I love an of-the-moment costume as much as the next person. I can't wait to see all takes on Emily In Paris and Normal People that are sure to pop up this year. What I'm hoping I don't see, however, are too many coronavirus-inspired Halloween costumes. But Viveca Greene, PhD, tells me that might be a pipe dream.
“I would be very surprised if we didn’t see a bunch of coronavirus-themed costumes this year,” says Greene, a critical humor scholar and associate professor of media studies at Hampshire College. “People want to do something timely."
I'm not humorless — I get the appeal of dressing up as a bottle of hand sanitizer (although I find it unoriginal). But the fact is, we're still in the middle of a pandemic, and COVID-19 is killing people every day. "Although making light of something topical might seem funny, at the same time it really would be gravely insensitive to [the families of] more than 225,000 people in this country who’ve died of COVID-19," Greene cautions.
It can be difficult to define when, exactly, a costume crosses the line into offensive territory, because humor is so subjective, notes Paul Lewis, PhD, a professor of English at Boston College and author of Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. “Jokes in themselves, regardless of what images and events they conjure, aren't amusing or unamusing until someone reacts to them," he says. "I think of the death cart scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Not everyone would find it funny, especially now, though some might be more inclined to be amused. It's complicated.”
So, yes — gallows humor is a thing, and some people will probably think your "Corona beer bottle wearing a mask" costume is hilarious. Others, not so much. “A lot of people are suffering and scared,” Greene says. “And as much as it might help some people to cope with their anxiety around the virus by making light of it… it’s insensitive to make a joke or costume out of a group that has suffered.”
Remember, impact matters more than intent, Greene adds: "I think we need to get over the idea that somehow if your intentions are okay, your actions can't be damaging and hurtful." As such, she says her instinct is to advise folks to err on the side of caution this Halloween, and avoid COVID-19-themed ensembles altogether.
If you're still tempted to take on the pandemic in your costume, the experts offer a few rules of thumb that can help you to avoid causing someone unnecessary pain. For one, Greene recommends "punching up the ladder, not down." In other words, it's typically less offensive to poke fun at someone in a position of power than an everyday person. Donning a Donald Trump wig or a Dr. Anthony Fauci suit will still step on some people's toes — but not as much as wearing a comedic healthcare worker costume. (That's right, say goodbye to the sexy nurse this year.)
Of course, there are limits even to this. A costume that portrays harm to someone in power, for instance, probably crosses the line.
Also, think about how your get-up could be received by people whose perspectives are different from your own, Greene suggests. For example, how would someone who had a particularly bad case of COVID-19, a doctor who worked on the front lines of the pandemic, or of someone who’s husband or grandma died from the illness feel about your outfit? When viewed in that lens, you might decide that you're better off going as a Zoom meeting or a mail-in ballot than the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Every year, a costume crosses over from funny to offensive. In this case, with COVID-19 cases and the death toll on the rise again, it's definitely worth taking a few seconds to gut check your costume idea. And if you decide to make a last-minute switch, we've got you covered.