The first time we see Karen Smith in the Mean Girls musical, she's telling us that her name is Karen, she may not be smart, and...that's it. But I'd beg to differ. As we see later in the musical, Karen is much more than a dumb blonde; she's one of the most sex positive and feminist characters in the play. Karen's politics become clear when she sings about Halloween and the costumes that are too easily deemed "slutty."
As sexy corn, sexy Rosa Parks, sexy sharks, and sexy doctors dance across the stage, Karen sings: "I can be who I wanna be and sexy." It's both a joke about how women's Halloween costumes find a way to add sex appeal to even the most mundane objects (think vegetables) and a statement that women who choose to wear these costumes deserve respect.
Karen's message is an ethos we should all be adopting as Halloween approaches, whether or not you're interested in wearing anything sexy or not. Picking a Halloween costume should be exciting, but often, what a woman chooses to wear can easily put her on either side of the razor thin line of prude versus slut. "The cultural expectation is that [Halloween] is a fun holiday, but for girls it's so vexed and fraught," says Leora Tanenbaum, editorial director of Barnard College and author of I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet.
And peer reactions to risqué costumes can have lasting effects on a woman's mental health and body image. The teenage girls Tanenbaum's interviewed about slut-shaming have told her that they're anxious no matter what costume they choose. "They could at best open themselves up for public ridicule and humiliation by their peers, either face-to-face or on social media," she says. "At worst, they could become victims of harassment, bullying, or sexual violence." The same dangers aren't present for men, who can throw anything on and call it a costume. Even if someone thinks a man's costume is lazy, they won't critique his body and it likely won't have a lasting impact on his reputation. For women, on the other hand, Halloween costumes are loaded. "Concern about being ridiculed causes the girls I’ve spoken with to doubt themselves, their bodies, and their choices," Tanenbaum says.
Consider the Halloween scene in Love, Simon, a coming-of-age movie about a gay teenage boy. Simon and his friends, Leah, Abby, and Nick, meet up before a Halloween party and see each other's costumes for the first time. Simon and Leah's duo costume of John Lennon and Yoko Ono is clearly the most creative, compared to Nick's Cristiano Ronaldo (his school soccer uniform with a piece of paper that says "Ronaldo" taped to the back) and Abby's Wonder Woman (a red halter top, short American flag shorts, and gold belt). But it's Leah who spends the rest of the night feeling like she's in Abby's shadow, because she's not as fun or exciting. "Fun" girls are supposed to be sexy, but not too sexy.
It's a thin (and imaginary) line that has no real definition — so someone could think she's safely on the sexy side and still be criticized for being too slutty based on someone else's definition — and it exists all year 'round, but seems to be amplified on Halloween. "If you’re called out as a 'slut' or 'ho' on Halloween, that can instill self-doubt regarding your clothing choices, body, and sexuality the other 364 days of the year," Tanenbaum says. Many of the teenage girls and young women she's spoken with have told her that they have given up, and choose to not dress up at all rather than try to navigate the complex waters of Halloween costumes.
But, there's no reason any woman should miss out on the fun of Halloween because of expectations or criticism. If a woman wants to wear a sexy costume, she should. Tanenbaum just urges women to really think about why they want to wear a sexy costume. If it's because they're seeking social approval, then they should reconsider. "There’s nothing wrong with wearing a costume that some people might consider "slutty" – and no one should be shamed, harassed, or bullied for her costume choice – but if the costume is making her feel anxious, that is a sign she should pay attention to," she says. If a woman wants to wear a sexy costume because it makes her feel good, or because the person or character she's imitating happens to be sexy, then go for it. No one can tell you who to be, on Halloween, or any other day of the year.