I absolutely love Halloween, but even I have to admit that my favorite holiday has some problems. Those problems became glaringly obvious when I became a mom, too, and especially when I had my daughter. What we expect from girls on Halloween is problematic at best, and rooted in garbage gender issues us women already have to deal with every other day of the year. But wow, on Halloween those issues sure are magnified, and often times they're placed on the shoulders of our daughters.
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday of the year, mostly because it's the one "big day" that comes with zero obligations or unrealistic expectations. You don't have to go visiting 900 different branches of your family to avoid hurting someone's feelings. You don't have to cook anything. You don't have to buy gifts. There aren't 101 events that build up to the main day and, if there are things you want to do leading up to October 31, they're entirely optional and low-key, like pumpkin picking or watching scary movies. The expectation is that you and/or your children will dress up in a costume of your choosing, ask for candy, get candy, and eat candy. That's. It.
Halloween costumes of course, are a big reason why the day itself is so magical. What we choose to dress up as allows us to escape societal constraints and expectations for one day, consequence free. But the costumes are also a problem, if not in theory then in practice. And when it comes to "girl" costumes and "boy" costumes, the girls are not as unfettered by reality as the boys are.
Take a look at just about any Halloween costume marketed to girls: they're all so... pretty. No matter what the character is, basic rules of attractiveness and femininity are adhered to. Sure, a little girl can theoretically be anything or anyone she wants to be on Halloween (though there are a lot more princess costumes available than, say, superheroes), but whatever you're going to be has to be cute.
Yes, you expect a princess costume to be pretty, of course. And obviously I don't think there's anything wrong with dressing up as a princess. I don't think there's anything wrong with femme-ing up a costume more associated with boys if that's what a girl wants to do, either. But why is that the default? Why does a "girl werewolf" look so much more chic than her male counterpart? She's a werewolf! Why the short plaid skirt? You'd think that wouldn't be particularly practical for a moon-filled night of feasting on human flesh, right? That's a job for overalls. The Grim Reaper is another example of a standard costume — black robe, skull face, scythe — it's been that way for centuries. So why does the girl version look so wispy and pretty? And I would actually be super on-board with Death in a tutu if not for the fact that it's not so much subversive or funny as it is the standard indicator/requirement of a "girl costume."
Halloween is fun because it's simple and freeing. It's a day when the rules about what we're supposed to be are lifted. But there are rules that apply to girls' costumes that have yet to be challenged, let alone broken.
This is to say nothing of the fact that all of these costumes are much skimpier than typical "boy" costumes, which doesn't concern me as a modesty issue but it does concern me that it's October 31 and nighttime temperatures are going to be in the 50s if you're lucky. What's the point of a cute costume if you have to wear a damn snowsuit over it?
Yes, no one is forcing girls to wear "girl" costumes. It's Halloween. You can wear anything you want. That said, the message they are receiving is crystal clear. When every option specifically directed toward them looks pretty standard, and that standard is pretty, they know what they're "supposed" to wear and which costumes are "for them." That message is undoubtably internalized and becomes the social expectation among peer groups.
Perhaps what's so frustrating is that this Halloween message is a continuation of the messaging young girls receive all year long. So, really, they don't get a chance to "be whatever they want" or take a break from what's normally expected from them. They don't get a break from reality, because even their costumes are adhering to gender norms that tell girls the best thing they can be is pretty. Boys are given the message that this is a day for them to be spooky, funny, or heroic, girls are told that they can be whatever they want... as long as they look good while doing it.
It's not to say that boys don't face their own challenges — even on Halloween a little dude will probably feel pressured not to dress up as a mermaid. And the "fake muscles" on almost every superhero costume marketed to toddlers is problematic at best. But it's impossible to look around and concede the fact that there are fewer constraints and more variety for boys than for girls, even if some boy costumes are controversial, too.
Halloween is fun because it's simple and freeing. It's a day when the rules about what we're supposed to be are lifted. But there are rules that apply to girls' costumes that have yet to be challenged, let alone broken. Hopefully that won't always be the case, and one day we can say that every child can be literally anything they want to be on Halloween... no expectations attached.