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Unmasking the Patriarchal Values in Halloween Costumes: Naughty Leopards, Sassy Space Girls and Warrior Ninjas

Naughty Leopards, Sassy Space Girls, and Warrior Ninjas: What do our Halloween costumes reveal about gender in our society? An exploration.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

At the end of September 2013, customers pressured Walmart to stop selling its “Naughty Leopard” toddler costume. Customers complained that the name was inappropriately sexually suggestive. Within a day of a Portland-area news report, the company removed the costume from its inventory and apologized to customers. [1.] While consumers have successfully held their ground against the sexualization of toddlers, the “Naughty Leopard” costume is indicative of pervasive cultural stereotyping of girls and boys, women and men.

Halloween is an $8 billion cultural event celebrated by about 70 percent of Americans.[2] Critically examining costume trends can go a long way in teaching us about our society’s values, particularly its gender ideals. In addition to thinking about costume names, consider these questions as you stroll through the costume aisles or web aisles of department stores and costume shops, including corporate outlets such as Party City, Halloween City, or Spirit.

Girl Costumes: What’s the balance of princesses, fairies and the like to superhero girls? How many of the superhero costume models’ are striking a power (i.e. assertive) pose? How are heroines dressed compared to boy heroes? How many of the girls modeling the costumes are smiling compared to defiantly sneering? How many girl costumes are accompanied by head-covering masks? What do the majority of girls’ costumes accentuate about them? And what do these costumes say about what it means to be a girl? Are there any girl costumes that are “feminine” versions of a male character?

Boy Costumes: How many nonviolent and noncriminal costumes are available for boys who are older than toddlers? What poses do boy costume models strike? How many strike poses with their knees bent, heals up, or one hand on their hip compared to those who are striking defiant or assertive action poses? How many non-toddler boy costume models are sneering or making a serious facial expression? What does this say about their costume? And how common is it for boys’ costumes to feature head-covering masks compared to girls? Are there any boy costumes that are “masculine” versions of a female character?

Comparing the answers to the questions above tells an important story about the presence of patriarchy and our society’s masculine and feminine ideals. Specifically, Halloween teaches an important lesson about the realities and meaning of patriarchy, and the way it defines the meaning of being a female or male.

Masks of Patriarchal Gender

Mainstream Halloween stores invite boys to imagine themselves as dinosaurs, monsters, aliens, race car drivers, doctors, firefighters, police officers, soldiers and an assortment of action heroes. Girls, on the other hand, are invited to be princesses, fairies, angels and an assortment of “cute” insects (butterflies, bumblebees, ladybugs) or animals (kitties, unicorns, bunnies) and a far fewer assortment of action heroines. If they have any at all, most stores offer girls a very small selection of doctor, officer, pilot or soldier costumes. Such selections promote gender polarization, the idea that men and women are radically different beings with fundamentally different, biologically based social roles.

Many do not find such gender polarities problematic. It just seems natural, according to many, for little girls to want to be a princess and for a boy to want to be a firefighter. But feminist theorists argue that we must distinguish between sex, which has to do with biological and reproductive factors, and gender. Gender itself is an interpretive lens that deems particular behaviors, interests, characteristics, and propensities as right or appropriate for someone based on their sex (male or female). Under patriarchy, men are defined as autonomous or independent, assertive, irreverent and defiant empowered beings. Meanwhile, patriarchy defines women as passive, modest, dependent, emotional and compliant and significantly limits their worth to their capacity to satisfy heterosexual men’s sexual desires. Most of us don the costumes of “true” masculinity and femininity every day, as we strive to avoid the social shaming that comes with falling short of these idealized norms. And as we “perform” gender, we give it a concrete reality that makes it seem natural. These gendered performances go into hyper-drive during Halloween.

Many costume names and designs undermine what might otherwise appear to be costume gender parity. At Party City, when boys are pirates, they are “kings,” “rascals,” “looters” or “rebels.” When girls are pirates, they are “lassies,” “precious,” “beauties,” “cuties” and “sweethearts.” When boys are ninjas they are “warriors,” “avengers,” and “dragon slayers,” while the store’s lone girls’ ninja costume is called “Sassy Samurai.” While girls can be the “Sassy Space Girl,” there is no “Sassy Space Boy.” Such examples clearly perpetuate essentialist gender stereotypes (girls and women equal beauty objects), but there’s more to it.

