There’s currently a brouhaha in the United States about an “illegal alien” Halloween costume. Many major retail chains have pulled the costume from sale amid protests that it demonises immigrants.
Its most obvious shortcoming is that it’s stupid, but it does prod a political sore point in the US. Immigrant advocate Jorge-Mario Cabrera told the Associated Press the costume “perpetuates this idea we have about undocumented immigrants as alien foreigners, strangers, scary.”
The Halloween tradition of costuming was popularised in America by Irish immigrants and stems from the Celtic belief that on this evening, good and evil spirits roam the earth. To ingratiate yourself with the evil spirits, you disguise yourself as one of them.
Traditional Halloween imagery revolves around death, the occult, evil and monstrosity, but it also has elements of carnival — the temporary suspension and profaning of ordinary morality.
In this context, offensive Halloween costumes make more sense. They tend to fall into several strands: burlesques of shocking news stories and controversial celebrities; childish delight in sex and bodily functions; and deliberate flouting of social taboos.
But it’s one thing to make your own offensive costume. It’s more unsettling that others are being mass-manufactured and sold through mainstream stores and websites, including Amazon.
Take, for example, this Fu Manchu-esque illegal alien mask:
Its designer, Richard Zagone, calls himself “as left-wing as they come” and claims it’s ironic, but with its droopy moustache and baseball cap, it seems deliberately to play on stereotypes about Mexicans — whereas race is only implied in the other illegal alien suit.
But wait, there’s more. How about Robert No Dinero
and Fee Ling You?
Ha ha ha, it’s all so true! Latinos are poor! Chinese people have buck teeth and their names sound funny in English! And gay people are purple, with white fuzzy hair!
Other costumes aren’t as outrageously bigoted — but only because their racial, gender and s-xual stereotypes have been around so long they’ve become taken for granted.
A search for “Indian costume” will instantly turn up a plethora of Native American costumes, but funnily enough, it won’t find any saris, turbans or salwar kameez.
You could also get into a bit of Orientalism (make sure you bring a gong to soundtrack your entry to the party)
Or perhaps you could exploit women and African-Americans at the same time!
It’s dispiriting to have to spell this out, but it’s very, very uncool that costume manufacturers are profiting from perpetuating images that have historically been used to dominate and demean people.
Then there’s religion. Is it offensive to dress up as a statue of the Buddha?:
or as Jesus?
And how about that misogyny, eh? The tendency to turn Halloween into some sort of stripper convention is tedious … that is, when it’s not exploiting mental illness:
or eating disorders:
There are lots of costumes about bodily functions — giving birth, menstruation, toilets — and of course, the evergreen penises and vaginas, because everyone loves a good beaver!
How offensive these are depends on how squeamish you are and how much your sense of humour has moved on since you were 12.
“Plug and socket”:
Dodgy kids’ costumes can be offensive when they seem to defile our cultural ideals of childhood innocence. Some costumes impose adult s-xuality onto children (hello Miley Cyrus Junior, aka “Trashy Vampire “!), while others are horrifying because they evoke violence against children, or implicate children in acts of evil.
But lest I come across as some kind of humourless PC cop, there is also plenty of good, wholesome hilarity to be had in infant humiliation!