IT is funny now to think that when I was growing up in the unenlightened 1970s, that every Halloween, we actually lived the gender-neutral costume utopia that many feminists would give their signed copy of The Female Eunuch for now.
When I was a child heading out house-to-house for Halloween (trick or treat was an alien concept I had only every really come across in Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books), we were severely limited in our choice of costume.
There was no internet shopping or even fancy dress shops and because the standard garb was invariably a black bin bag with a slit cut in the top for your head, the only way to tell boys and girls apart was by their choice of plastic mask, which weren’t on a par with the movie effects-quality face-wear available now. Those masks were more lucky bag quality (if you need a lucky bag explained to you then we’re in for a long day).
The default setting back then for girls was usually a witch, boys a vampire or Frankenstein’s monster. Zombies were unheard of. The most creative anyone got was some plastic fangs and lipstick blood (the concept of face paint was still decades away). The whole point was that you looked scary. After all, that’s what Halloween was about.
But now Halloween has moved light years away from its roots as a pagan festival and become a consumerist fantasy and fancy dress extravaganza, for children and adults alike, a warm-up for the spendfest that is Christmas. With all of that comes the pressure.
The ‘what I’m going to dress up as for Halloween’ conversation (or perhaps that should be monologue) started with my two small girls during the summer. And thus did my attempts to steer them away from the princess costumes.
It’s not as if I have anything against princesses per se, it’s just that when it comes to costumes, traditionally, boys have always seemed to get a better deal. They’ve always had the benefit of sheer variety, for one thing: boys have pirates, cowboys, knights — all thrusting adventurers going forth to seek and conquer new challenges while princesses and their less than inspiring counterparts, the fairies, just hang around waiting to be saved. And possibly addressing some hair issues. It’s not as if female pirates, cowboys and knights are such left-field notions — see Calamity Jane, Joan of Arc and our own Granuaile.
It strikes me as a little unfair that the same princess costumes which get so many outings during the year tend to be produced as a lazy option at Halloween, which should be a time to really stretch the imagination. How, though? For parents and relatives of young girls who do not want them relegated to the role of a damsel in distress, the US website A Mighty Girl might be an option. It was set up by a couple who, after years of looking for empowering and inspirational books for their nieces, decided to help others interested in supporting and celebrating girls. Their Halloween costume guide features 400 girl-empowering costumes for all ages including fantasy, historical, superheroes, occupations, animals, and more.
Sounds a bit worthy? Admittedly it might be easier said than done to get your little ones enthused about dressing up as Amelia Earhart for Halloween, but even beginning that kind of discussion is at least a start.
Thankfully, there is a palpable change in the kind of female role models being presented to our children, on the big screen at least. I presume Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen is to thank for the bow and arrow sets I saw among the Barbies and miniature hoovers in the girls’ aisle of a toy store recently. And they weren’t even pink.
Princesses have also received a bit of a 21st century makeover, with Merida from Brave breaking out of her corseted gown to defy an arranged marriage and Frozen’s Anna saved from an icy end by an embrace, not from the male love interest, but her sister Elsa.
I have also learned to relax a little about what costumes my daughters choose to wear and also accept that sometimes nature trumps nurture. I remember buying my little girl a pirate costume and while she took to it with gusto for a day or two, it never had the same appeal as the frills and flounces of the princessy dresses and was soon relegated to the bottom of the dress-up box. I’m also aware of my own double standards when it comes to tut-tutting at their penchant for princesses. After all, I was obsessed with Snow White when I was younger, a princess who ends up in a cottage in the woods cleaning and cooking for seven small men. Hardly Andrea Dworkin, but I don’t think my fascination made me submissive or had a hugely detrimental effect on my self-worth. While I moved on to hero-worshipping Wonder Woman, her costume was always a tough one to imitate at home and my countless attempts to craft those bullet-repelling cuffs never really came off. In my defence, though, I was working with tin foil.
Of course, there is also no reason we can’t buy ‘boys’ costumes for girls — I’ve seen more than a few girls sporting Spiderman costumes in the past while. It works both ways: I recently read a letter to a newspaper from a proud mum whose three-year-old son was invited to a Pirates and Princesses party and chose to go as a Pirate Princess — his costume involved a pink tutu, floral head scarf, stripy tights and biker boots.
As girl power goes though, and given the nature of Halloween, we could do a lot worse than encourage girls to dress up as that old reliable, the witch. These much-maligned characters are well due a reappraisal. Witches have traditionally, and literally, stirred things up, going against societal norms (though you don’t have to tell your kids how the Salem Witch Trials ended). Also, for girls, who are often pressured and even encouraged to preen and prettify themselves from an early age, it is good to go to the other extreme and adopt the gnarly features of an old crone, warts ’n’ all. Halloween is a once-a-year opportunity to explore our dark side in a fun way and this should be embraced. It is also a chance to explain to children the concept of Samhain and its Celtic background: the invasion of Ulster in the Táin, for instance, supposedly began on the feast of Samhain, when the door to the world of the dead opened to let spirits through from the other side.
As a child raised on the gloriously shlocky Hammer horror films nothing would gladden my heart more than seeing my daughters going the full Christopher Lee, but for now the news is encouraging enough. As it turns out, daughter No 1 has decided to dress up as a witch while daughter No 2 is going for Wyldstyle, the kick-ass Lego Movie heroine. I couldn’t be prouder. Now, in a real feminist utopia her father would make the costume....
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