Why Does Halloween Bring Out Celebrities' Tone-Deaf Cultural Insensitivity?

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images.
While many of us may be battling post-Halloween hangovers today, it is safe to say that no one is in quite as much pain as Hilary Duff. In case you spent the holiday under a Wi-Fi-less rock, let me catch you up on Duff-gate: Hilary Duff and her boyfriend thought it would be adorable to dress up as a pilgrim and Native American chief. Everyone else thought it was racist.

Duff’s couple’s costume from hell can best be described using the title of her own song: It was, in fact, “So Yesterday” — “yesterday” in this case referring to a time in the distant past when it was socially acceptable to wear insulting costumes that mocked the indigenous people of our country. This awful Duff-saster was also particularly tone-deaf right now, as native populations are currently intensifying their protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Adding a rotten cherry on top of this whole problematic sundae was the fact that those costumes were just plain busted. As someone who is both rich and famous, you would think Duff would be able to afford a costume that didn’t look like it was straight out of a third grade Trump supporter’s Thanksgiving pageant.

The offensive celebrity costume has become a yearly Halloween staple, as ubiquitous as stale candy corn yet far, far worse. There was Gerard Butler’s inexplicable “Gay Me of Thrones” costume from this year, for which the actor wore a medieval blouse, eyeliner, and no pants (because apparently gay people love eyeliner and hate pants?). There was Ashley Benson’s Cecil the Lion costume — which she blamed on her management team, as if her publicist held her at gunpoint and said, “Please, dress up as a beloved and murdered lion to create a PR mess that I will have to clean up in the morning.” And who could forget Julianne Hough’s notorious blackface “Crazy Eyes” costume, which holds the title for Most Racist Celebrity Costume of All Time.
Photo: Pacific Coast News.
These mistakes are always followed by a breathless apology, sent from the iPhone of the offender (or their publicist). Duff continued the tradition, with the requisite self(ie)-flagellation issued via social media. Duff was “SO sorry” for ruining Halloween with racism, and claimed that her costume “was not properly thought through.”

And yet one cannot help but imagine that Duff’s costume, along with the costume of every other celebrity attending a highly publicized Halloween bash with countless photographers present, was very “thought through.” In fact, hours and hours of thinking probably went into this costume. There are people who make entire careers out of helping celebrities think about what they will wear to parties — and Halloween is no exception. Even if Duff skipped the glam squad this year and dragged her boyfriend to a shitty Halloween outing at the last minute — she still, no doubt, thought about the audience for her outfit. And here is where the yearly celebrity-costume apology tour always falls flat: How much time does it actually take to think, Oh, this might be racist?

Here’s the thing — costumes are all about communication. They are meant for public consumption; no one puts on a sexy witch costume to sit alone at home and watch Friends on Netflix. Costumes are vehicles for social interaction, meant to be interpreted by an audience. Every costume is intentional — designed to elicit a response in your fellow partygoers. If you dress as Thor, you want everyone to see your CrossFit-toned biceps; if you dress as Eleven from Stranger Things, you want everyone to know you are a witty Netflix subscriber; and if you dress as Donald Trump, I suppose you want everyone to hate your Cheeto-complected face. In the age of social media, this communication is amplified by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Your costume is not just for an audience of your fellow revelers, it is for the world.

What is so curious about the phenomenon of the celebrity costume gaffe is that celebrities should be the most aware of this social function of a costume. Because, after all, what is the red carpet if not one big costume ball? Rest assured that Diane Kruger doesn’t wear Prada couture to eat Pringles in bed — it’s a costume she wears on the red carpet to play the role of “movie star.” Celebrities spend hours and hours prepping for these flashbulb moments. At the end of the day, each red carpet look is the result of many people coming together to dress one person for a highly publicized event. The reason so many hours are spent is because celebrities understand the social value of the red carpet, and its ability to transform a person into a “star.” The power of celebrity is rooted in image, and when that image is distorted in a way that reads as offensive (i.e. the racist Halloween costume) — it carries a significant cultural impact.
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The bottom line: Identity is a powerful thing. And Halloween is, of course, all about identity. Why else do people dress up? It is a chance, for one night, to hide behind a mask and escape from yourself. But there is a difference between adopting the identity of the Pink Power Ranger and appropriating the traditional cultural dress of a people you know nothing about.

In cases concerning the ethics of costumes, we are perhaps best served by consulting those who wear them most frequently: drag queens. In the words of drag superstar RuPaul: “You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” Drag queens make their living donning absurd and fantastic costumes, blurring gender lines and poking fun at the very idea of identity. But there is also an acknowledgement of the incredible power that identity carries, and a respect for this power. When RuPaul puts on a gown, she’s making a statement through costume, and she knows exactly what she’s saying. When Hilary Duff and her hapless boyfriend donned those Halloween costumes, they had no idea what they were saying. That’s why the internet had to point it out.

Here’s a sentence I thought I’d never type: Let us all learn from Hilary Duff this year. When it comes to picking out a costume, don’t wear something racist, sexist or any other -ist. Play with identity, but play with it respectfully. And no matter what happens, if Hilary Duff asks you to go Halloween shopping — run.

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