In their new book, Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes, authors Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb, and Mark Tappan address the various ways culture and the media bombard boys with idealized images they’re never likely to live up to.
In this exclusive excerpt from the book, they analyze the limited – and highly gender-divided – range of choices in Halloween costumes and advise that you talk to your sons about being able to be themselves, even while wearing the standard ultra-violent and superhuman outfits.
Click here for Lamb and Brown’s chapter on Halloween costumes for girls from their previous title Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketer’s Schemes.
Special Forces Jungle Fighter Child
Surf the web, flip through the many catalogs, or walk through department stores beginning in early September to look for a Halloween costume and Boyhood (that’s with a capital B) will assault you at every turn. Take him to any big box store like Walmart or Target and your little boy can pour over a dizzying array of costumes. When boiled down, his choices include scary characters, fighters, and heroes – either in super form, like Spiderman or Batman, or the real life version, like police officers, military personnel, or sports stars. For the youngest boys there’s the occasional Pooh Bear or SpongeBob, even a cute puppy or lion, but they are buried in an avalanche of ninjas, special Delta force soldiers, and Transformers.
Halloween for boys is mostly about embodying a sense of power and full-throttle action. Boys dress up as men and the version of manhood presented to them is one in which superheroes and warriors are ready to save the world. Their costumes come with every weapon he needs to control, dominate, and save, and just to prove he’s physically up for the challenge, they come complete with fake muscles. “Bulging padded ‘muscles’ are stitched into torso, arms and legs,” announces a catalog description. “Transform your little hulk into the most powerful human-like creature.”
Most powerful. Every costume says extreme action! Being a soldier is tame, almost boring, compared to being a Special Force Fighter Child, complete with ragged, ripped camo pants and “3-D foamed muscle top jumpsuit” that fakes 6-pack abs – “A great costume if you want to be Rambo.” Of course few boys today know who Rambo is, aside from those who have seen Stallone’s recent R-rated sequel with the tagline: “Heroes never die; they just reload.” Even if he’s not allowed to see the movie, the little boy posing in the costume, his camo headband off-kilter, his hands on his hips, his best five-year-old “don’t mess with me” expression, conveys the idea pretty well.
It’s no surprise that Halloween invites boys to dress up as the superheroes they watch in movies or sports stars they admire on TV, but it’s striking how many costumes are just variations of tough guys carrying all manner of weapons. Fighting crime like Superman and imagining you can dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan or win the Indianapolis 500 like NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson is great fantasy, but just as pink and princess have overrun all manner of girls’ costumes, boys’ costumes have to come with some kind of ninja attitude and fighter paraphernalia.
And more is always, always better. More stuff, bigger muscles, tougher-sounding descriptions. Who wants to be just any ninja when you can be Shadow Ninja Bounty Hunter? This extra-tough guy costume includes a jumpsuit with muscle torso, attached belt, sword, shin guards, apron, hood, and badge. The red and black mask covers all but his eyes: “You’d better hope this ninja isn’t on your trail if you’re a fugitive on the run because he always gets his man.”
Perusing the Halloween costume catalogs sent to homes across the country, we’re also struck by the images of little boys posing for these costumes. They must be told by the photographer to give him or her their hardest, scariest, meanest looks; to show the world how big and strong and frightening they can be, how fearless and intimidating. Like WWE stars, they model threatening poses, some showcasing their fake muscles, others in aggressive battle stance, their guns, swords, knives, light sabers, and blasters at the ready or their fake boxing gloves raised as if to strike the next blow. Many are made up to look like they’ve just been in a fight, but they’re still standing, hair messy, an eye blackened with make-up to show toughness, torn shirts and fake muscles pumped and ready for more.
Looking closer, however, we can see a hint of a smile play around the lips, even a smirk on some. The littlest boys can’t help themselves. Many smile openly at the camera, loving the fun of this playful moment when someone takes their picture and tells them how cool and tough the look. The older boys are better at the menacing looks, more practiced and polished at faking invulnerability for the camera, but even then it’s clear that this is a performance, an opportunity to imagine the glory and satisfaction of knowing all who come his way will quake in fear or run for their lives. Who wouldn’t let their son enjoy a bit of this kind of fantasy?