Costumes geared toward boys represent characteristics, as evidenced in the names, and/or professions that elicit social respect and financial stability. Those marketed to girls highlight comparatively diminutive qualities and roles, as per the dominant culture, indicating that one is pleasant, but not necessarily “powerful.” This reinforces gender ranking, the idea that one gender is more valuable or important the other. Add to this that many continue to find it difficult to imagine women in positions of power, and it becomes all too clear that Halloween has become another opportunity to perpetuate patriarchal visions of girls and women [3.]; one in which girls play minor roles.

There’s more to most pirate costumes than a name and a character. There’s also the gendered costuming that is suggested by the way they are modeled on the package, an example often followed by those who then wear the costume. Those marketed to girls convey the idea that girls’ principle purpose is to look cute or beautiful, while those targeting boys promote the idea their purpose is to look tough and ready to fight back. Be they action heroes, officers, athletes, monsters or pirates, the modeling of so-called “boy” costumes mostly convey action, strength, assertiveness and agency. Captain America, the Hulk, and assortments of ninjas and Star Wars characters are ready to take action. The costume models and the numerous face-covering masks accompanying their costumes often brandish sneers and/or stern eyes. They communicate the message, “I am here to directly impact the world,” namely through force.

In contrast, costumes marketed to girls showcase models conveying passivity, whimsy and playfulness, specifically identifying girls with cuteness and beauty. Whereas some boy costume models smile, nearly all of the girl costume models smile. With rare exceptions, smiling seems to be a requisite for girl costumes much the same way staid or fierce facial or mask expressions are the norm for boys’ costumes. This is true whether the costume is a princess or fairy, witch or bat, angel or devil. Even when girl costume models portray boxers, they do it with a smile that conveys playfulness, not serious enforcement. Party City’s boy boxer model has a black eye, a foam muscle chest, and the look of a determined and perhaps angry boxer. The otherwise identical girl boxer’s costume is pink, her trunks are shorter than her boy counterpart, and she exchanges the tough grimace for a delightful toothy smile.

The differences between the physical components of boys’ and girls’ costumes also communicate patriarchal meanings. Very few girl costumes are accompanied by face-covering masks, even when the boy version comes with one. One example is the Pikachu costume. Why is this so? The face is central to communicating stories of gendered selfhood such as those central to proper patriarchal femininity. Bashful eyes and sweet smiles communicate patriarchy’s fundamental conceptualization of femininity: sweet, soft, pretty and compliant. On the other hand, most boys’ and men’s masked costumes accentuate the characteristics of violent hyper-masculinity: anger, rage, fear inspiring, or (plastic) stoicism.

Superhero costumes marketed to girls are also changed in peculiar ways. Batgirl and American Dream, for example, come with skirts or “tutus” that suggest they are more ready for a dance recital than taking action to save the world. This difference further suggests the continued expectation that girls obey patriarchy’s conceptualization of female as “sex” or “beauty object” by communicating their “cuteness” or “beauty.” This is further illustrated by the most common words used to describe junior girls’ costume names: “sweet,” “honey,” “heartthrob,” “sweetie,” “sassy,” and the most common of all, “cutie.” Halloween costumes, viewed critically, help us to understand the deeper layer of costume hidden beneath the external guise of the pirate or the fairy. As feminist historian Gerda Lerner put it in her book, The Creation of Patriarchy, gender is “a costume, a mask, a straightjacket in which men and women dance their unequal dance.” [4.]

The presentation of boys’ selfhood is not without negative implications. Feminist theorists including Jackson Katz and Bell Hooks argue that gender stereotypes not only dehumanize girls, excessively emphasizing their status as “beauty objects,” they also promote the dehumanizing vision of male selfhood as fundamentally centered around the capacity for force and violence. Halloween costumes for boys (and men) overwhelmingly identify maleness with a particular kind of power, namely power to provoke fear or enact violent force, through guns, strength and/or super powers. [5.]

