Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Spectacle of the Halloween Slut

by Elizabeth Winkler

It’s the morning after Halloween and in reviewing the night’s events, the prime question remains: How many sexy bunny costumes did we count in total? German beer girls? Barbie dolls? Nurses? Catholic school girls? French maids?

Even – it’s awfully popular this year – Sarah Palins?

And perhaps even more importantly, how many of these girls have deluded themselves into thinking that they’re dressing as various takes on porn stars because it makes them feel good, because they want to, because it is their “choice.”

When free will is influenced by the reality that men enjoy, pay attention to and legitimize the “slutty cop” and her entourage, how much of an unbiased choice still realistically exists? Would the cop be dressing like that if we lived in a society that had no history of turning women into pure objects of male sexual fantasy? Where else would she have gotten this idea? Can concealing it in the illusion of ‘choice’ every really transform the fundamental nature of the sexy Halloween costume?

The problematic idea here – that women can reclaim “playing slut” by convincing themselves that it makes them happy, rather than men – uncovers one of the basic, most pervasive distortions of modern feminism: that choice makes a difference. For one, choice is heavily influenced by a social environment that caters to the male, and two, choosing to be a sex object can never be liberating by the act of choice itself, when the all-important result – the sex object – remains the same.

So the fundamental question that girls fail to ask themselves here is: why does this make me happy? Is it possibly because women are born into a world of male meaning-making where women seek approval from those who matter – those who own and control the means of production in every form – by pleasing them?

As de Beauvoir famously quipped, “one is not born a woman but becomes a woman.” The male exists as both the masculine and the neutral, so that when a woman is set in juxtaposition with the masculine Essential – say, by his pleased gaze and wink when she walks across campus, or even in the moment when she stands alone in front of the mirror before a night at the street, contemplating her wardrobe – she feels her femininity, the consciousness of her womanhood, imposed upon her. She is no longer just a person walking down the street, just a human getting dressed; the flickering identity of being female is felt once again.

In these moments (and often more than moments), the male presence – in physical, emotional, or psychological forms – exists as a sort of audience to which she feels a compulsion to cater: the woman walking across campus, victim of catcalls and snide comments, the girl donning her sexy French maid costume, all function as a sort of “spectacle.” The ‘stage,’ after all, exists as the most explicit form of otherness to the realm of the real. Thus, the woman locates her identity not only in the ‘not-male’ but also in the psychic space into which the male projects his insecurities and fears as well as his distant fantasies and desires.

The costume-wearing nature of Halloween thus seems to simply exaggerate the performance of gender roles and the spectacle of femininity that already exists in everyday life. Unlike the gender critique that is drag, however, it buttresses the system of the woman-entertainer to male-viewer, condoning and reinvigorating the performative exchange until next year… or just until tomorrow?

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying it’s bad to look sexy, or pretty or desirable. It’s absolutely natural for both men and women to want to look attractive, but when looking attractive becomes mimicking porn stars, something is seriously wrong. And even worse when one realizes that it is only dramatizes the actual relations that turn the female body into the perpetual sight of the spectacle and the female self into a flickering non-identity, contingent on the projections of the male.

7 Comments:

At October 28, 2008 at 11:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When free will is influenced by the reality that men enjoy, pay attention to and legitimize the “slutty cop” and her entourage, how much of an unbiased choice still realistically exists?"

Outside of insane asylums, free will is always influenced by reality.

And however much feminists cry, there is nothing de facto wrong with trying to please others, even if these others happen to be male.

 
At October 28, 2008 at 11:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If someone wrote, as you imply, that people should be ashamed for ever trying to do things that make others happy, that person would either be called a misanthrope. As it stands, you are merely misandrist.

 
At October 29, 2008 at 11:32 AM , OpenID frenchic22 said...

Maybe you didn't make it to the end of my post- I clearly state that that it is "perfectly natural for both men and women to want to look attractive." Pleasing people is not the problem; it's doing so at the cost of one's own sense of self, allowing oneself to become something truly less than human.

