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Time, Place, and Race: What Makes a Halloween Costume Offensive? Offensive Halloween Costumes: Time, Place, and Race

“Some people behave like complete jackasses when they’re in costume.”

On Halloween night in 1997, Daniel James Cole wrapped a broken seatbelt around his neck, covered half his face in blood, and stuck a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament through his cheek. Princess Diana had died in a car crash two months earlier; Cole decided to celebrate the holiday by dressing as Dodi Fayed, the man who died at her side. “Most people thought it was a fantastic, brilliant costume,” says Cole, a professor of fashion history at New York University. “One person told me it was disgusting and I should go home.”

Halloween has always been an inherently disgusting celebration: Cole calls it “a holiday about the dead coming out of their graves.” In recent years, though, contemporary revelers have expanded upon Halloween’s visceral thrills to serve up broader cultural offenses—dressing as terrorist victims, racist stereotypes, vegetative Terri Schiavos, and the gory recently deceased. But for every deliberately offensive Twin Towers couples costume walking the streets on October 31, there are a dozen more get-ups that occupy an ambiguous area between provocative thrill and social suicide.

What makes a Halloween costume inappropriate? An offensive costume is “in the eye of the beholder,” Cole says. “But certainly, there are some lines that we have to draw.” At modern Halloween events, where every reveler seeks a different thrill, that line can get awfully blurry. Children hit the streets on Halloween to horrify (ghosts, zombies) or inspire (sports stars, royalty). Adults suit up in costumes targeted at getting a laugh (giant banana, hot dog, or penis) or getting laid (“sexy” anything). Costumes can either defile or glorify the dead, depending on their execution. And a costume reception has everything to do with its time, place, and cultural context.

Timing. Cole’s Fayed costume hits at a common complaint lodged against those who dress as the dead: “Too soon.” But if Cole had waited another year to put a hood ornament through his head, the costume “wouldn’t have made any sense,” he says—public horror over Dodi and Diana’s deaths would have subsided, but so would the thrill of a shocking costume. Bill Maher sparked similar criticism in 2006 when he dressed as impaled Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who had died of a stingray barb through the chest weeks earlier. Then again, comedy is all about timing.

Fittingly, Time Magazine recently compiled a list of costumes it has deemed “Too Soon” for 2011. They run the gamut from recently-deceased cultural figures like singer Amy Winehouse and tech pioneer Steve Jobs to notorious monsters like international terrorist Osama bin Laden. But the cultural appropriateness of these costumes says less about the passage of time than it does about the eternal nature of Halloween. Is the holiday dedicated to defiling or glorifying the dead? If it’s the former, you might take issue with drawing on Winehouse’s cat eyes or slipping on Jobs’ black turtleneck; if it’s the latter, dressing as bin Laden would probably give you pause.

Cultural Impact. Certain offensive costumes—like zombie Dodi Fayed—take one death lightly. Others implicate the systematic killing of millions. After Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi for a friend’s private birthday bash, he publicly apologized; the Board of Deputies of British Jews was particularly disturbed that Harry had strapped on the insignia “in the run-up to Holocaust memorial day.” In the case of certain wide-scale horrors—the Holocaust, human slavery, and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance—the cultural aftershocks of these events continue to reverberate so intensely that every Halloween is “too soon.”

Take the case of Anne Frank. One confused costume-seeker took to the Internet to ask whether it would be appropriate to dress as the world's most widely-read Holocaust victim for Halloween. Indeed, Frank provides an interesting case: The costume could be aspirational, in that her diary is read by schoolchildren everywhere as a testament to the human spirit; it could also be egregiously offensive, as she died in the Holocaust, one of the most devastating events in human history. Commenters are divided on whether the costume is “inappropriate” or “just strange.” But is it ever really appropriate to engage in candy-coated, booze-soaked debauchery while dressed as a girl who gave voice to the depths of human suffering?

Today's costume-wearers have reason to be confused. The 24-hour news cycle has severely complicated the offense calculation. Wall-to-wall television coverage has the power to elevate any small-town crime into a society-wide tragedy for as long as the story has legs. Revelers looking to widely offend could dress as this year’s gruesome crime victim du jour—3-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose unsolved murder ignited a media firestorm this summer when suspect mom Casey was let off the hook. Sure, dead babies are particularly difficult to pull off, no matter the context. But once the news cycle expires, these crimes often lack the wider cultural impact to truly offend. Few party-goers today would feel truly hurt at the sight of a Lindbergh Baby costume, or even a Jon Benet Ramsey one.

Race. Humans have appropriated the costumes of other groups of people since cultures first clashed. “We know of people dressed as other cultures probably going back to the Greeks,” Cole says. “But we don’t have a clear way to gauge if it was indeed offensive, or how it was received.” Today, revelers can follow a few guidelines that should apply at every gathering. Blackface is out, as are white hoods. Rule of thumb: If you ever find yourself justifying your outfit by sharing that your "best friend is black," your costume is racist.

Also falling out of favor are those cultural stereotypes available on Halloween store shelves everywhere: The Indian princesses, sexy Eskimos, grinning Chinese deliverymen, and “illegal aliens.” These caricatures are offensive even before they’re plucked from a hanger, but they become particularly inappropriate when donned by a person who does not directly suffer the effects of their stereotypes.

The race issue becomes more ambiguous when party-goers elect to dress as a specific person of another race. Take one of the most popular cross-racial costumes of recent years: The Hipster Grifter. Halloween 2009 saw legions of white women dress as hip scam artist Kari Ferrell, who is Asian, by donning black wigs, skinny jeans, and drawn-on tattoos. “Yellowfacing”—the non-Asian performance of Asian characters—has a long and ugly history in the United States, from Hollywood (where plum Asian character roles were distributed to white actors) to homeroom (white teen star Miley Cyrus was caught on camera pulling the skin around her eyes to approximate slits). The Grifter costume largely evaded these associations: Ferrell is a unique and specific enough character that dressing and performing as her for an evening generally fails to inspire any crude racial spoofing. (The Grifter herself is attempting her own ambiguously offensive Halloween costume this year).

Halloween 2009 brought a more more ambiguous cross-racial costume: Kanye West. When West derailed Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at that year's Video Music Awards, he launched 1,000 white-boy rapper costumes: Just slip on some shutter shades, clutch a gold statuette, and run your mouth. Whether or not these cross-cultural costumes registered as offensive or not depended on how the costumer-wearer chose to mimic West's personality—and how racist their impression was. A non-black person need not literally apply blackface to "perform" blackness in an offensive way. And particularly when a costume is ambiguous—and a white guy dressed as Kanye West is not always an immediately recognizable—the costume-wearer may respond by laying on black stereotypes to get the message across. Add alcohol, and the potential for racist posturing reaches the danger zone.

“Whenever anybody puts on a masquerade costume, they can feel like it gives them license to behave in ways they never would in their normal lives,” Cole says. That experience can be liberating for the wearer, but it’s not always pleasant for everyone else: “Some people behave like complete jackasses when they’re in costume.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user adrigu

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