Halloween is a scary time (for those outside the dominant ideology, for those on the unfortunate side of power dynamics). I (We? No, too many variants in that we. Only common in our antagonist …and even I am only implicated indirectly) spend the days leading up to the 31st much the way my cousin taught me to behave while passing a graveyard – by holding my breath.
Halloween in contemporary culture is deeply entrenched in capitalism. Halloween itself seems to be historically rooted in the celtic practices on the day preceding the festival Samhain. It was believed that on the day preceding Samhain, the deceased returned (as ghosts). Because of this, people would leave food and wine on their doorsteps and, if they left their houses, they would don masks so that they would also be mistaken as ghosts. There are other similar practices that have also contributed to our contemporary iterations of Halloween, but this one is what stuck to the dominant ideological formation and found itself being articulated and transformed throughout the middle ages – such as the interruption of the church, transforming the celtic festival into All Saints Day and the evolution from leaving out food and wine to ‘souling,’ a practice in which peasants would beg for food and would pray for people’s dead relatives in exchange. According to what history tells us, these traditions were revived by celtic immigrants in the 19th century. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Halloween became a family affair and an occasion for elaborate costuming and candy-giving. Since this time, though, Halloween seems to have continued on this path, becoming the second most profitable holiday after Christmas.
What does it mean then to have a business model based around the concept of dressing up? What sorts of costumes get made? What are “the characteristics of the […] ideal user” (Latour 301)? Perhaps, more importantly for me, what happens for the non-ideal users?
The types of Halloween costumes that people buy (or create) tend to “come in three categories: scary, funny, or fantastical” (Wade). Halloween costumes, if one only looks around, also seem to be an exercise in exaggeration. The superhero costume, for example, falls quite firmly into the realm of the fantastical [though some certainly have aspects of the scary, where villains are concerned, or funny where certain characters (Deadpool?) are concerned]. The superhero is, themself, an exaggerated human possessing super strength, abilities, physique, wit. What does it mean then that these costumes (often with built-in abs) are prevalent? Perhaps this type of costume (and the figure of superhero in pop culture) speaks to the sorts of iterations of self that are to be aspired to in accordance to the discourse of the dominant ideology. What is to be desired, what is desired by the majority and then reinterpreted back into what is to be desired, is this physical exaggeration of self, is the “pinnacle” of human evolution. But then whose pinnacle? According to whom? What is the presence of built-in abs on a costume teaching a child to feel about their body? The ideal user of this costume isn’t meant to ask these questions, though; the ideal user subscribes and “accept[s] or happily acquiesce[s] to their lot” (Latour 307).
So what happens when you aren’t the ideal user? What happens when you are not in the position intended for articulation, not the intended “cab” for the “trailer,” as Stuart Hall describes it (in terms of an articulated lorry) (53)?
Well, from the perspective of the insider, from the perspective of the person on the inside of the dominant ideology, it is the job of the user to become ideal and anything outside of that is a failure on the user’s part. When we speak, for example, of “historical” and “cultural” costumes, it is clear from the articulations of the costumes themselves (the intended facsimile versus the materials used versus the “liberties” taken in design) that they are not intended for those who have knowledge of such things, not intended for those who can see their breakages. Even the pictured models betray this point. For good measure, here are a few popular examples of costumes on a costume website:
“What’s the big deal?” the insider asks. “It’s just a costume. It’s funny,” he says.
And yes, he does say this. In response to the recent attention a BC Halloween store received for its costumes’ trivializing of Indigenous cultures, the owner Tony Hudgens response was: “It is not our intention to offend any race or creed. We would like to stress that as some Halloween costumes might come across as controversial, our intention at Halloween Alley is to celebrate life (Halloween Style!), and have fun with our friends and families during Halloween festivities.”
But oh, Tony. Tony Tony Tony… Gentle, innocent, Insider Tony…
Your intention (if we are to take you at your word) and the costumes are not isolated things. As with what Hall claims of Baudrillard’s argument about the implosion of meaning, your desire to have this simplistic fun also “rest[s] upon an assumption of the sheer facticity of things: things are just what is seen on the surface” (49). To you, dear Tony, your bottom line and the use by the dominant culture is more important than those who are harmed by these iterations and by the intended articulation of the dominant subject donning such a costume.
