On Halloween Costumes That Reinforce Sex Differences

“We need to sex-mark, and get socially confused when we cannot.  As Frye puts it, our utterances and interactions become unintelligible because “Sex-marking is not optional; it is as obligatory as it is pervasive.” And it is easiest to sex mark when we separate girls and boys so widely that there is no possibility for confusion.  Frye contends that “The pressure on each of us to guess or determine the sex of everybody else both generates and is exhibited in a great pressure on each of us to inform everybody all the time of our sex.” This, however, dramatically limits the dreams and fantasies of boys and girls, especially at Halloween which is precisely a time for liminality, for occupying the space between fantasy and reality …”

Seasonal reflections from Alison Reiheld.

4 thoughts on “On Halloween Costumes That Reinforce Sex Differences

  1. Frankly, what “dramatically limits the dreams and fantasies of boys and girls” at Halloween and most other days of the year is the corporate mass culture of advanced capitalism rather than some kind of decontextualized “sex-marking” compulsion. That said, my youngest daughter is being a super-hero and my still younger son is dressing up as a dragon.

  2. This post, and especially the quotes from Frye, reminded me of a great piece of sci-fi that I read recently: Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice.” The book does several really neat things with sex-marking and gender. For one, it has a convincing protagonist incapable of interpreting sex-marks. For another, it forces the reader to confront how hard it is to not sex-mark, by failing to sex-mark the protagonist and making the reader acutely aware of how unsettling that is. And lots of other stuff. (Sorry for the vagueness here! I’m trying to say what’s interesting and relevant about the book w/o giving too much away, and that’s hard.) Anyway, for anyone interested in using narrative fiction to explore and confront one’s own tendencies to sex-mark even in the absence of justification, and in the alien-ness of a mind that can’t comprehend such behavior… this is a book for you.

  3. Ligurio: I actually don’t disagree with you at all that it is the corporate mass culture of advanced capitalism that is a causal factor. I just don’t think it’s a “rather than” but more of a “and also.” Why does reinforcing sex marking WORK for marketing/capitalism? Because these are existing features of our social discourse. Going against them has a cost. Sounds like your kids get to be what they want. Even girls who choose princess costumes may be choosing what they want. But I’ve seen both girls and boys who want to be a thing for Halloween and are either shot down by their parents due to sex-marking or are later shot down by others, whether accidentally (by misgendering due to the costume) or on purpose (by shaming with name-calling or saying “that’s for girls” or “that’s for boys”).

    Yes, capitalism and marketing reinforce gender and its workings in our society. And they exploit them. But gender and its workings does not depend on capitalism for its power, I suggest. Further thoughts?

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