So in the half-assed spirit of Halloween and everything that goes along with it, I found myself stumbling across this poster campaign of the sulky-faced United Colours of Benetton dictating the boundaries of moral decency and the lines of right and wrong when it comes to putting together a Halloween costume. Now I tentatively agree with the point of this, and how it encourages a little foresight and sensitivity about costume choices, but I’m finding the whole idea a little ham-fisted in delivery, and if these parodies are anything to go by, I’m not the only one.I’ve always ascribed to the idea that Halloween costumes aren’t supposed to be funny or clever, they’re supposed to be something which inspires you (Nightwing costume, 2009) something that scares you (I can’t dress as Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, and won’t dress as Woody Allen) or something that provides enough of a shock to your sensibilities that it unnerves you.
With that last in mind it isn’t much of a stretch or surprise that issues of offense are so intertwined with Halloween.
I can’t argue for the top left “costume” or anyone else who sees a reason to “black up” outside of making a relevant semiotic or cultural point. Simply looking like a racial demarcation is neither statement or outfit in itself. The other examples however… Geisha are not a racial or cultural group but a specific institution. While fancy dressing as one may be a bit cheap or glib, it has no real difference from dressing as any other trade or institution. Builders, firefighters or soldiers, for example.
Under the same logic ninja costumes aren’t acceptable. Or any other costume, since they’re all an institution, career, or item weighted with cultural connotations, ownership and intent. Surely genuine doctors won’t appreciate you dressing as slutty nurses because it undermines their professionalism, while victims of industrial accidents shouldn’t find your axe or car crash wounds very funny, and sufferers of survivors guilt are not going to be suitably impressed when the dead walk the earth.
Look at pirates! Pirates are immensely popular. Children dress as them. bands sing songs about them. Parties are not just themed around them but also an anagram of them! Meanwhile in Somalian waters real pirates are stealing, raping, killing and beheading.
The suicide bomber example does much more harm than good, solidifying a connection between terrorism and the dominant cultures and religions of the middle east. While the other three costumes have specific regional links to the complainants holding their images, this last one makes an assumed link between a specific activity and a particular culture. People in that costume are much more likely to say “I am dressing as a suicide bomber” than “I am dressing as a person of middle-eastern origin” and the intention falls completely flat while reinforcing a negative stereotype.
Unfortunately the backlash to this campaign (of which I am well aware I am part) also goes a little too far. As a format it has become very easy to copy and mock, with hundreds of parodies appearing in a short space of time- some clever, some stupid, and some that are downright offensive thanks to their complete missing of the point.
The knee-jerk reaction is often to decry anyone who is offended by anything whatsoever, and intentionally cause more offense in turn. These aggressive counterpoints devalue the original message, which does have some merit and weight.
For example the poster of the Hispanic boy (I’m calling him Hispanic because I haven’t seen his passport (now I feel I’m making an immigration joke, when all I mean is I am unaware of his actual nationality)) makes a valid point about thinking about Mexican stereotypes. By all means dress as a Mexican. By all means dress as a false stereotype of a Mexican. Just don’t assume that any genuine Mexican is even remotely similar or impressed.
It would be nice if the approach had been a little more “stop and think this Halloween” and a little less “do not do this!” The costume I wore this Halloween weekend was all about a stop-and-be-unsettled approach, but I was constantly aware of its potential to upset. When anyone expressed any offense, I didn’t shove it in their face or tell them to lighten up, I explained the intentionally jarring nature of the costume and the thought that went into it, and if they clearly wanted me to, I kept out of their way.
Nothing happens when to you when you’re offended. You don’t catch leprosy. If your behavior or appearance offends someone then you look at yourself and what you’re doing, and if you can find any justifiable spark for their response, you apologise. If this isn’t enough maybe the two of you open a dialogue on the issue. I’m pretty sure that’s just called “not being a dick.”
We shouldn’t brazenly offend one another without due care, but we also can’t tiptoe around each other too much, or next year the lack of “okay” costumes will have us all dressed as the same slutty kittens. Slutty-but-abstinent kittens.