Laura Donovan / Gavel Media

What Not to Wear: Culture as a Costume

In September, a Halloween costume company was criticized for creating a costume that, once again, extorts a marginalized group. This time, it was not a culture that was being appropriated; rather, it was a group of women from the dystopian world of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale that was being exploited by an online retailer. The costume features the iconic red gown, a symbol of the systematic sexual abuse that handmaids of the republic of Gilead are forced to endure, which is completely outrageous—there is nothing sexy about rape.

After receiving a great deal of backlash, the online retailer, Yandy, eventually removed the costume and issued a statement of apology. Many are skeptical about how the company could put forth a costume that sexualizes misogyny and rape in the first place, and then claim that they are “rooted in female empowerment, and gender empowerment overall.” To me, this apology appears to be Yandy’s way of backtracking after they realized that they had offended a major portion of their clientele.

Why does Yandy’s statement of regret not come off as genuine?

Take a look at Yandy’s website and you'll see all the typical costumes: angels, devils, superheroes, etc. Dive deeper and you'll notice that Yandy, along with many other Halloween costume retailers, is not an advocate for empowerment after all. Cultural appropriation through Halloween costumes has long been an issue in America, and these retailers are still openly selling costumes like the “Deluxe Native American Princess Costume” and the “Dia De Los Beauty.” Such costumes take the rich history of a culture and turn it into an offensive caricature. While Yandy was quick to remove the Handmaid costume, they still have racist costumes for sale. 

Misogyny and racism, though different issues, are both serious and problematic. It is vital to remember that these issues extend far beyond the world of Halloween costumes. America has a tendency to ignore the voices of racial minorities and to only listen to the voices of historically privileged groups.

Take, for example, the #MeToo movement. Popularized by stars such as Alyssa Milano, Reese Witherspoon, and Jennifer Lawrence, most are familiar with #MeToo; however, only a small number of people are aware that the movement was actually started by a black woman named Tarana Burke. Burke founded the movement in order to aid underprivileged women of color affected by sexual abuse. Only when the idea strayed away from its roots and was picked up by white feminism did #MeToo become a revolution. Don’t get me wrong: I am not trying to devalue the stories of this new wave of women. I simply believe that every voice is equally valuable. The way we choose to represent people, ideas, and cultures in Halloween costumes is a microcosm of America at large, where the voices of the most powerful are the only ones heard. This is why Yandy removed their Handmaid costume within hours, yet continues to advertise culturally insensitive and demeaning costumes—our society may be standing up for women, but we draw the line at the intersection with race. 

Removing the Handmaid’s costume is a step in the right direction. Ideally, retailers would remove all offensive costumes. For now, we must remember that even small acts can compound into big changes. As the Halloween season approaches, be mindful of the costume you wear to ensure you are not being culturally insensitive.