Who gets to decide which Halloween costumes are acceptable and which ones go too far? I recently heard from two people asking whether it's offensive to wear the "Call Me Caitlyn Unisex Adult Costume,"a corset-and-wig combination modeled on the sexy bustier the transgender reality TV star wore for her Vanity Fair cover.
Question 1: Can I dress in drag for Halloween and wear a sash that says "Call me Caitlyn"? Bruce is in costume 365 days a year.
Question 2:I'm looking for something fun to wear to a Halloween party that will be pretty edgy. I hear the Caitlyn Jenner costume is the big thing this year. Is this all in the spirit of Halloween? Or will I be accused of mocking transgender people?
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The question of what's edgy vs. what's offensive can be tricky. Among this year's most outrageous costumes are the "Foxy Megyn Bloody Tampon" (based on Donald Trump alleging that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever" after the first Republican presidential debate) and the "Lion Killer Dentist Halloween Costume" (a bloody dentist's smock and plush severed lion's head). When it comes to distasteful, last year's do-it-yourself "Robin Williams" costume, with belt hung around your neck, tops my list. (Williams killed himself in August 2014.)
There's no doubt that Halloween costumes in general are getting more offensive, sociologist Richard W. Lachmann told me. "A few decades ago, the limits of outrage were grotesque masks of politicians. Nixon and Reagan were favorites."
Then there's the Jenner costume, which unleashed sound and fury on Twitter when retailers previewed it in August. Many of the tweets echoed this one: "it makes me feel sad and disgusted in equal measure there are people out there who think that a Caitlyn Jenner halloween costume is 'funny.'" Not surprisingly, a "Stop Exploiting Caitlyn Jenner" petition was launched on Change.org, and it has been signed by more than 18,000 people.
Part of the problem is that many ads for the costume showed a scruffy-faced, hairy-chested man wearing it, which sends the incorrect and offensive message that transgender women are men in dresses. "If a man wears the costume with the intention of mocking Caitlyn Jenner, and by extension all transgender women, that is just mean-spirited and unacceptable," says Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of programs for transgender media. "Transgender women are women, and when Caitlyn Jenner or any other trans woman steps out into the world as her authentic self, she isn't wearing a costume." (Two online retailers have removed this version of the costume from their sites.)
Lachmann, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong with the Caitlyn corset. "The fun of Halloween is breaking boundaries and being outrageous," he said. The folks at Spirit Halloween apparently agree, as they advertise the costumewith an image that matches Caitlyn's gender expression, unlike many of the retailer's competitors.
"Caitlyn Jenner has proven to be the most important real-life superhero of the year, and Spirit Halloween is proud to carry the costume that celebrates her," a spokeswoman told the New York Daily News.
Okay, back to the questions at hand. For anyone, contemplating any costume, ask yourself these questions: What is your intent? How will the costume be perceived by others? Does it hurt or denigrate someone or some group of people?
To the first letter writer, I say no, you can't wear the costume. Jenner is not "in costume 365 days a year." Your intent is to ridicule her and perpetuate the stereotype that Jenner (or any trans woman) is really a man in drag. No corset or sash for you.
To the second, I say maybe, because you're self-aware enough to think about the challenges with the costume, displaying more sensitivity than Jenner (who sometimes seems to forget that she is a de facto spokeswoman for all trans people). In September, she told NBC's Matt Lauer: "I don't think it's offensive at all. . . . Except they could have a better-looking outfit for (me), you know?"
Also, you don't mention your gender. A woman in a "Caitlyn" costume is very different from a man who wants to go "in drag." Given the explosion of "sexy" costumes for women lately, is wearing this corset and wig any different?
Part of me wishes I could agree with Jenner's laissez-faire attitude. I know Halloween fun can be about being edgy and pushing boundaries, but I was moved by what this young trans woman posted on my Facebook wall: "To me it isn't about being a celebrity. I don't even really like Caitlyn Jenner. To me it's prolonging the idea that it's laughable to be trans. Which is a lot of what kept me in the closet."
My last piece of advice is to be creative as well as outrageous - you don't want to be the fourth "Call Me Caitlyn" at the punch bowl. After all, the next-worst thing to being offensive is to be passÃ©.
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Petrow, the author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners," addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in this Washington Post column. Follow him on Twitter: stevenpetrow.