Bridget Jones in a Playboy bunny outfit. Picture / Supplied.

Is Your Costume Horribly Offensive?

Don’t be that person in a Native American headdress or Playboy Playmate outfit — here are a few points to consider before dressing up

Many of us have moved on from egregious racism or sexism — minstrel shows are, thankfully, a thing of the past, and the majority of us recognise that a woman’s place isn’t solely in the kitchen. But, in terms of equality, we’ve still got a long way to go, a fact that all too often rears its ugly head at Halloween, the office Christmas party and any other occasion in which we dress up. Here are a few points to consider before putting on a costume, as told by Dr Suzanne Woodward and Dr Colin Cremin of the University of Auckland.

What is cultural appropriation?
In simple terms, cultural appropriation is when someone adopts aspects of a culture that isn’t their own. “It’s when you take something, usually a stereotyped style or design or cultural emblem from another culture — in other words, not your own — and use it for your own purposes without understanding or acknowledging where it came from,” says Woodward.

Why do people dress up as other cultures?
We use Halloween, Christmas parties and other occasions as an excuse to shed our skin and become someone or something else for a moment. Woodward says we look to other cultures because we’re used to our own, but also because of a fascination with those that are deemed exotic or strange by the Western world. “What’s strange and different is exciting, and a lot of the stereotypes around marginalised groups and cultures feed into that from a very European point of view, of European as normal and central, and everything else strange and exotic and other and primitive.”

Why is that offensive?
The key thing about cultural appropriation is that it’s not about respect or showing understanding of a culture. Woodward says it’s using Western stereotypes of cultures which are very one-dimensional and not truly representative of that culture. “When you reproduce and reinforce those stereotypes, it continues the discrimination and the prejudice that people have to put up with on a day-to-day basis that actually has an extraordinarily negative impact on a lot of people’s lives.

“People who dress up as Native Americans, for example, who are wearing the feather headdresses, without an understanding of these as sacred in Native American cultures. It’s just, ‘Oh! That looks cool, I’ll just wear that’.”

Am I being sexist?
Cremin says we often see men dressing up in women’s clothes, especially during stag parties, but a lot of the time it’s done in a misogynistic way. “It’s often a crude, poorly assembled caricature of a woman, which strikes me as slightly misogynistic, rather than an expression of femininity to challenge masculine norms.”

Woodward adds: “If you see a man in a dress or a skirt, it’s still seen as a joke a lot of the time. And that makes it quite apparent, that being a woman is a bit of a joke, which is a problem.”

Am I reinforcing gender stereotypes?
Take a look at the costume you’re considering — would those suffragettes who fought for the right to vote think you were being progressive? Woodward says anything that reinforces stereotypes or perpetuates a power imbalance isn’t helpful. “Stereotypes that encourage women to be seen as weaker or as just sex objects, any of those kinds of things, are really not helpful, and they just serve the purposes of the dominant group.”

What about cross-dressing?
Cremin welcomes those who seek to transgress gender norms, because he says they need to be challenged. “I think cross-dressing has to be seen according to the context, and what it means to the person doing it.

“If a man wants to dress in women’s clothes, I don’t have a problem with that, but I do have a problem when it’s done in a mocking, aggressive kind of way.”

Woodward says this can be disrespectful to those who push gender boundaries in everyday life. “If people are doing that for fun or because they think it’s a joke, then it is rather dismissive of trans people and their lived experiences of not fitting in this very rigid binary that society has constructed of men and women.

“I think if people are genuinely interested in pushing boundaries around those sorts of things, then great. If they’re doing it because they’re mocking it, then again it’s this thing of not being particularly respectful of others.”

Is this all just political correctness gone too far?
Woodward says it’s not asking much to simply respect other people’s ways of life. “It’s about power. Those marginalised communities have already suffered a huge amount of discrimination in every aspect of life, from education to housing to the justice system — you name it — so this is just another form of discrimination, because it’s saying, ‘I have rights over you and your culture, to take it, represent it how I want and do what I want with it, just for fun’.”

But I’m not racist or sexist.
“Part of the problem is that a lot of people think it doesn’t matter anymore because we are in a supposedly post-racial society, where we have equality and there’s no more racism,” says Woodward. “But people in marginalised groups know that’s not true, and so to compound that sort of denial of the real world power imbalances by saying, ‘Oh no, I’ll prove it by putting on a costume’, it just makes it worse. It doesn’t actually prove that there is no more racism or no more inequality, it just proves that you don’t care about it.”

How can I be more considerate?
Think about where the costume is coming from, and what it represents. “If you’re dressing up as a fictional character, like a vampire, for example, that isn’t someone else’s culture,” says Woodward. “If it is actually someone else’s culture, then think twice about it, about whether you are treating that culture with that respect that you would like to be shown.

“Try and encourage a culture of respect. You can have perfect fun dressing up as all sorts of things. Dress up as a polar bear, dress up as a zombie. There are a lot of options. You don’t have to do one of these offensive costumes that are about appropriation or discrimination. So why not just dress up as something else.”

Cremin says we should question whether our costumes enhance other people’s capacity to express themselves, or harm it.

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