As to the misandrist claim, I'll have you know that I quite adore men, particularly my boyfriend, but my boyfriend (wonderful as he is) really isn't the issue here. What concerns me, though it is entirely understandable, is your inability to sympathize with what is a painfully haunting aspect of femininity for many girls. To find oneself in the position, not of person, but of woman, constantly meant to dress, behave, talk, and walk for the pleasure of men is an exhausting and self-deprecating experience. Even to stand in the mirror in the morning, battling with oneself over one's appearance (is this how I want to look? or how they want me to look? what message will i be sending them by dressing this way? etc) forces a painfully acute awareness of appearance on women that dogs them throughout their day and throughout their life and it is clearly an experience you cannot even begin to comprehend.

 
At October 29, 2008 at 3:24 PM , Blogger Aku said...

@frenchic22: I think your ad hominem argument undermines your position. While I agree that it's hard to break out of the unbalanced male-female dynamic that you've outlined, I don't think you can assume that "anonymous" is (1) male or (2) hasn't experienced what you're talking about.

I also think you need to give more credence to experiences that contradict your own. While there are certainly women who struggle with the implications of their appearance, can't there be others who know that what they're doing might please men, accept that, and aren't defined by it? I think that it's possible to dress a certain way or make oneself up a certain way without it being a form of self-objectification. That is to say, I do think that there's a choice here; it's a matter of understanding the system you're working with and rejecting it entirely, even if other people won't understand.

Beyond that, I have to take issue with your tone. You're positioning yourself as the authority on this topic, but I thought the purpose of this blog was to listen to what other people have to say, instead of dismissing them entirely. I would definitely push "anonymous" to explain him/herself more, but I think your response stifles discussion, rather than promoting it.

 
At October 29, 2008 at 4:36 PM , Blogger Jonathan said...

When a woman dresses up or puts on make-up, she is, to some extent, playing a role. This role is partially constructed by a male-dominated society, and by definition, taking on a role dehumanizes/objectifies one. And when a woman puts on a "slutty" Halloween costume, it is even more overtly playing a role and dehumanizing. Further more, it is impossible to divorce one's conception of self and one's roles with how the world sees one and how the world defines certain roles. To this extent, I agree with you.

I am similarly frustrated when a woman asserts that any action she makes is "feminist" because she made that choice and not the actual criterion of being anti-sexist (or whatever criteria you want to apply here). Putting on make-up because you want to does not make the act feminist.

But: a woman is not automatically playing into sexism or is automatically being anti-feminist because she dresses/costumes herself in a certain way. It is entirely possible for a woman to have critically examined how she interacts with the world as herself, as a woman, as a sexual being, etc., etc., and choose to put on a revealing outfit. She may not be leading the feminist movement on that night, but she is also not shedding her humanity.

I also object to the idea of "sluttiness", which is just a way to put down a woman's chosen expression of her sexuality.

On the subject of how you are approaching people's comments: When you say "[understanding the experiences of women] is clearly an experience you cannot even begin to comprehend," you are demonstrating an attitude of elitism that only works to distance feminist thought from outside perspectives. That a person has privilege is not an excuse to completely dismiss his experiences. When a friend doesn't understand why something is offensive to me as a gay man, I do not scoff, "It's a gay thing; you wouldn't understand." I try to explain and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. You may not get total empathy, but you can at least get a chance for greater dialogue.

 
At October 31, 2008 at 1:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You critique the notion that womyn who defend their "playing slut" as their choice by arguing that choice is irrelevant. Hegemonic patriarchy informs her decision - and her decision subsequently reinforces females objectification.

But you maintain that being sexy, is still OK. But when is it ok to look sexy? The criteria of mimicking "porn stars" is rather limited. What are the criteria that distinguishes porn star sex appeal from legitimate sex appeal? As indicated by the pervasiveness female objectification, excessive makeup and cleavage is a rather limited interpretation of male sexual fantasy.

Jonathan seems to suggest that critical evaluation can legitimize sexual experience. However, these womyn are still participating in the same degrading performance. Should sexyness be the legitimate domain of only womyn "educated" in feminist theory?


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At June 18, 2009 at 2:48 PM , Blogger Troy said...

The Earth is here, and we are on it. A living organism's only natural "purpose" is to live, reproduce, and die. Reproduction, as the only active expression of the three, is accomplished variously. "Sluttiness" is an attempt on the part of one dimorphic member to attract the sexual attention of the (an) other dimorph. How that occurs is irrelevant.

 

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