All boys go through this door; all girls go through that one – Halloween is about the stark commercialization of gender. It’s something we thought we’d left behind years ago. There is no neutral space, no crossing gender lines. Just look straight ahead and march, people! Even animals and insects are coded tough guy and pretty-sexy girl. No colorful butterflies and gossamer wings of dragonflies for boys. No black spiders and bats for girls. Dinosaurs and dogs are for boys. Cats, sexed up in black fishnets and full makeup, are for girls. Everything and everyone is elaborately and distinctly gendered. Halloween – at least as commercial costumes go – is not about real imagination and fantasy at all, but about the celebration of gender stereotypes. Crossing over to the other side, as some do, is possible – girls can be ninjas, boys can be dragonflies – but the distinctly male and female poses, the carefully worded descriptions in the catalogs and on websites, the clearly labeled “boy” and “girl” categories alert us all to the consequences of not dressing in a gender-appropriate way – they’ll be out of synch with their friends, breaching cultural protocol, and set up for teasing and rejection.
Marketers know the promise of all that action and power can be irresistible, especially to boys who don’t get the chance to feel that way very often. Of course there’s something especially pernicious about paying good money to box in our children’s worlds and limit their choices at such an early age. Fantasy for children is about trying on new roles or imagining the unusual or impossible, and Halloween is a chance to be whatever wild and crazy identity captivates him in the moment. After seeing costume after costume, he may desperately want to be Super Scary Special Forces Ninja Bounty Hunter Fighter World Saving Man. After all, marketers know the promise of all that action and power can be irresistible, especially to boys who don’t get the chance to feel that way very often (which is to say, most boys). But, given a real choice – a choice that builds action, fun, and adventure around other options – he may not. If we don’t offer the alternative, how will we know?
Since these costumes will be part of his play long after Halloween is over, help him invent stories that include those parts of him you want to nurture, stories that include a range of feelings, his own and others’. Power can be about physical strength and dominance, but it can also be the power to change someone’s point of view, persuade evil to be good, to challenge others to do good things. Remind him that every superman has his kryptonite and it’s okay to feel afraid. A superhero needs to listen, pay attention, and show compassion. These skills distinguish a true leader from a despot, and it’s never too early to help him know the difference.
PACKAGING BOYHOOD by Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed. D., and Mark Tappan, Ed.D., copyright 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Boys are dressing up as military personnel, policemen, and explorers. Girls dress up as hot little teenagers. This is no more apparent than on Halloween. Walk through Wal-Mart or look through any Halloween flyer or catalog, and you’ll see pirates, firefighters, and superhero clothes offered to boys; princesses, cheerleaders, and sexy divas are offered to girls.
When we were kids, Halloween was a chance to dress up like someone you weren’t. It was a time to be a little transgressive, to cross the usual boundaries set in place by social mores and convention. At Halloween’s gloaming, the powerless became superheroes, the young became wrinkled and bent, the poor donned dazzling jewels, and people of the day became monsters of the night – vampires, witches, and all manner of ghastly ghouls. Sometimes girls became mustached men, and boys became big-breasted women, just for the absurdity and the fun of it! We raided our parents’ closets and makeup supplies, tore up sheets for bandages, painted lipstick blood down our cheeks, or dug out Dad’s big rubber boots to invent someone outlandish.
The streets resembled something out of Night of the Living Dead, save for a few oddly bright Tweety Birds and Cinderellas.
Halloween is still a chance to be who you aren’t, but anyone with kids can tell you that costumes have become something of an art form. No wonder all the kids want them; Mom’s closet looks drab by comparison. They are elaborately accessorized affairs made of every fabric and material known to humankind. Costumes come with things like hats, boas, glasses, wands, microphones, wigs, swords, slippers, purses, pom-poms, wings, medallions, scarves, crowns, handcuffs, whistles, badges, and broomsticks. They have muscles sewn in, plush animal-like fur, foam chest armor, layers of chiffon, and fake leather or metal. Some are full-fledged fantasies that parents who can afford it pay $20 to $40 to see come alive on their child. (Sixty dollars will buy you a bride’s costume, complete with “giant diamond ring.” Alas, there is no groom’s costume in sight.)
