Monday, 2 November 2009

Charivari, Halloween and the Slutty Witch/Nurse/Bee/...

Festivals and dressing-up of various sorts have a long history in Western Europe. Not just Halloween, but Saints Days (of which there were many before the Reformation), local holidays, and regional traditions offered communities the opportunity to get together, dress up, feast and drink, enjoy each other’s company and air grievances against others in the community. The spirit of costume and the festival could also be recreated in the moment when a social injustice needed recognised or community discipline needed dishing out. So, every now and again, when a wife was being unfaithful, the community dressed up (disguised themselves), and in the UK beat pots and pans or drums, went to the house of the husband, placed horns on his head (a symbol of his humiliation) and rode him backwards on a donkey through the town- a message to the man to get his house in order and a warning to others. A woman who had breached community discipline might be taken by the crowd in a similar manner and ducked in a pond or river to remind her to behave. This style of community discipline is now known by historians as the ‘charivari’, its Italian name. In Northern Ireland, a favourite form of charivari was for the disguised crowd to go to the house of the wrong-doer (from the community’s perspective) and to make a bonfire, dancing round, singing and hitting pots and pans (or whatever else was handy).

The opportunity to think and protest about power structures within the community was often a central part of festivals. Children, the most powerless in the community, dressed up as kings and queens, the most powerful people in the land (still seen in local gala days in the UK); men dressed up as women and women as men, reflecting a questioning of the ‘natural’ order. Festivals were an opportunity to question the status quo in an environment where it would hopefully go unpunished (there were boundaries!), and costume allowed individuals to make political points ‘in disguise’ (although this often was in part an unspoken agreement to not recognise individuals). A central concept within festival tradition was ‘the world turned upside down’, the opportunity for people to become what they were not in everyday life- to don costumes and become for a night what they could only imagine the rest of the year.

In contemporary society, Halloween is one of the only opportunities people have left to engage in this tradition. So, what do their costumes tell us about our society? Some of this is obvious- people dressed up as superheroes are always popular, reflecting a desire to be larger than life, to matter and make a difference, in a world where the individual is seen to be more important than the community and working together. The superhero is the realisation of the individual at its best. Doctors, nurses and surgeons covered in blood is a rather obvious comment on the medical world as people who save lives and yet are never far from death. Like witches or zombies in the past, they increasingly represent the boundary between life and death, the real world and the supernatural. This year we also saw the wider cultural obsession with vampires in numerous costumes on this topic, highlighting our interest in immortality in a world where death seems increasingly distant and scary due to decreased mortality for the young- and living forever seems increasingly realistic.

And finally, we have the ‘slutty witch/nurse/bee’ (seriously, I saw four slutty bees this Halloween) or whatever costume you like but with a lot of body parts showing. If the theory of festival and charivari holds true, women dress as ‘slutty X’ as it is both conventional and denied to them. That is, disguise should be understood by its audience and should be commenting on current social expectations- no thinking outside the box or you become culturally irrelevant (as every historian who chooses to dress as an obscure historical figure to a party amongst non-historians knows)-so it is conventional. It should also be something that cannot be worn everyday- you must become more than yourself, but not so out there that you become meaningless.

So what does the ‘slutty X’ costume tell us about our society? It suggests that the ideal of women as sexual objects is held out to women as an ideal form of femininity, but also one that is unachievable in the everyday, and perhaps even inappropriate (like the child as Queen). Its ubiquity also suggests that it is the central cultural norm that women have to use as a standard for their behaviour. It is notable how few women today now dress up as men for Halloween-a phenomenon that was extremely popular in past generations. Women today no longer see men or manliness as something to be achieved or as shaping the female self- perhaps unlike men’s position towards women (you still get men cross-dressing at Halloween, although again this is becoming rare in the straight community). Instead, the all pervasive sexy, slutty woman becomes the central standard that women are expected to strive for or idolise, when thinking about self. The princess in all of us, that women in the past were thought to desire to be treated as, is gone. Instead, being sexy or ‘slutty’ is the new model for femininity. It may be unachievable, but it is always there, shaping hopes and desires and sense of self. It is also worth noting, like in so many other spheres of life, that men have considerably more options at Halloween than women, who are increasingly homogenised.

Perhaps next year (and look I am giving you ages to think about this), we need to think about costumes that both challenge the status quo and are unconventional; costumes that challenge expectations of femininity and provide an alternative commentary on what it means to be female.


Saranga said...

My favourite fancy dress option is (perhaps unsurprisingly) superheroes. So far I have gone as Supergirl and Black Canary, but next time I get the opportunity I intend to go as Jay Garrick, the golden age Flash:
I won't change the costume to feminise it, I will simply go as Jay and the fact that I'm female is irrelevant.

