The scariest of them all? Little boys who want to dress up as girls for Halloween

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Kate Cohen writes that the most terrifying costume on Halloween is a little boy who dresses up as a Disney Princess or Wonder Woman, at least in the minds of his parents or other adults in his community:

 Would you let your son be Frozen’s Elsa for Halloween? Care.com reports that 65 percent of people it surveyed (note: this could mean 20 people) said “no” to letting a boy wear a girl costume. Or, as a CaféMom commenter put it, “NO WAY AND HE WOULDN’T WANT TO ANYWAY.”

I wish I could dismiss the horror-struck momosphere with sympathetic condescension—man, it must be hard to live in a red state—but I can’t. My dining room table is a progressive enclave within a liberal bastion within the state of New York, and yet, it was there that my 5-year-old son’s declaration that he wanted to be Wonder Woman for Halloween was met with the shocked gasps and nervous laughter of our dinner guests. No one spoke. And then a friend—trembling but determined, like the one kid in the horror movie brave enough to move toward the scary sound behind the door—ventured, “Wouldn’t you rather be Spiderman?”

Sadly, I’m sure she’s right.  I have a nephew who was bullied by neighborhood pre-K toughs because at age three he liked to play dressup and sometimes wore a dress.  Age three!  

Liberal Americans congratulate themselves too much for being gay- or trans-friendly if the notion of five-year old boys dressed as Wonder Woman causes anyone to say anything other than “She is AWESOME!  Who wouldn’t want to be Wonder Woman  Which accessory do you like better:  the bulletproof bracelets, or  the rockin’ boots?”  (I’ll take the bracelets for daywear, but who can resist those boots?)  The only costumes these days that scare me are those asinine male superhero costumes that are padded to make preadolescent children look absurdly muscular.  Would most of us permit our preteen girls to wear giant false boobs in their costumes?  The fake muscles are the masculine equivalent, I say.

I’m the older sister of a brother who regularly dressed up in girl costumes–or just as a woman–in the 1970s and 1980s, and I don’t recall any nervous efforts to redirect his interests to dressing up like Luke Skywalker, the Hulk, or Dr. Zeus from Planet of the Apes.  Then in high school, he was the first to volunteer to be a cheerleader for the PowderPuff football game (in which the girls played ball and were cheered by boys in short skirts on the sidelines.)  The visibility of gay or trans-people has made straight peoples’ anxieties about these identities come to the surface, especially around something as innocuous as child dress-up play and Halloween.  Back when being gay and trans people were mostly closeted, parents probably gave their boys more liberty to play.

Adults these days, in addition to infantilizing themselves (as I suggested in the last post), seem determined to ruin play for children too.  Can we all just get a grip on some appropriate boundaries?  I dressed up as a fairy princess, a gypsy fortune-teller, a pirate, and a skeleton, and grew up to be none of these.

Maybe taking off the adult costumes and letting the kids dress up as whatever or whomever they want is would be a great place to start.

23 thoughts on “The scariest of them all? Little boys who want to dress up as girls for Halloween

  1. Am I still allowed to complain that little girl costumes are often too sexy? I wouldn’t want my little girl dressing in most “girl’s” super-hero costumes either. It’s a bit more obvious how very inappropriate they are when on a boy, because we’re more willing to sexualize our little girls. (You can get more modest WW costumes with a skirt and full shirt, but not at Target.)

    (My daughter is wearing her big brother’s old superman costume because it’s one of her favorite outfits.)

    (Also, yes, I agree with your premise– my son’s preschool was great about letting kids dress in whatever dress-up they wanted, and often there would be a little group of all genders wearing Disney princess dresses over their clothes, including him, when we picked him up at the end of the day.)

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  2. Am I still allowed to complain that little girl costumes are often too sexy? Of course! Fire away, although I am unaware of any commercially-manufactured costumes for children that include falsies.

    Target, alas, sells a lot of tee-shirts for little girls that have really shockingly flirtatious slogans on them, or words that play into the stereotype of girls as pretty little consumers enabled by their Sugar Daddies. Disgusting.

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  3. Dan Savage, and another blogger whose name I can’t remember at this moment, have written something similar recently. The last frontier for costumes is straight men dressing sexually or in a not-ridiculous drag (Monty Python-esque drag is OK). Apparently wanting to look like oppressed groups would cede some of our privilege, or something.

    Obviously I missed the memo- I’m going as Lorde this year.

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  4. What every woman Ph. D. needs:
    http://www.amazon.com/Delicious-Womens-Darling-Sexy-Costume/dp/B0053O1KHA

    The late awesome Sandy Bem had a great article in Signs in the early 80s I think on raising children who were aware of sexism but were not sexist (just as you would raise your children to be aware of racism, but say “we don’t think that”). She taught her children that the difference between boys and girls was that boys had a penis and girls a vagina. So when her 3 year old son wore a barrette to school, and another boy suggested he was a girl, he said, “No I have a penis”….

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  5. It seems to me that gender play (like all childhood play) is something that we should always encourage. It’s a chance for children to try on and off various options to see what feels right for them. Some will decide that dressing in a gender other than what has been expected for their birth anatomy feels right for them. Others, not so. Still others will find their calling fighting crime in star-spangled short-shorts. Whatever the case, such play is a means for kids to learn about themselves and how they want to move through our society. Yet, adults seem to go into hyper policing mode when it involves children and gender. A friend of mine even had her son sent home from school for his gender-queer outfit. The school helpfully did so “out of concern” for the boy. What year is this?