But there’s one obvious way that Halloween costumes lack imagination. Go ahead and pick out the boy and girl costumes from the following list of catalog descriptions:
“Pow! Bang! Batman to the rescue.”
“Evening star enchants everyone.”
“The Gladiators enter the arena, and the crowd goes wild!”
“Made in Heaven.”
“Shadow Panther Cyber Ninja, protector of the galaxy!”
“Chic pink pussy cat is spotted at all the best soirees.”
You get the idea. Halloween has become less about being who you aren’t for a night and more about fantasizing that you are the ultra-girl or uberboy the material world says you should want to be. Boys are tough, active superheroes, ninjas, and warriors, ready to save the empire, the world, and the universe, complete with fake muscles to prove their manhood. “Ask the incredible hulk over to your house – but don’t get him angry,” warns one catalog. “Bulging padded ‘muscles’ are stitched into torso, arms, and legs. . . . Transform your little hulk into the most powerful human-like creature.” Little girls don’t “take on evil” or have “bold adventures” or even “incredible fun.” They don’t save, capture, leap, strike fear, or stop enemies – they don’t do anything. Even Wonder Woman, a rare exception, only “encourages fortitude and self-confidence.” That she does so in a spaghetti-strapped leotard with beige stretch nylons and what resembles a bikini bottom suggests the only thing she’s ready to battle are Halloween-night goose bumps.
According to these costumes sold in department and drugstores, in catalogs and online, girls get their power almost solely from their looks. They just are – “puuurfectly coordinated,” “darling,” full of “lightness and beauty.” If they act at all, it’s to “sizzle,” “slither,” “rock the stadium,” or “stalk the stage in zebra stripes.” They are lotus blossoms and beautiful princesses. (And have little to do and no sense of direction. “Which way to the castle?” asks one girl featured in a costume catalog.) They are dancing queens, pink cheerleaders, divas, fairies, and Barbies, Barbies, Barbies. Girls are beautiful to behold in their short skirts, full skirts, grass skirts, and even pirate skirts (something no self-respecting pirate – and there were real women pirates – would wear) and off-the-shoulder gowns and lace-up bodices, made of shimmering satin and pink sequins. Even the more traditional Halloween-type costumes speak to the ultrafeminine and increasingly sexy – pretty witches and gothic princess, sexy genies and hot devils who aren’t scary but plan to “paint the town red in a stretch velvet leotard with fluffy marabou trim.” As one of our surveyed girls told us, “I wore a devil outfit because it was simple and looked sexy.”
Why would we want – and, indeed, pay good money – to limit kids in such stereotypical ways? Is it as limited and narrow as it seems at first glance? Web sites sort their costumes explicitly along gender lines, with categories like “Princesses and Barbie” and “Star Wars and Sci-Fi,” or even more pointedly “Girl Costumes” and “Boy Costumes.” When we checked a promisingly neutral “When I Grow Up” category on one site, we found the same gender divide. There parents can find fifty-five costumes for boys and only twenty-two for girls. Of these, fifteen are cheerleaders, divas, and rock stars. Included in this “when I grow up” section was our number one thumbs-down nomination. Don’t all parents wish their daughter will grow up to be a “French maid?”
There is something especially pernicious about all this. Fantasy for children is about trying on new roles, about imagining the unusual or impossible, about wearing whatever wild and crazy identity suits their fancy or captivates them at the moment. Why would we want – and, indeed, pay good money – to limit kids in such stereotypical ways? (We’re including the littlest kids here. Don’t forget to dress your infant in a baby Hulk, Spiderman, or Superman costume.) And why especially on Halloween? After all, isn’t Halloween the night when the veil between the worlds is thin, when the real and imagined come close to merging? It’s the one magical night when we can expect imagination to wander far and wide, to let carnival and spectacle overtake convention. Do your daughter a big favor and encourage her to see herself 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. This Halloween, go ahead and raid the closet with her. Imagine that anything is possible. 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.
PACKAGING GIRLHOOD by Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., and Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed. D., copyright 2007 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.