Monday, November 2, 2009

NaBloPoMo - Sanitizing Halloween

Halloween is over and done with for the year, but the pictures and stories continue.

I saw a couple of spectacular monarch butterflies - both on an adult and and infant. Another pair of favorites was a friend and her ten-year-old brother dressing up as Sarah P@lin and Joe the Plumber. P@lin had a stuffed moose afixed to her shoulder and a rifle over the other arm, a preppy look with sweater over white shirt, upsweep and glasses. Joe had various plumber accoutrements and a great, goofy smile. One young relative was going as gum on a shoe - wearing a sneaker on her head and wearing all pink. Haha! Another friend dressed as a LolCat, speaking only in LolCat-ese. It made me twitch, but it was funny! And then there are the suave dancing men who alway cross-dress with aplomb, or come up with alternative scary fairy godmothers we'd never dreamed of! I love how creative people get with their concepts.

One disturbing trend, though, is to forceably tone down the scary or "unacceptable" parts of the holiday for children, especially their costumes. There's an article from The New York Times talking about this very trend. My local paper also spent some space arguing for and against restrictions on how children be "allowed" to dress up. This seems to be a protective measure gone horribly awry.

I can understand the protective impulse myself - I would not want my child to have nightmares or feel threatened. However, I oppose sanitizing our culture on principle. I'm not talking about something like hate speech; I'm talking about freedom of personal expression. Why would we want to curb that expression as long as a person is not being destructive or breaking any laws? Thou shalt not make fun of a public figure? Ha! A time-honored tradition. We'd need more of a reason than that.

There's a fallacy that we can clean up and prettify everything in our world. I'm not convinced we can. And certainly not prettify everyone else according to our own ideals - that's just petty and controlling.

Even if a scary or strange costume supposedly represents some dark aspect of our personalities, sanitizing seems to think that one could banish the distasteful bits out of existence. Hit 'em with some bleach, and it'll all be shiny and happy. Oh, were it that simple.

Sanitizing something means the less pretty aspects go somewhere else, out of our sight but not really gone. As anyone from a psychology background could tell you, an anxiety-ridden impulse repressed will, under pressure, come out somewhere else. I'm wondering if encouraging (forcing) children to make bland costume choices is a societal version of squeezing zits. Thou shalt not be an unsightly ghoul. Begone!

And more, I'm not convinced we should sanitize our costumes, much less allow anyone to dictate what is acceptable. It's disturbing that we feel the need to control other people to that degree.

Maybe we feel so out of control that, like a teen with an eating disorder, we find ourselves controlling one of the few things we can, even if it hurts us, even if it's deadly for our long-term health. Never mind the consequences, clamp down on that NOW. No, no free-thinking creatives around here!

Yes, maybe our world is pretty scary and getting scarier. Maybe we as parents, teachers, et al feel anxious about protecting our children. (Maybe we even want to shelter ourselves.) So banishing scary costumes is going to fix those anxieties? I don't think so. Yes, it's fun to dress up in a scary persona. It's fun to dress up as a professional or political figure. I like the bad-pun costumes and the clever interpretations. I'm not crazy about the horrifying or overly-sexy costumes, but children encouraged to dress up as *food*, as cheese?? Is that considered "safe" enough? Lord, child!

I think Halloween is actually beneficial to allow us to air some of the darker and weirder aspects in a safe, even fun, way. There's the scary parts - ghouls and flesh-eating zombies - and the strange and disturbing - the dirty old man - and also the playful - cross dressing and silly puns, and making fun of cultural icons. Some costumes compel us to marvel at their design or the perfection of an idea well-executed such as one woman who wore a stunning peacock costume or an engineering friend who turned spray-painted cardboard and LED lights into an amazing transformer costume.

We can also make jokes about our society, the strange everyday events that play out in the media and our collective consciousness. How many Mich@el J@cksons were there out there this year, either in homage or as satire? I saw at least one "B@lloon Boy" wearing a poofy, silver oval hat.

We can dress to play with another aspect of our personality, or to play with something completely opposite from our usual persona. The good girl can flirt with the bad witch. We can step into something so unlike ourselves that our friends wonder who we are, and marvel at how well we act our part. In fact, the MORE opposite our costume is from our usual selves, the more stunning it can be. Who was that SaturdayNightLive character who, when confronted with some awkward scene of his own design, would triumphantly proclaim, "Acting!"? Ha! I fooled you! We can also emulate something we have not reached such as the Roman leisure class. Toga, anyone?

Children role-play all the time, trying to make sense of their world. What does it mean to be this person? What does it mean when I act a certain way? Telling a child that they are not allowed to dress in any way outside of "safe" territory is telling them that this business is way too serious, much more dangerous than it actually is. Our own fear would foster unease. Yes, I have a list of offensive personas that I would not let my children employ, but one night of acting does not a person make.

Dressing in a disguise was a way for us to protect ourselves against evil spirits during this time of thinning boundaries between us and the spirit world, according to the lore of the time. But now, most of us don't worry about confusing evil spirits; we just want to dress up and collect candy.

The brilliant thing about modern Halloween costume-dressing is that we are all allowed that commentary, that play-acting. How far we can go outside ourselves? And why the h3ll does someone need to tell us what is acceptable or not? Bland city, no thank you. Maybe next year, I'll go as a "costume police" and wag my finger at people. Tsk tsk!

1 comment:

Flying Saucer Jones said...

Splendid post, m'lady. Just the right amount of rant and indignation, tempered with a sprinkling of bon vivant and simmered nicely over a warm fire.