Beyond the toddler age, boys’ costumes overwhelmingly communicate menace compared to girls’ costumes. As the authors of Packaging Boyhood write, “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.” Of course Halloween is a day of imaginative exploration. Yet given that men are primarily responsible for our nation’s violence, it is worth asking why boys are disproportionately encouraged to imagine themselves as dominators and what the repercussions are.

Halloween and the Sexualization of Women and Girls

Within the patriarchal worldview, women’s self-worth revolves around their capacity to satisfy men’s sexual desires. In a word, girls and women are “sexualized.” According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sexualization occurs when any of these conditions are met: A person’s value is exclusively placed on her sexual appeal or behavior; narrowly defined physical attractiveness is equated with a person being sexy; a person is presented as an instrument for another’s sexual use (sexually objectified); and/or when “sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.” [6]

Each year, Halloween becomes a platform for the normalization of patriarchy’s pornographic vision of femininity. This vision equates femaleness with being a sexual object and is taken to extremes in costume shops that offer adult women a wide assortment of costumes, almost all of which are highly sexualized. Of more than 100 women’s costumes in Party City’s circular, the vast majority center on a stereotypically male-centered (androcentric) vision of sex appeal. Whether she is a pilot, paratrooper, officer, inmate, maid, nurse, baseball player, firefighter, boxer, referee or astronaut, her costume communicates sex appeal. If this wasn’t clear by the costume design itself, it’s made clear by the names: “All Star Hottie,” “TKO Knockout Sexy Boxer,” “Hospital Honey,” “Sultry SWAT Officer,” “Backdraft Babe,” “Pretty Paratrooper,” “Sexy Zombie,” “Lust in Space,” “Racy Referee” and so on ad nauseam. The same is true when she’s an animal (“Big Bad Sexy Wolf”), insect (“Light Me Up Lady Bug”), pirate (“Sexy Swashbuckler“), or action hero. Whatever the costume, the titles remind us of patriarchy’s view of woman’s essence as sex object. She is “vixen,” “honey,” “hot,” “sassy,” “hottie,” “sultry,” “foxy,” “lusty,” “racy,” “sexy” and a “beauty.”

In contrast, men’s costumes are brimming with muscle, attitude and almost always come with pants. Models for costumes such as “Neanderthal,” “Robin Hood,” “Viking Warrior,” “Brave Crusader,” or any of the numerous superhero costumes almost always strike conventional “power” poses. Generally, men’s costumes convey the assertion, “Contend with me.” Women’s costumes, on the other hand, suggest “Look at me.” One connotes agency and power, the other passivity and receptivity. One shapes the world, the other hopes the shapers will bring her along. One is looked at, and the other does the looking. Viewed together, these stereotypical representations are what cultural theorist Jane Caputi describes as “gender porn.”

This dehumanizingly limited conception of women is also an example of what I call the “sexualization of the banal,” interpreting nearly everything women do as having a sexualized meaning: whether she’s serving food, engaging in police work, catching a football, hitting a baseball, saving the day, or making her way down the yellow brick road. Halloween costumes again and again suggest that everything women do (or imagine doing) must have a sexual component, one that meets with the approval of patriarchal men. This has the effect of trivializing women’s actions and marking as “unfeminine” those women who wish to emphasis something other than their sex appeal or who wish to be taken serious when they embrace historically male-dominated roles.

Some ask, “So what’s wrong with sexualization?” Here’s the APA’s short answer: Evidence suggests that “girls exposed to sexualizing and objectifying media are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction, depression and lower self-esteem.” [7] The organization points to additional correlations between sexualization and eating disorders and difficulty developing healthy sexual self-image. Specifically, sexualization promotes girls and women to engage in a damaging self-objectification that involves “near-constant monitoring of appearances.” And since most women are unlikely to meet culturally impossible standards of beauty, such monitoring often “leads to increased feelings of shame about one’s body.” [8]

