If there’s ever any doubt about the presence of sexism in children’s lives, check out the rigid gender rules expressed through Halloween costumes.

Halloween is supposed to be, and used to be, a time for imagination, fantasy, and creativity… now, it’s a time for boys to be extra “boy,” and girls to be extra “girl.”
When I was growing up, I had a blast with Halloween costumes. I was a ballerina one year, but I was also Pippi Longstocking, Raggedy Ann, a spider, a witch (scary, not sexy!), a jester, Carol Anne from Poltergeist 3, a “cereal killer” (I carried a box of cereal with a knife through it), the color purple (head-to-toe purple and a purple wig), etc. Halloween was never just an excuse to look pretty and cute and glittery, like it seems to be now.

Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown discuss this phenomenon in their book, “Packaging Girlhood.” Reminiscing about the “good ole days” when Halloween was about having fun being someone you aren’t, with homemade costumes from Mom and Dad’s closet, they point out how much has changed – now Halloween “has become less about being who you aren’t for a night and more about fantasizing that you are the ultra-girl or uber-boy the material world says you should want to be.” (p. 23).
The authors analyze Halloween costume catalogs, and find that not only are there more boy costumes than girl costumes, but the girl costumes are quite limited, and are all about looking beautiful and sexy and cute. The costumes for boys emphasize action and power – superheros, ninjas, and warriors, ready to save the world, complete with fake, bulging muscles. The costumes for girls, on the other hand, don’t enable girls to DO anything, but merely to BE – “enchanting,” “purrrfectly coordinated,” “full of lightness and beauty.”

It’s like this in real life, not just in the pages of the catalogs.

My town has a huge Halloween festival every year (80,000 people attended last year), and I always watch the costume parade, paying special attention to the costumes. This year and last year, here’s what I saw:


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About 80% of girls were dressed as Snow White, Cinderella, generic princesses, fairies, Tinkerbell, brides, cheerleaders, witches, and ultra feminine pirates.
About 80% of boys were dressed as Ninja Turtles, Batman, Spiderman, firefighters, soldiers, football players, sumo wrestlers, the Hulk, S.W.A.T. team guys, and Power Rangers.

It’s boring and wearisome to watch princess after princess after princess, with a bride thrown into the mix here and there. Ever notice that no little boy ever dresses up like a groom?

I was glad to see a few girls breaking the mold by dressing up as a PB&J sandwich, a sumo wrestler, and a caterpillar, but these girls were few and far between. I also noticed that while some of the boys were wearing gruesome, gory costumes that involved fake blood, wounds, fake teeth, zombie paint and bandages, etc., I didn’t see more than a handful girls with costumes like this. Perhaps because girls are not comfortable being even the slightest bit “ugly,” not even when it’s for Halloween. When I was a witch back in the 80s, I painted my whole face green and added a fake wart. Today, witch costumes must involve glitter, fishnets, and hats with a feathery trim.

Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown advise parents to “encourage [girls] to see [themselves] as something other than the pretty princess, the sexy diva, the veiled genie, or the glittery fairy. Help her imagine that she has power over more than how she looks, how well she serves her master, or what prince she attracts. […] If her heart is set on glitter, at least help her imagine a feisty fairy who takes on the magical realm’s evil dragon, a butterfly that saves the insect world, or a princess who can use a map to find her own way to the ball.” (p. 24)