Halloween is the time of year that our deepest fantasies, dreams and nightmares manifest themselves in cheap absurd outfits. While on the surface it’s all candy eating, pumpkin cutting and trick or treating, below the sugar coated and fake blood smeared façade it’s an arm race to find the biggest, best and most outlandish outfit possible. From the Scooby Doo gang to vampires and zombies, in good taste it can all be harmless fun and a great chance to play dress up again. But unfortunately recently the fun and innocence of Halloween have undertaken a slightly darker and riskier turn with the rise of controversial costumes, one of the most recent of which is the Walter Palmer and severed lion head costume. Walter Palmer was a dentist from Minnesota who came to international attention after a hunting trip to Zimbabwe subsequently lead to him shooting and killing a lion by the name of Cecil, a major attraction at the Hwange National Park. The scandal erupted into a brouhaha that exploded across the world like wild fire and resulted in intense, long overdue discussions over exotic game hunting. I’m sure after reading all that you stopped and thought to yourself “sure I could be rather saddened and filled with many question about killing for sport, but no I’m thinking about what accessory’s should pair with my Cecil Lion Killer Dentist Costume; should it be the Dentist tools in the front pocket or the severed lion’s head?”
Even just writing that as a joke feels rather jarring, so the mere concept someone would make a costume about the incident and someone else would willing wear it out in public is rather unsettling. But trust me it gets worst, this Halloween alone you can expect more Ebola costumes, Olympic medal winning Bruce Jenner with a wig on and the ever resurfacing Nazi uniforms. Most wearers would defend their choice in costumes as light hearted, freedom of expression and ultimately just harmless fun. While going on to say that anyone raising an eye brow to it is being overly PC and is taking it far too seriously. Don’t they say humour can be a great way to understand complex issues and doesn’t the Walter Palmer costume show big game hunting to be archaic and barbaric? On both accounts I would firmly agree, but where do you draw the line between political/cultural commentary and just plain offensiveness and absurdity? For me it’s not old fashioned and over sensitive at all to feel that a disease that killed thousands in West Africa being turned into a pantomime for Halloween night is disgusting, it’s called being compassionate your fellow man. There is a way to tackle topical issues and that’s through honest discussions and sympathy, not humiliation.
Let now talk about cultural appropriation…So you’re a young white woman who loves all things Beyounce and would consider Drunken Love as your go to club song. Then comes October 31ST and you just walked into a Halloween party dressed naturally as the bootlicious queen B in wig, dress and your skin browned. You think you like great, but someone pulls you to the side and says its that your costume counts as cultural appropriation and the word racist can be heard somewhere in the distance. Now even under the browned skin, your checks go visibly red out of shear embarrassment because you didn’t have hateful intentions and you just wanted to honour your idol. What is cultural appropriation? In simple terms it means one race adopting certain cultural signifiers from another race that isn’t their own.
On one side people consider it the fruits of globalisation and blurring of racial differences, while on the other hand some people consider it a trivialisation of cultural aspects that minorities had to fight hard to maintain. All round a very contentious issue that has inspired many second guessing’s and fascination in me for a long time. Going back to my earlier example and on a personal stand point I wouldn’t consider someone ‘black facing’ to look like a real life person as offensive, why should someone be allowed to dress like the queen but not Martin Luther King? As long as you don’t regress to cheap, miss guided racial stereotypes and it’s out of respect of his achievements, his impact and his struggle, is it so bad? For me cultural appropriation is only a bad thing when used to perpetuate racist stereotypes not founded in reality but in caricature seen on film and TV, this is when cultural appropriation fails and you aren’t respecting and immersing in a cultural but defiling it instead.
The debate over how far you can go with a Halloween costume will always continue to rage on and it can be difficult to navigate through such a controversial issue whilst maintaining freedom of expression, a tongue and check humour and still avoiding being offensive. It would be hard and wrong for me to dictate to anyone which costumes should be deemed ‘safe’ and which should be deemed ‘risky’. Because what each of us considers offensive is completely subjective and thus ultimately it’s up to the wearer to discern for themselves what is appropriate, what they are trying to say and what are their intentions behind saying it. Personally I’ll be staying on neutral ground and opting for Velma from Scooby Doo for this Halloween, because the best way not to offend anyone is embrace the true spirt of Halloween which is all about fun and not politics, race and controversy.