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Is Your Costume Offensive?

Every year there’s controversy over a certain Halloween costume, and this year it’s the “Illegal Alien.” The costume features an extra-terrestrial dressed in prison garb holding a green card (which is a legal document allowing you to work in this country, ha ha). If the pun is lost on some people, the words “Illegal Alien” are boldly stenciled across the front.

Depending on your point of view, it’s either a hilarious pun, a political statement, or an extremely insensitive costume to a group of people. According to Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the costume is “distasteful, mean-spirited and ignorant of social stigmas and current debate on immigration reform.” The organization successfully pressured retailers such as Target, Ebay and Amazon to pull the costume off its shelves. Another states the costume “perpetuates this idea we have about undocumented immigrants as alien foreigners, strangers, scary.”

Should Offensive Costumes be Banned?

illegal-alienShould this particular costume have been pulled from shelves? Did it cross a fine line? Or is it yet another over-sensitive political correctness issue that has been stifling free speech for the last two decades?

Is this costume distasteful? Definitely! However, and so as to leave nobody guessing, I believe it should not have been pulled, and here’s why: Halloween is supposed to be offensive. It’s the one night where people parody and make fun of frightening monsters, authority figures, celebrities, political and cultural issues (as this one is), and, frankly, anything else people are scared of, angry at or downright tired of.

Why else do you see over-sexed nuns, stereotypical rednecks, Bernie Madoff complete with a hammer to whack him with, revealing native American costumes (wow, racist and sexy!), and Obama masks (Obama-care – there’s a scary one!). The list is endless. A couple years ago, the big offensive costume was a guy dressed as a Catholic priest with an altar boy hanging by his … you get the picture. How about Harry Potter costumes promoting witchcraft? How about “evil witches” offending Wiccans?

As of this writing, there’s still a few places that sell this costume, such as here. (Disclaimer: I’ll make a commission on the sale – if you don’t agree with that, click here instead and search for it.)

The point is, poking fun at sacred institutions and cultural values is a healthy part of any civilization. It’s not just free speech – if nobody can poke fun at anything, the line isn’t too far away from a police state. It’s not insensitivity and racism, it’s a cultural safety value – one even the Romans had. More on that later.

Why Do We Celebrate Halloween, Anyway?

Most people will tell you the origins of Halloween comes from the Celtic Samhain, when the line between the living and the dead was weakened. Grotesque costumes were worn to scare away spirits who had come back to possess living bodies.

Medieval Christianity tried to erase pagan traditions by turning them into Christian holidays – hence, the creation of a competing “All Hallows Day” on November 1st – “All Hallows Eve” the night before, or Hallowe’en. (Christmas, too, is originally a pagan holiday.) Irish immigrants (there’s that “i” word again!) fleeing the 1840’s potato famine took this holiday with them to New England (which already had late October traditions, including pranks such as toppling outhouses.)

As our country’s population has shifted from rural to urban settings, Halloween traditions have shifted from the harvest and bobbing for apples to door-to-door trick or treating (which actually has its modern origins in the 1930’s).

Today, there’s another shift occurring. As parents are (alas) too scared to have their kids go door to door asking strangers for candy, the holiday is looking to becoming more of an adult celebration. And with an adult audience comes a more political view of Halloween – thus, instead of the cute princesses, goblins and witches, we now have more easily offensive “sexy” costumes, political masks, stereotypes and, of course, the “illegal alien.” Is this a bad thing? Does it show the moral decline of our civilization?

The Moral Code and the Right to Be Safe

mental institution costumeEverybody wants to be safe. It means you can grow up without being hurt or uncomfortable, both mentally and physically. However, we’re ingrained NOT to expect being safe all the time. We’re still programmed to watch out for lions stalking us outside our caves. But there are no more lions.

The result? We have to subconsciously make up our own fears. Parents believe all neighbors are mass-murderers, so trick or treating is out. Children are no longer allowed to play alone. Terrorists and child abductors are lurking around every corner. Gated communities and massive alarm systems are the norm.

Those of us living a safe, suburban middle-class life want to be scared, if only temporarily. (I certainly do not want an actual lion prowling my front lawn!) Deep inside, most of us wish for our lives to be epic, to be famous or be able to have an evil enemy to do battle with. Why else are Hollywood movies so popular?

Even deeper inside, we sometimes want to lash out at the moral constraints that being safe entails. If everybody is safe, nobody can be uncomfortable, and this means nobody can be offended and hurt. We all have to tread carefully to avoid insulting someone. Can we all restrain ourselves indefinitely? Heck, no! The pressure to be good, inoffensive and docile all the time will build up and eventually burst. We’re all human – none of us is perfect.

Fortunately, there are pressure release valves – violent video games, horror movies, the popularity of the t.v. show House (who offends everybody), the aggression of sports and … I’m finally making my point … the wearing of outrageous costumes.

What Does Halloween Represent Today?

Halloween today looks to be more of a cultural pressure release valve, a day to let off steam (similar to the ancient Roman a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia” target=”_blank”>Saturnalia, where social order was reversed and slaves could insult their masters.). After being angry, frightened and weary after 364 days of watching our language, tiptoeing so as to not offend anybody, and fighting over polarizing issues like immigration and health care reform, not to mention worrying about our paycheck and keeping ourselves and our families safe from real and imagined terrors, we have one day to mock, poke fun of and laugh at all these serious issues and things in our lives.

That is why I justify offensive costumes. Every costume will insult somebody. I’ve been insulted more than once, or shook my head at the bad taste or pathetic attire long on the tooth (another pimp and ho? Please!)

However, I don’t believe people wear them to actually be insulting and mean-spirited. It’s an outlet to mock our beliefs and institutions and to laugh at our fears, if just for one night. It allows us to be someone or something we are not, to act as we normally wouldn’t, with the collective knowledge that we don’t mean anybody real harm. For one night, we can prove to ourselves that we are not so crushed under the moral and serious weight of living day to day and paycheck to paycheck that we can’t sometimes throw up our hands and laugh at it all.

The next morning we’re back to our real and imagined fears, helping others out, trying not to upset anybody, and debating serious political and cultural issues. We’ve let off some steam, the tightness around our shoulders are a bit more relaxed, and the offensive and insensitive costumes go back in the closet for another year.

What do you think? Is Halloween a way to let off some steam without harming anybody, or an excuse to insult and offend others?


About Chris Molnar

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2 comments

  1. What an awesome viewpoint on why people choose controversial costumes! Very good. I do think it’s an outlet and that we expect outrageousness on Halloween. I wouldn’t wear that costume to, say, an office environment but I WOULD wear it to a costume party, for instance. It’s clever and, yes, outrageous.

  2. You are so right. I totally agree with everything you said. This is the one time of year when people are truly allowed to express themselves – whatever that means to them.

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