My grandmother sewed beautiful costumes for my sister and me, but now that she’s dead, I can admit it: My favorite Halloween get-up of all time consisted of a plastic mask and one-piece jumpsuit that together turned me into Woody Woodpecker.
(And lest you think me callous, I should add here that I’d much prefer my grandmother still be alive than be relieved of my long-buried secret about the thrill of impersonating animated woodpeckers.)
This costume felt (and sounded) like I was wearing a plastic tablecloth. It was surely made of cancer-causing materials. It took me more than a month of begging to persuade my mother to buy it after I caught a glimpse of it at Zayre. It was glorious.
It was not, however, feminine. Looking at me straight on, the homeowners who answered their doors to distribute candy cigarettes, Charleston Chews and razor-blade-masking popcorn balls had no idea if I was a girl or a boy.
And that was part of the fun. Halloween is about dressing up as something you’re not—like, say, a male woodpecker. Which was why I was surprised and confused to see that a slew of male Sesame Street characters have been “girlified” for Halloween.
Cookie Monster, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird now come in “Girls Frilly” versions: full skirts, sparkles, tulle—and tiny little Muppet head-halves that perch atop the wearer’s head, cigarette-girl style.
(Incidentally, I wasn’t 100 percent certain of Big Bird’s gender until I Googled it.)
Notably, there aren’t “boyish” versions of Zoe, Abby and Rosita. And why not? Maybe my son would choose to dress up as Miss Piggy—if she came with a muscle tee, trucker hat and a pair of construction boots.
Admittedly, I’m the mother of only boys. But I realize there are little girls with strong preferences for dresses and skirts, for sequins and tutus. And perhaps they’re the ones begging for a girlier Elmo costume. But I doubt it. I bet most of those girls are content with the fairy/princess/good witch trifecta.
I imagine there are girls who say they want to be Elmo for Halloween and whose parents reply, “Oh, look at this one—it’s Elmo, but much prettier!” (Thus imparting the invaluable life lesson that prettier is better.)
The manufacturer isn’t helping matters by labeling the costumes “Girl Elmo” (i.e., Princess Elmo) and “Boy Elmo” (i.e., normal old Elmo everyone knows), surely preventing countless parents of daughters from buying the boy version.
In general, there seems to be an increasing need for us to LET IT BE KNOWN that our child is a boy or a girl. This certainly happens at Halloween. (And I’m not even going to get into the parents who let it be known that their child is a girl and a slut, thanks to the proliferation of sexy costumes for girls not old enough to require training bras. But can I just tell you? A friend of mine reports that a man in his building dressed up as a pimp, accompanied by his young daughter, the—yes, you guessed it—’ho. I simply can’t get past this. And look at that! I got into it.)
But gender-broadcasting with clothing begins long before baby’s first trick-or-teat. As my friend with the pimp neighbor said of his own newborn daughter: “Every article of clothing she is given or handed-down is pink, has pink spots or stripes and/or has flowers or frills of some kind on it. And all the tiny dresses! It’s driving me crazy. I could not care less if a stranger knows whether or not the child in my stroller is female or male. Seriously, I hate dresses on tiny children.”
Know who didn’t hate tiny dresses on children? Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s parents.
When the future president was a toddler, he and his shoulder-length hair posed for a portrait wearing a white skirt and patent leather shoes, holding a hat adorned with a marabou feather.
Explain the experts at Smithsonian: “We find the look unsettling today, yet social convention of 1884, when FDR was photographed at age 2 1/2, dictated that boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, also the time of their first haircut. Franklin’s outfit was considered gender-neutral.”
The same Smithsonian.com article points out that even gender-specific color preferences have evolved:
“A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, ‘The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’ ”
That “rule” flip-flopped in the 1940s, “as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers,” the piece says, noting, however, that during the women’s liberation movement in the ’60s and ’70s, pink was color-non-grata.
Starting in the mid-1980s, expectant parents were able to learn the sex of their babies in utero—and thereafter prepped for the new arrivals by dropping tons of cash on either “boy” or “girl” clothing and gear. This, as you can imagine, prompted manufacturers to create ever more gender-limited product lines.
Which leads us to where we are today: an age in which parents tape tiny pink bows to bald baby heads and find it nearly impossible to locate a pair of denim overalls without either an embroidered flower or football.
This doesn’t leave a lot of room for individualism and children who don’t conform to gender roles. What can we as parents do? Follow our kids’ lead—and be conscious of the messages they’re receiving.
As my tiny-dress-hating friend with the pimp neighbor says:
“It takes some intestinal fortitude to continue to not care what people think about, or how they label, your kids. My daughter can and will choose things soon enough. Same with my son. When he was a newborn, I got rid of the majority of sports-themed clothing. The kid might dig poetry way more than sports. Who knows? Although now, at just under 3 years old, he’s already grabbing for sports stuff when he sees it. But HE chooses that stuff, not me. They need to figure out that they don’t have to wear certain things to feel good about themselves.”