It’s Halloween! This holiday is getting bigger every year in the U.S. – and with it, controversy is growing, too. If you are not from here, you may want a better understanding about what this day – and the debates – are all about.
When I was a kid, Halloween was all about the candy. My siblings and I would traipse around the neighborhood, delighting as we received a treat from nearly every house (except for those that handed out notes condemning our parents for letting us celebrate, or who insisted on giving raisins instead of chocolate). We would then enjoy bartering for other candy at school and having a morsel for the next few evenings after dinner. Eventually, the novelty wore off and my dad would sneak some for himself. By Christmas, it went in the garbage because more candy was on its way.
Despite the apparent waste and lack of economic rationalism (what sense does it make for each child to go door to door when they can just eat candy at home?), the candy was central because it was fun. Even so, this portion of the holiday has recently come under attack due to rising childhood obesity rates. They have a point, and if extra calories were the only reason for celebrating, the holiday would probably wane. So why, in this low-carb, low-sugar era, is Halloween becoming ever more popular?
Children and adults alike revel in the innocent and sanitized version of what goes bump in the night. Ghosts, mummies, bats, and all of those things that scare us are toned down and made cute, or at the other end of the spectrum, jazzed up to really make us jump out of our skin. Although some religious groups see this as dangerous dabbling in the occult, many Americans see it as good old fashioned fun. Some people put fake spider webs in their trees or around their front door, hang skeletons that are motion-activated, and stick gravestones in their front yard. Even my mom zombie-fied her Facebook profile pic and my 80+ year old grandmother has a door mat that scares kids. Boo!
Even in parts of the country that do not experience four seasons of equal length, Halloween symbolizes our traditional connection to autumn. Carving pumpkins (jack o’lanterns), decorating with leaves, visiting corn mazes, and going on hayrides are all associated with this time of year. It may be an even bigger deal in places like Phoenix than in colder parts of the country, as these activities give us what the weather cannot: a way to “have fall.”
Meanwhile, as the home-cooking movement has taken off, many are experimenting with squash recipes, canning, and other fall flavors – and posting photos to their social networks. Even those who buy food outside the home can participate, as pumpkin spice has come to dominate everything from Starbucks lattes to cereal and beer.
Halloween is also a time to showcase one’s creative talents. Each year I am amazed by the pumpkins my friends carve, some with entire scenes or patterns which put my raggedy childhood jack o’lanterns to shame. For those who can sew – and who can conceptualize a cool costume – it is also a fun time to show off. I remember one girl who came to high school dressed as grapes (made of purple balloons) and another who dressed as a picnic. Thanks to a talented babysitter, my sister was a present one year, wearing a cardboard box wrapped in paper and a bow on her head. (I do not have these talents, alas).
Costumes are arguably the visual centerpiece of the holiday. And in an era of culture clashes and culture wars, they are also the most controversial.
- Identity & Appropriation
In recent years, a campaign has swelled against dressing up like a person from another racial, ethnic, or religious group, such as Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, or Muslims. Some university guidelines have also expanded to include white stereotypes like Hillbillies, Rednecks, and Cowboys. (You can read about it here and here).
This is an outgrowth of two trends. One is that Millennial members of marginalized groups are vocal, socially-engaged, and fed up with being mimicked, parodied, objectified, lampooned, or used as props for others’ entertainment. Particularly among children (and grandchildren) of immigrants and civil rights activists, there is a feeling that the time has come to have a voice, to stake their claim over the representations of their own identities, and to have just as much say in their nation’s holiday as those who are White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The other is that themed parties which reveal a lack of sensitivity and good taste on the part of participants (think fraternities showing up in blackface or yellowface) have garnered more media attention. Whether these are a new thing or are just more visible thanks to social media, they have galvanized activists.
Yet others resist what they view as political correctness run amok. (See one example here). Many Americans see Halloween as a time to not think – to not “do their homework,” (research what is acceptable), to not care, and to be overtly transgressive and violate social norms. In this way, the effort to redress social wrongs goes against the nature of the modern holiday (at least one vein of it), even as the “culture, not a costume” campaign gains ground.
Similarly, Halloween is also the time in the U.S. calendar when many adults feel “anything goes.” There is a trend of women dressing up in sexy costumes (sexy pirate, sexy nurse, sexy witch, etc.), and it seems that adults are having more parties of their own instead of just waiting at home to hand out candy to kids. Perhaps because we do not have a holiday like Carnivale where this kind of behavior is temporarily deemed permissible (with some notable exceptions, like in New Orleans), Halloween has become the default day. It’s not without criticism, but I also have to say that I know some very strong women who feel it is their prerogative to dress up, for example, as sexy police officers. So, as with other aspects of this holiday, it is hardly a resolved issue.
- Gender roles
Lately there has also been a growing awareness about how the way we talk to girls and boys shapes their identities, and these pressures are very visible when children choose their costumes. In particular, there is concern about girls being told that they should aspire to be pretty over intelligent, like a princess over a doctor. For many parents, nothing is more precious than seeing their daughter dressed in a Disney costume, but for others, it is a moral battleground in which they try to appeal to their children’s future selves over media pressure to be cute. Likewise, there is a movement to be more open to boys experimenting with non-stereotypically male costumes, like this boy who wants to go as Alice . Even so, in my experience, there are far more costumes aligned with traditional gender norms than those that break barriers. While social media is full of people discussing these issues, many people simply want their kids to have a good time and do not think about it too much.
Above all, Halloween remains appealing because it is a rite of passage for most American children. Getting dressed up, being out in the cold (or almost-cold) at night, showing off one’s costume, and receiving little gifts in a pumpkin-shaped bucket epitomize the magic of childhood that adults want to give to their children. Even for adults without children, it presents a rare opportunity to use our imaginations, play, and bask in the moment. (My husband and I are no exception: We bought LEGO people masks this year).
The fact that aspects of the holiday are controversial is a reminder that culture is not static, but constantly in flux. It is also a window into a country where things are openly argued – a place where you are entitled to an opinion. Finally, it might also mean that our work-oriented culture could use a bit more fun for the sake of fun spread throughout the year. So go ahead: dress up, go out, and have that candy. Your inner child will thank you.