Some of my friends are planning to have a drag party, which is good, until you realise that everyone is expected to dress up as drag queens, not kings. This is a particular group of friends where sexy rules and so I got looks of surprise when I said that if I come I will go as a drag king.

Feminist Avatar said...

Really? How does a girl become a drag queen and not just a girl with too much make-up? Or, how do we distinguish between drag queen and diva? Perhaps, you could go as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a drag Queen? I believe dressing like men used to be big among some lesbians (for special occasions, not everyday!), especially in wake of Judith Butler's gender performativity popularity, but I know some of my friends don't anymore as they think it just reinforces gender binaries rather than destabilising them.

Saranga said...

"How does a girl become a drag queen and not just a girl with too much make-up"
Yeah, that's what I thought too!

I just wanted to express my butch side. Sometimes I feel very constrained by femininity in all it's myriad guises.

Feminist Avatar said...

Och, I just threw femininity out of the window and go with what what's warm (1st) and comfy (2nd).

Anonymous said...

great post. I didn't have anything to add until I saw the comments. A good friend of mine dressed up as a drag queen for her birthday. I should say, a good friend of hers who is actually a drag queen at a local club turned her into one. And I have to say, there was a particular aesthetic to it that was neither diva nor simply woman with too much makeup. It was totally drag queen. I'd have to think about what it was but it was recognizable. She even got at least one "wait, is that a man?" comment when we went out and she does not resemble a man in any way in her normal life.

Feminist Avatar said...

I think that's what I wondered- whether the cross-dressing was a central part of the drag Queen phenomenon, so if women are going to do it, do they have to then become partly androgenous.

Anonymous said...

I have seen a senior female executive in my organisation dressed as a drag queen and it was very convincing.

Female drag isn't really "sexy" since it's about caricature and making feminity ugly by hyper exaggeration. It isn't meant to look feminine in the same way either. Drag is femininity as parody, sexy is femininity as a matter of life and death.

Red said...

I'm in the US and we don't think about Halloween in terms of charivari and subverting the power structure.

I read somewhere that adults spend the most money on H'ween and I think it's because it's the one time of year we get to express parts of ourselves that normally don't get airtime.

In terms of gender, there is a lot of slutty X costumes for women. It think it's because for many women in white collar or pink collar professions, it's the one time of year when it's acceptable to show our sexy side. The rest of the year, we're trying to be taken seriously at work. There are lots of dress codes that prohibit showing too much skin.

For other women in service professions, such as waitresses or housekeepers, they're already in a subservient position and at risk of sexual harrassment anyway. I imagine the last thing a housekeeper would want is to trade in her sensible shoes and pants for heels and a short "French maid" outfit.

Most discussion in the US about controversial costumes revolve around race. I'd refer people to the blog Racialicious if you're interested in reading about that.

Gender issues in the US lag behind race issues and immigration issues.

And personally, I haven't dressed up for H'ween in decades. Last time was when I was a little girl, and yes, I was a princesss.

Feminist Avatar said...

America has a history of charivari that was transported over from its European ancestors- there is a number of historians who write about this in an America context. And, this will inform current behaviour, even as things change over time.

Not being American, I don't know if TV depictions are realistic- but I think the depictions of children who egg and toilet-paper houses on halloween (which is extremely rare in the UK) is an example of the world turned upside down. It is children subverting power structures by punishing adults who they fear or whose authority they question. The fact they are allowed to do this without punishment (which presumably isn't true the rest of the year round) also shows the extent that the community endorses this misbehaviour in the spirit of festival.

I also think your example of women who dress up as 'slutty x', for exactly the reasons you describe, is a form of charivari. And, the reason real-life maids don't do it, is because for them it doesn't challenge the status quo. This is charivari in action. It takes different forms for different people. You don't have to be conscious of the power structures to live within them or subvert them- which is a true in the everyday as on the occasion of a festival. I don't think most people in Britain know the history of charivari or festival when they engage in those traditions.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking these thoughts for years, but this is actually the first time I've heard someone else voice them.
Halloween could be so much more liberating than it is in this society; we're getting a very homogenized version.
Every year I have thought of masquerading as the opposite sex simply because there weren't enough costumes to choose from for females, and they all seemed to be increasingly slutty. I have always felt insulted by this. Maybe next year I will do drag.

Ellen said...

a subversive costume I'd love to see: a group of women + girls dressed in burqas, each carrying a conspicuous weapon - a pink AK-47, rifle, compound bow, cast iron frying pan, baseball bat, etc. Also with drums and noisemakers, laughing and singing loudly. Females refusing to be either decorative or invisible; impossible to ignore and just maybe dangerous.

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