It practically is the cultural norm! I’m reminded of the Bill Maher joke, “You know who I feel bad for these days- prostitutes, because what can they wear anymore. They’re standing on the corner going, No, I’m selling this shit, really”. If anything, the Halloween Whore is perpetuating the social order, not aping it or parodying it in ways that create fissures and generative openings in the body politic.
So I guess there are two lessons for me here. If we’re going to use Halloween as a night of healthy sexual expression, as Dan Savage urges, then let’s be both creative and true to our real desires when we pick our costumes. And let’s also not forget that it’s not all about sex- it’s also about “the artful and highly orchestrated tilt at sacred establishment icons”. Halloween is a rare cultural gift, where the chokeholds of local order are momentarily loosed, and the rivers of life free to flow. Let’s use this opening wisely.
(1) Jenks, Charles. Transgression. New York: Routledge, 2003. Ch. 7