All Whores Night

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Editor's Note (Chris):This piece was originally posted last year and as Halloween approaches, we thought re-visiting it might be a good idea.   


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 meangirls.halloween_300x435-744392some 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 Hoessome 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 foronion_imagearticle427_jpg_630x1200_upscale_q85 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 halloween_famous_girlsleaves 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 cultureholloween_titty 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 measure 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 new found path to wholeness and fulfillment. But in the end, to quote Cohen again, it looks like freedom but it feels like death.

In a podcast last Halloween, 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 roman_soldierchic, 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, Indy-Sittingand 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 priest_halloweenHalloweens 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.


Update I: Right on cue, check out this costume from one of the girls on Jersey Shore. 



(1) Jenks, Charles. Transgression. New York: Routledge, 2003. Ch. 7

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  • Comment Link Angela Wednesday, 19 October 2011 17:31 posted by Angela

    Well done, sir! Seems our intentions have gotten murky at best. I'm all for a reinfusion of carnivalesque play -- with or without copious sex appeal. Thanks for the keen eye and silver tongue. Wait, that sounds like a good Halloween costume...

  • Comment Link Trish Shannon Thursday, 20 October 2011 00:06 posted by Trish Shannon

    Just a quick take on one aspect of this mostly because I recently saw a JEZEBEL blog post in which she showed a bunch of simply awful (from a variety of stances) "whore" costumes.

    I would throw in the following for thought... for many women it is NOT permissible to exhibit their full sexuality, to give voice to the erotic power and personas that live within them. Halloween allows us opportunity to take on that element (the Carnival argument holds), and because they don't really own it, of course, they are awkward. At the same time, cultural expectations of what constitutes an expression of the erotic are channeled, for the most part and very badly I might add, through pornography. As a consequence, those are the roles they believe they are given to play. I think it extremely fascinating that, in my experience, women are the ones who are most interested in playing the "dress-up" game. Which makes the question of why men take on the costumes they do (or their refusal to play the game) very interesting.

    Personally, my favorite costumes are always those turn norms inside out.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 22 October 2011 19:41 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    thanks Angela. And thanks for those additions Trish, very interesting. I really appreciate your perspective that "for many women it is NOT permissible to exhibit their full sexuality, to give voice to the erotic power and personas that live within them. Halloween allows us opportunity to take on that element".

    That's good to know and it makes the spectacle I see out there all the more disappointing. I agree with you about "cultural expectations being channeled through pornography". I remember watching the documentary Inside Deep Throat (on the making of the porn film), and a woman on the special features, a PhD of some sort, laid out a great analysis of how porn/pornography/porn culture had slowly made its way into mainstream society. It's worth watching if you or anyone come across it.

    Chris Hedges also has a powerful chapter on this in his book Empire of Illusion. It's a chilling, punishing chapter in true Hedgeian fashion, but important in my view.

    This is an intriguing point- "I think it extremely fascinating that, in my experience, women are the ones who are most interested in playing the "dress-up" game. Which makes the question of why men take on the costumes they do (or their refusal to play the game) very interesting".

    do you want to say more about that?

    thanks again.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 22 October 2011 19:50 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I was sent this recent article by Elizabeth Debold after someone read this post, with her take on the SlutWalk phenomenon. It has some definite overlap with themes in this article. Here's a key paragraph:

    "There is a difference between FEELING free (to do as one pleases, which is a privilege) and BEING free from the limiting notions of identity that have arisen from the complex mix of cultural history and biology that we each are. The former is often an expression of entitlement. The latter is real work. Only aspiring to BE FREE, at an existential level, creates the space to transcend the sexual dynamics that have created us as the women and men we are. Sexuality will always be one of the strata that make up our experience of self. But it isn’t even the most important part of who we are. If we keep insisting on having our sexual function and roles define us so fundamentally, then human culture will likewise be fundamentally shaped by the competitive dynamics of mating. That brings you to the culture we’ve got. Creating a new and higher stage of culture calls us to discover new ways for women and men to relate that are free of these dynamics. Only something at that level of transformation would liberate us from the need for SlutWalks".

  • Comment Link Elizabeth Debold Sunday, 23 October 2011 04:32 posted by Elizabeth Debold

    Thanks for the plug for the SlutWalks post, Trevor. Hallowe'en night is one big SlutWalk... Interesting in terms of Carnivale during the Middle Ages: there is another level of analysis that notes that the reversal of hierarchies and roles (they would let prisoners go free for the day, have the town crazy person be the mayor, etc.) functioned to let off steam/tension...(here's the punch line) thereby serving only to reinforce the status quo. There was nothing truly transgressive about it. You FELT like some transgression was enacted, so that you could go back to your subordinate role with less complaint. There's something very apt about that in terms of the "fun and freedom" of Hallowe'en whoring. WDYT?