Another disturbing costume trend is the sexy revamping of girl cartoon and movie characters for adult women. Party City’s costume selection includes highly sexualized versions of Minnie Mouse (“Sassy Minne Mouse“), Hello Kitty, Red Riding Hood, Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz (“Kansas Cutie”), Snow White, Alice (in Wonderland), a Girl Scout (“Don’t Touch My Cookies“), and some 16 different school girl outfits (“Skippin School“). If you think I’m reading too much into these names, consider the description for the adult Strawberry Shortcake costume: “This strawberry shortcake will make you want dessert before dinner.” These costumes not only sexualize child characters, they also contribute to the infantalization of adult women, blurring the line between adult women and girls, particularly as it relates to sexual behavior.[9] This issue is all the more serious given the disturbing fact that in 2005, more than 80,000 children, a majority of whom were girls, were victims of confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect that involved sexual abuse. [10]

Sexualized Feminization of Popular Male Characters

One path to gender equality might involve breaking down the arbitrary categorization of life into the “For Men” and “For Women” boxes. Instead, Halloween stores are offering “feminized” popular male character costumes for women. These include Darth Vader for girls and adult women; Robin Hood; Mario and Luigi turned “Perky Plumber“; and “Sexy Sidekick,” Robin turned “Robin Hood Honey“; Sonic the Hedgehog; Ninja Turtle Raphael; Wizard of Oz-inspired “Cowardly Lioness,” “Tin Heartthrob” and “Sultry Scarecrow“; Chucky turned “Sexy Chucky“; Freddy Krueger turned “Miss Krueger”; Jason from Friday the 13th becomes “Miss Voorhees”; Edward Scissorhands turned “Miss Scissorhands”; and Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas turned “Lady Jack Skellington.”

Some might see this “male to female” costume trend as a sign that our culture is becoming more comfortable conceptualizing women as powerful, autonomous beings.

Ideally, such costumes would work to loosen the gender constraints on self-presentation, or expand the conceptualization of femininity to include identification with power. Instead, these “male” costumes are opened to women by modifying them in the most stereotypical of all manners. What makes the “Perky Plumber” different from Mario of the Mario brothers? Short skirt and sex appeal. And definitely no muscles. As with so many others, these costumes have nothing to do with female empowerment. Just consider the “Perky Plumber” costume description: “Work on his [emphasis added] pipes in our Perky Plumber Costume.” Instead they are fundamentally about fulfilling male sexual fantasies.

What’s more is the fact there are zero traditionally female costumes modified to be marketed to the general male market. Wonder Woman does not become “Wonder Man”; there’s no Princess Peach (Mario Brothers) or Dorothy for boys or men; and there’s no Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) for boys and men. To the extent that many find this unremarkable simply proves the persuasiveness of androcentrism, how our thinking centers on men and exaltation of the traits and roles identified with men. For why should it be so absurd to imagine men admiring and wishing to dress as “masculinized” women characters? To the extent that men do not, we not only see indication of androcentrism, but also of gender ranking. To put it plainly, boys and men don’t dress as girls or women characters for the same reason they don’t like being told they “throw like a girl,” “act like a bitch” or are “being a pussy.” Within patriarchy, being identified with femininity is antithetical to being a man. More than that, it’s insulting. So while patriarchy tolerates so-called “tomboys” (girls whose varied interests stray beyond the boundaries imposed by gender stereotypes), “janegirls” (boys whose varied interests stray into so-called “female” territory), if you will, are unacceptable.

The solution to the problems created by patriarchy is not simply to prove girls and women can “be more like boys and men.” As radical feminist thinkers such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Jane Caputi have argued, meaningful social change requires full recognition of the value of traits and characteristics historically associated with femininity: care, nurturance, inter-relationality and communication.

Resistance is Not Futile

Despite the dominant trends in Halloween costuming, there are examples of resistance to patriarchal gender norms. Mainstream stores offer nonsexualized costumes such as the Katniss-inspired “Hooded Huntress” at Spirit or “Survivor” at Party City (PC) or “Deadly Ninja” (PC). You can also find self-assured zombies at PC, along with (“Rocked Out Zombie”), Olympians (“Olympic Goddess”), historical figures (“Cleopatra”) and clowns (“Clown Girl”). But these are very far and few in between.