Have you even listened to the voices of those who you are attempting to clumsily represent? Look, Tony…
You see, the costume may have certain properties that grant it certain agencies on its own, but it exists, as with all things, “in a particular formation […] in relation to a number of different forces” (Grossberg 54) . Even if the costume has “no necessary, intrinsic” belonging, it still has a meaning (it exists within the systems of ideology and language …from which nothing can entirely escape) and this meaning “comes precisely from its position within a formation” (54). You see, you cannot simply have a costume of an indigenous dress, intended for the dominant (thus white settler) consumption void of its existence in relation to the genocide of indigenous and first nations people in Canada or the erasure of indigenous and first nations languages and cultures in the name of assimilation. In the same vein, it is not okay for Miley Cyrus to continue sporting dreads and it is not okay that I used to have my ears spaced to 00g. The narrative of activism around cultural appropriation works in direct relation to the theory of articulation and assemblage. Tony, Miley, if you were to accept that “contingent relations among practices, representations, and experiences […] make up the world” and that these articulations have a “structured and affective nature,” (Slack 126), I’m certain that you would start to see how the things you do are harmful and, maybe, how you could make them better.
With these issues in mind, I’d like to return to a different sort of ‘funny’ (offensive) costume. For now, let’s call these the ‘drag as joke’ costumes. These are the costumes, usually intended for cis d00ds, that involve over-accentuated breasts, a wig, and some sort of mock-sexy get-up.
note the description here…
Unlike drag (which I’ll admit has some of its own problems in its contemporary manifestation), it is not a parody of traditional gender roles and presentation, it is not a social commentary, it is not connected to a history of activism and oppression in its own right, and it doesn’t attempt any sort of artistry. Simply put, it is not trying to be part of that conversation. These costumes, as actants, are not seeking these assemblages – but they can’t entirely escape them, either. As such, the person donning these costumes is presented with a contest of “the different regimes of truth in the social formation” (Grossberg 48). In order to assert the power of the dominant ideology, the actor exaggerates the drag to obscene and ‘comical’ levels. They perform a parody – both of drag itself and of the traditionally-gendered female subject – in order to reassert the power of the dominant ideology of the m/f binary, constructed around and constructing our arbitrary ideas regarding genitalia and gender. In making this performance a joke, they also make femininity, drag, and transgressive gender performances/identities a joke, thus reasserting the power dynamic within those articulations.
I believe that this sort of costume and the ideas around it play a significant role in this year’s ‘hit’ costume. It’s received a good amount of backlash yet it’s still one of the top selling costumes and has sold out in many stores…
To the Insider, this costume probably doesn’t seem that different to the ones depicted earlier… and in a sense, that’s true, because those earlier costumes are still contributing harmful ideas to this cultural assemblage. At the same time, however, it is drastically different.
For those of you out of the loop, Caitlyn Jenner came out this past year as a trans woman. Now, of course, there have been plenty of (ok, not even close to plenty, but definitely ‘some’) trans women in the media (srsly, mom, have you never heard of Laverne Cox?) recently who could have easily ‘represented’ the trans community, but Caitlyn’s class status, whiteness, and age all worked together to create maximum visibility. This visibility, however, also made her the easy target of the dominant ideology’s ‘jokes.’ We see this manifesting here in the creation of a costume marketed primarily to cis men. Now, what does that do? Well, in the first place, by making it into a costume, it delegitimizes trans identities, it converses with the discourse that asserts that ‘gender’ is what is assigned at birth and that there are no deviations (this also erases intersex identities and discounts the extensive variation in hormones and genitalia that actually exist). Further, by marketing the product to cis men, by treating cis men as the ideal user, it undermines the process of self-identification for trans folks and asserts, in line with the dominant ideology and narrative of ‘trans deceit,’ that trans women aren’t really women and that, consequently, trans folks of all sorts aren’t really what they say they are.
It is for this reason that, at Halloween, I hold my breath. Now, if you’ve made the unfortunate mistake of interpellating me according to the articulations presented by the dominant ideology, you probably don’t get it. So I’ll just say this: clothing (‘costumes,’ if you will), behaviours, assigned genders at birth, sexual attraction/orientation, hair style/length, and names are all singular elements within assemblages. None have the inherent agency to gender anyone or anything – they only do so when articulated within the dominant ideology. If a self-identified man wears makeup, it does not change his gender – that makeup is merely the “trailer” to a different “cab” than what you were expecting. In the same way, those who – insofar as gender is concerned – have no “cab,” can pull at any “trailer” without it needing anything more – they “need not necessarily be connected to one another” (53).
The difference though, I think, is that it is up to the person affected by the assemblage and made an Outsider by the dominant ideology to choose when these things are ok (for themselves alone).
“‘Racist’ Halloween costumes should be pulled from shelves, says B.C. man.” CBC News. CBC/Radio-Canada, October 27 2015. Web.
Grossberg, Lawrence. “On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10 (1986): 45-60.
Johnson, Jim [Bruno Latour]. “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer.” Social Problems 35 (1988): 298-310.
Slack, Jennifer Daryl, and J. Macgregor Wise. “Articulation and Assemblage.” Culture + Technology: A Primer. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. 125-133.
Wade, Lisa. “Racist Halloween Costumes.” The Society Pages: Sociological Images. W. W. Norton & Company, October 29 2009. Web.