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 25 October 2011 18:34 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Elizabeth, thanks for the comment, you bring up a very interesting point. It reminded me of something I'd seen in the documentary Global Metal, where the Chinese authorities had intentionally (and somewhat surprisingly) allowed a metal scene to flower in the country. Why? Because young people, young men especially, needed a place to let off steam and get their frustrations out. Metal can actually be a pretty dangerous music, but in this context it was contained and thus actually served the authorities by allowing for dissent to be released in this controlled setting.

    Your comment also got me thinking about this whole postmodern revival of the carnivalesque. Does it have something to offer? Is it just a trap?

    I remembered the philosopher Terry Eagleton (who I quite admire) critiquing this in his book 'The Illusions of Postmodernism' (1996). He writes:

    "[Postmodern politics and deconstruction] would be a critique conducted more at the level of the mind than at the level of critical forces; indeed one might understand it, in part, as exactly such a displacement. It would be a Dadaist form of politics, wedded to the dissident gesture, the iconoclastic refusal, the inexplicable happening. If a weighty theorist of carnival [Baktin] were to be unearthed at this point, one who celebrated a sporadic disruption which could in no way dismantle the Law it parodied, one might confidently anticipate that he or she would swiftly give birth to a majorly scholarly industry. Grotesquerie would be all the rage, while monsters and masochism would surge in the intellectual stock market" (p.8)

    The key line there obviously being "one who celebrated a sporadic disruption which could in no way dismantle the Law it parodied". So Eagleton is very much in line with your critique/point about carnival. I always thought it was important to note that most of the major theoretical philosophical critics of postmodernism were some form of Marxists. They always knew that so much of the postmodern response to pathological modernity did not actually put a dent in the global regime of capital accumulation (and its widening gaps of inequality etc.).

    So what to think of this revival of the carnivalesque? Part of me, as someone who takes an evolutionary dialectic seriously, thinks that this postmodern response must've had some intuition as to the need for such a rebirth. Or was it mainly a trap, something to negated moving on? What do think Elizabeth (or anyone else), is there something to be salvaged from this postmodern moment? Can we use the "finite interlude of licensed mayhem" in a conscious way that actually feeds cultural evolution?

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Wednesday, 26 October 2011 03:15 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Love the dialogue that is happening on this thread. And Trevor, I love your quote from Eagleton. The postmodern performative move has always been a keen area of interest to me, and particularly in regards to questioning whether it is really bringing the freedom it suggests.

    I think the points that have been made already speak to this a great deal, so the only other piece I might add, and which might in some way speak to your question, Trevor, about whether there is anything to salvage from this postmodern moment, is this:

    I think one of the things that many young women are struggling with is the kind of incongruence that still exists in North American culture as a whole when it comes to sexuality. On the one side there is this huge sexual permissiveness, which includes the mainstreaming of porn, BDSM, sex toys, SlutWalks, etc.

    And on the other side, our culture still carries deep roots of sexual puritanism from our past, which contributes to this sense that our sexuality is dirty and wrong.

    This dirtyness or wrongness is especially deeply ingrained in women because if you look at women in the 19th century, we were actually socialized to be "non-sexual." Men were seen as the dirty sexual ones, and we were the chaste virtuous ones who had no sexual desires (think 19th century female hysteria, which Freud thought was in large part due to our sexual repression, among other things I'm sure).

    Funny thing is, representing ourselves as "non-sexual" was actually part of our sexual allure. We didn't experience ourselves as sexual subjects, but as the object of the sexual gaze; thus all our own sexual impulses were largely projected onto men. I believe that this has led many women to be less in touch with their own sexual subjectivity and also less in touch with how they communicate (and manipulate) sexual energy. And culturally speaking, we have been deeply conditioned to represent ourselves as sexual objects.

    Even sexual expressiveness, posed as subjective freedom can easily fall into this objectifying trap.

    I almost see it as two sides of the same coin. Repressed sexuality often comes out in dysfunctional ways (which may be part of what we are seeing in the culture today). So some of the postmodern performative impulse may be an authentic attempt to try to set free these repressed desires, but it often just re-enforces the same conditioning.

    Allowing sexual permissiveness doesn't equal sexual freedom (as Elizabeth so eloquently pointed out). Both sides seem caught in a similar bi-polar dynamic, neither are really born of freedom, but rather are expression of age old conditioning and stereotypes.