    And for the record, Wonder Woman’s coolest accessory is clearly her tiara which doubles as a boomerang. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

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  6. My father attended a private boys’ school from grade 1 through grade 12 (mid-1930s through mid-1940s) that had a tradition of putting on Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with all-male casts, including much hilarity produced by dressing young men in skirts, wigs, and falsies (I assume), with the occasional masculine touch (e.g. argyle socks) just to remind everyone that they were just pretending. There’s also, of course, a very strong tradition at elite colleges of shows in which young men dress up in women’s clothing (Harvard’s Hasty Pudding and Princeton’s Triangle, to name two). I’m not sure that any of the above really count as gender exploration (these performances of the feminine seem to leave gender boundaries pretty clearly in place), and the history of how gender-queer people fit into such productions is no doubt very complicated (a drag show at an all-male Ivy League college is not the same thing as a drag show at a gay bar, even if the the same person performs in both, though I suspect the differences are decreasing over time). But yes, something seems to have shifted, perhaps precisely because experimenting with one’s gender presentation in public is no longer necessarily seen as either a joke or a scandal, but still can be serious adult business, with serious consequences. Kids’ play, on the other hand, may be preparation for serious adult business, but seems worth taking seriously at any given moment only to the extent that is necessary to send the message “we’ll love and respect you whatever/whoever you decide/discover yourself to be.”

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  7. nicoleandmaggie, have you seen this:
    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=sheqEN2LCfY

    Halloween these days both sexualises young children and infantilises adults. Actually, late capitalism in general makes adults into children (think of the flights that were diverted because adults started fighting about reclining seats – a sad commentary on how neoliberal logic, in this case shrinking personal space in a confined environment, has warped our relations with each other and turned us into toddlers having tantrums. And then there’s reality tv…). And the silly new age inner child thing. And the expectation that parents will join in with their kids’ every single activity, rather than just letting kids play with each other on their own terms while the adults do adult things.

    As for the original post, I agree that entrenched gender presentations are an extended backlash against actual advances in gender equality. When queers largely self-invisiblised, and women expected to stay mostly in the domestic sphere, there was something unthreatening about expressing gender fluidity because it mostly didn’t correspond to social reality. Gender -neutral toys and clothes were much more accepted in the 70s precisely because heteropatriarchy thought it wasn’t really being challenged. So my being a total tomboy was tolerated the way a monster costume today would be – it was seen as the realm of pure play. (Ha!) Though I’ll admit that even then, effeminate boys were still policed more than tomboy girls.

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  8. @Loumac– I don’t really care what adults do, but I don’t think children should be sexualized.

    Plus it is cold outside in October. Boy’s costumes tend to provide more coverage given how they’re never smaller than swimsuits, as some of the little girl costumes are. (A good argument for Elsa dresses for all! Full coverage!)

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  9. My four your old son loves mermaids and princesses. He carries a My Little Pony backpack to school. He thinks superheroes are boring. He dressed up as a witch this year-in the exact same dress and hat as his 7 year old sister. I had no problem sending him to his preschool in his costume because I knew that no one there would make an issue of it.

    He said that next year he wants to be a fairy. But then he’ll be attending the local public kindergarten and I fear his reception might not be so kind. And I’m also not sure how I’ll respond.

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  10. Just don’t let him wear one of those dumbass male superhero costumes with muscle-falsies! Ridiculous.

    Who says all fairies are girls, anyway? I recall reading lots of books as a child (most of which were probably published 1890-1920 originally) about fairy children, who seemed to come in both sexes.

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  11. I love picking my daughter up at preschool, especially when she was a toddler. It was great seeing the boys and girls alike in their dress up clothes with purses. Its all cool and everyone gets to try out everything, clothes, gender roles, superheros, princes and princesses.

    I wish they didn’t loose that sense of possibility before they reached college.

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  12. Halloween aside, I am having a hell of a time finding “gender neutral” clothes for my future child. We are not finding out the sex, and even if we were the GIRL and BOY clothes are so hideous. I don’t wear pink ruffles and tutus, so why would I make my kid? Similarly, my husband doesn’t own any shirts with dump trucks on them, at least that I am aware of. Reactions to our nursery have also been mixed. A girl could never live in this room! WHERE IS THE PINK?!

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  13. Right, because how will she know she’s a girl if there’s no pink?

    Congratulations on your pregnancy–and good luck sticking to your gender-neutral aspirations. Mini Boden is a cute source of colorful clothing for all children–yes, more pink on the girls’ side but you can skip it if you want to. (BEWARE: you will be gifted with loads of pink things anyway.) But outfitting a kid entirely with Mini Boden is spendy. There are lots of thrift- and secondhand stores with cute (and even vintage) kidwear. Why not, esp. when they outgrow stuff every 3 months, right?

    I don’t mind pink–I wear it myself, but not in ruffles. We can dress with sophistication at any age!

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  14. Thanks so much for the tips! And of course, I wear pink sometimes too. I just hate that it seems to be the only option for little girls. My mom dressed me in blue in the 80s and it was quite scandalous. Sophisticated baby clothes- exactly what I’m looking for. I also really love the idea of finding some cute vintage pieces. I wonder if clothes of the past were less gendered-I guess I am thinking more in the recent past, not going back to the days of gender-neutral dresses for babies, although that would be handy right about now…

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  15. HA! Yes, some eighteenth-century all-purpose infant gowns would be a look. . .

    When I was a child in the 1970s, it seemed like clothing was more all-purpose/both genders, I think for two reasons: 1) ultrasound was non-existent or brand-new so people generally didn’t know for sure which sex they were expecting, and 2) there was such a thing as a unionized clothing manufacturing industry in the U.S., so clothing was more expensive for us 40 years ago than it is now, when most of us mostly wear stuff woven and assembled in low-wage nations. (You 20th C historians–help me out here.)

    Another reason to bring back manufacturing jobs to the U.S.: to help us get a handle on the hoarding that’s only possible when our consumer goods are so inexpensive.

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  16. Pingback: Look for the silver lining. . . | Historiann

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