Luckily, organizations such as A Mighty Girl have put together resources that make resistance a little easier. The web site features more than 100 costumes that break restrictive gender molds imposed by mainstream costume shops. Girls (and boys!) can choose from costumes including “red dragon ninja costume,” “Star Wars Padme Amidala,” “Firefighter,” “Amelia Earhart,” “Fiona” (from Shrek), and an empowering (looking and modeled) “Snow White and the Huntsman” costume. (Also see “Snow White and the Huntsman Armor Costume.”)

Another group, Take Back Halloween, has taken the revolution to a whole new level of creativity. The group’s website features biographies on a number of significant historical women, and provides basic instructions about how to construct homemade costumes. Among their highlighted heroines and costumes are the goddess Artemis, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, scientist Rosalind Franklin, anti-imperialist Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliuokalani and the fearsome bird goddess, Morrigan.

As significant as it is to note the gendered messages in dominant costume trends, the ultimate issue is not so much what boys and girls, men and women wear. Rather it is about the constraints placed on the imaginations of people who are socially policed, held accountable, for transgressing gendered expectations. As the spoken word artists Hannah Halpern, Amina Iro, Reina Privado, and Asha Gardner put it in their poem, “Halloween,

Society is trying to squeeze the fantasy out of us, turn our feminine fatal. So this year/ I think I’ll be monster. . . . I’d much rather be vampire. My reflection disappearing everytime I look in the mirror/ so I wouldn’t have to worry about flaws that stare blankly back at me/ I will suck every woman stereotype out of your throats. . . .

But no matter what garments we wrap ourselves in / a woman’s status as trick, treat, or geek is not up for discussion/ a woman dressing, acting, or being should be her choice/ if a woman wants to wear a skimpy outfit let it be her choice/ if a woman wants to cover up let it be her choice/ if I want to be a motherfucking monster, then let it be my choice.[11]

Feminist thinkers have long claimed that the “personal is political.” The simple meaning of this concept is that what we do in our everyday personal lives has implications for broader power relations in society. As important as it is to participate in electoral politics, feminist thinkers have long reminded us that we neglect the political import of the seemingly mundane aspects of our personal and cultural life at our peril. In short, social change begins with thinking seriously and critically about not only the actions of our political leaders, but also about the words we use, the jokes we tell and laugh at, and even how we dress on Halloween night; and whether they reflect our authentic selves and fundamental values.


Thanks to Donna Albrecht for pointing this story out to me. Katie Kindelan, “Walmart Pulls ‘Naughty Leopard’ Costume for Kids,” ABC News, September 26, 2013


These are industry figures based on the National Retail Federation’s 2012 survey of anticipated participation and sales. People planned to spend nearly $80 per person on the holiday, with those buying costumes spending just under $30 on each one, all expected to have totaled $8 billion. “There’s No Spooking Spending As Seven In 10 Americans Plan To Celebrate Halloween This Year,” Sept 25, 2012. For more breakdown of Halloween retail see Barbara Farfan, “Halloween Retail Spending Plans For Costumes, Candy & Decorations – Comparison,” October 11, 2012,


In my classes I ask students to solve this “riddle.” A father and son get into a car accident. The father dies. When the child arrives at the hospital, the doctor walks in and cries out, “oh my god it’s my son!” Half to three-quarters of my students do not suggest the biological mother as the answer. When April Nall first brought this thought experiment to me I too did not give the mother as an answer. And a female teaching assistant aiding me in teaching an Intro to Women’s Studies course also failed to identify the mother as an option. Interestingly, students are more likely to suggest a stepfather and even a second father (from a gay relationship) than to suggest the mother. This goes a long way in proving the power of androcentrism, and the continued conceptual straightjacket patriarchy places on our thinking about women.


Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University press, 1986), 238.


This is not the only vision of power. As the authors of Packaging Boyhood write, “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.”


American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2010). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.


American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2010). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. P.34


American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2010). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, p.22


“Younger girls imbued with adult sexuality may seem sexually appealing, and this may suggest their sexual availability and status as appropriate sexual objects. Concomitantly, women are often considered sexy only when they appear young, thus blurring the line between who is and is not sexually mature (Cook & Kaiser, 2004).” APA, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2010). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, p.2′


American Humane Association citing the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.


Thanks to Steven Aguirre for bringing this powerful performance and video to my attention.

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