    Whether it is the good chaste woman, or the rebellious sinful sexual woman, they are both very powerful and pervasive archetypes in the female psyche, and largely culturally conditioned by patriarchy. I'm most curious how women would express and hold themselves as sexual beings beyond these patriarchal archetypes...

    I hear Elizabeth in wanting to dis-engage from the sexual arena as our main focus of identity as women, and I agree in many ways. But I'm also interested in what an enlightened approach to sexual subjectivity would look like for women, and how we would cultivate that. This has been a large part of my own explorations...

  • Comment Link dave Monday, 23 April 2012 18:28 posted by dave

    Good heavens! You know what I think? I think that you people think waaaay too much. where is this bizzaro patriarchy you speak of? I never got my membership card. Are you really making references to the 19th century? Do you have any idea what life was like for people in 1832??? If I was a woman in a lawless society, my sexuality is the ladt thing I'm thinking of. How about safety for a top priority? I love freedom just as much as the next person, but with freedom comes lots of respnsibility. Today, women have freedom. And guess what hollaween is? Its a reflection of that freedom. Go ahead, encourage all this "sex positive" THEORY and see what reality actually looks like. Hey, I'm not complaining, sex positive feminism is a womens gift to every single bachelor and frat dude out there. But for every action there is a reaction and I think you will be greatly dissapointed with thew results of your "sex positive" utopia. For one, all it means is that the select few 10-20% of the male population will be screwing all the "liberated" women. Not sure that will exactly result in some empowering power shift to women. In fact, its the complete opposite and instead you reward the most mysognist assholes on the planet who, despite all you wishful thinking are the men most sexually attractive to women.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 01 May 2012 02:08 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Dave, thanks for the comment. Just a few responses to what you've written here. In terms of where is this "bizzaro patriarchy" I speak off, first of all, I didn't mention patriarchy in the article and that wasn't really a frame I was looking through. It was more a piece of cultural analysis, and it's quite possible that everyone's losing out here in the end, not just the women.

    At any rate, in terms of "where is this?", I personally first saw it out in the streets on Halloween, and in it recognized some overlap with other cultural currents. As I said, this article is essentially a piece of cultural analysis/criticism, which makes it less obviously 'empirical' in a classic sense, it's more interpretation. Which of course means that I could be way off base, and you are free (as you have) to say that this is not what you see, which is fair enough and important to hear. On the other hand, both times this article was posted in was shared a lot on Facebook and generated quite a bit of discussion, mostly positive (and largely from women). My sense trying to follow those threads was that it tapped into something that was being experienced more broadly, and wasn't simply a fiction of my own skewed interpretation.

    You mention that with "freedom comes responsibility", but I think you are working with too strong a notion of human agency in this emphasis, one that doesn't take culture and cultural conditioning enough into account. It can be very easy to simply swim in the cultural context around us and accept/assume it as "normal". (I mention and link to Foucault's notion of biopower in the article, a concept that drills deep down into this territory). I think this is particularly true of young people; I can certainly see this looking back on my teens and early twenties. I think this is what makes something like the It Gets Better Project so important; those LGBT folks in their teens being bullied almost literally can't see outside of that immediate lifeworld, and it takes others to come in and assure them that things can and will be different.

    What I see out there on Halloween- and in the "raunch culture" more generally- is an acceptance/normalization of cultural currents that I think seriously need questioning. My hope in writing the piece was that it pry open a bit of space for that to be seen and discussed with some modicum of objectivity and distance. You say that what I see out there on Halloween is simply a result of free choices being made, but I'd deeply disagree. I don't think it's very free at all, I think it's beholden to a certain pornofication of culture (among other things). Here's an article about a recent documentary that explores this topic from a few interesting angles. It dovetails nicely with my article here.

    I'm glad you recognize the same "misogynistic assholes" out there as I do. I was hoping this article would give them less territory to exploit, not more, so somehow we've crossed our understanding there on that one. But I hope that a deepened awareness around this overall cultural context is ultimately empowering to women (and men) to decide whether or not this is a game worth playing.

    Lastly, in terms of folks around here "thinking way too much", where do you draw that line? Did Plato think too much? Heidegger, Foucault (etc.)? I follow the philosopher Deleuze when he says that what's important with thinking is 'what we can do with it'. And my hope was that this article could lead to folks making different decisions in their actual lives, or at least open a space for reflection on that. I think critical analysis plays an important role in that respect, and that's certainly one of the things happening here at Beams. Thanks for poppin in Dave, hope to hear from you again.

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