Halloween and sensitivities
October 31st, 2011
As elsewhere, tonight the majority of residents of greater Los Angeles will watch TV and pass out candy to trick-or-treaters or go to parties thrown by work, church, families, or friends. The teens will flock to amusement parks, all of which try to outdo each other in the thrills and scares department.
But for many Angelinos, tonight has been the focus of a lot of time, planning, shopping and work.
Halloween is a very big ordeal here. While in much of the country Halloween is still seen as being primarily for children, here the gay community has adopted it as our very own unofficial holiday. Throw into the mix that Hollywood is home to an industry based on costume and that in this city image reigns supreme and Halloween takes on more importance than it might elsewhere.
So the city’s revelers won’t be at home waiting for the weekend. Rather, they will head out to one of two street fairs: Hollywood or West Hollywood. While the Hollywood festival bills itself as “kid friendly”, that is not the only difference. On Halloween, Hollywood Boulevard grooves to an urban street vibe and as the night progresses develops a slightly harder edge, while WeHo is a dancemix driven celebration of the absurd, wacky and tasteless (and more than a few simply fabulous illusions).
So parents have a choice, bring the kiddies to enjoy a night that is safer in the see-no-penis sense, or one that is safer in the see-no-fistfight sense. And it surprises me sometimes the number of parents who decide that they feel safer with their kids being exposed to gay men and women in downright vulgar costumes than to violence. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, races, and orientations converge on the street to make West Hollywood the heart of Halloween.
Sometimes the costumes go far beyond suggestive. For years, a staple has been the traffic cop at the corner directing the flow of pedestrians who is missing the butt out of her pants. And giant boobs and oversized penises – rubber, crafting foam, balloons, and sometimes real – are a certainty.
So at times I find myself wondering if we shouldn’t maybe tone it down some. But I don’t – yet – think it is necessary or even wise to do so.
Unlike Gay Pride, the Halloween Festival is not a declaration to the world about the gay community. It demands no attention and invites no judgment, it isn’t about us as a collective. It has no political element or statement about who we are. If anything, tonight is about who we are not.
And, after all, if exposed body parts offends your sensibilities, don’t come to West Hollywood on Halloween Night.
But nudity – real or comic – is not the only area where offense can be found. There will also be at least one Jesus, a flock of nuns, and politicians of various stripes (I expect more than a few Marcus and Michele Bachmanns). And there will be people decked out in costumes of other people’s cultures, using contrived “accents”, and playing on stereotypes.
Yet, for the most part, the offense gets a pass. And as cruelty is seldom the intention, it gets written off to ignorance or, perhaps, comedy.
But there is one rule that is observed, a rule I considered challenging this year – unless you are black, don’t come black. You can be Pharaohs with brown makeup, Aztecs in copper, or Greek Gods decked in bronzer (I’ve been all three), but do not show up in a costume of an African American of any age, gender, or period.
This rule developed as a result of Minstrel Shows, at one point the most popular entertainment form in the country. Minstrels were white men (though there were later black mintrels) who painted their faces black and delivered jokes, made bad puns, and sang songs written by or reflective of the style of African Americans.
Not altogether without positive characteristics, this art form introduced white America to black music (or, at least, a white impression of black music) and its influences can be seen today in a number of genres and the shows, which included both male and female characters played by men or male teens, kept alive a long “drag” tradition during the mid nineteenth century. And, more importantly, many shows in the 1830′s had themes which encouraged sympathy for black slaves and contributed to the emancipation movement.
However, many others were vicious or petty and deliberately portrayed African Americans as lazy and childlike and happiest when enslaved. And all minstrel shows, regardless of intent, relied on the assumption of white superiority and created or reinforced stereotypes of African Americans through the use of stock characters such as Lucy Long and Jim Crow. Considering their contribution to negative and demeaning attitudes, most African Americans consider minstrel shows and blackface to be emblematic of the racial inequalities experienced in this country.
Yet, even knowing the history and reason for the universal ban on going black for Halloween, I considered violating that rule.
A group of friends who always do Halloween together decided that this year’s them is “divas”. And they thought I’d make a good Whitney (from the “crack is wack” era). And I toyed with the idea.
Race, as defined in the United States, is fascinating and in many ways both amusing and frustrating. While racism is still active and present and far too easily identified when you look for it, social interaction and respect have made differences less charged and I wonder if it might be time to stop letting race be as restrictive as it has been.
I don’t think we are, as a people, anywhere near the place that blackface can be acceptable. The damage is still present.
But there is a difference between going on Halloween as “a black guy” and going as a specific person, such as Whitney Houston. The presentation is not about “being black” or “doing black things” but rather as a specific person with specific characteristics.
And it’s not exactly a drastic change. As my friend said, it’s just a couple spray tans from my own skin color.
But I thought about it. And asked myself how I’d feel about some straight guy being Carson Kressley for Halloween. It’s not like he could be that character without Carson’s flamboyance or over-the-top personality. And it could be too much. It could be offensive.
And just as a Carson Kressley impersonation could have all the stereotypical campiness of Carson with none of the charm that kept him on Dancing with the Stars for weeks (he too can’t dance), my Whitney could look an awful lot like “guy who darkened his skin and put on a dress”. In other words, it could rely too much on color to identify Whitney and too little on her own personal identifiable characteristics.
And I’m not the right person to make the call on when such a costume could be free of offense. I haven’t lived the black experience; store clerks don’t assume I’m there to steal, no one questions what I wear or drive, and I’ve not been the last one waited on in a restaurant.
I’ve never experienced being treated differently due to race. I’ve never even been – as my mother was just a generation before me – hesitant to admit my ethnic heritage. I don’t get to decide when is long enough.
So whether or not Black America is ready to tolerate a white guy playing black (as Tropic Thunder hints), I’m not the guy to pull it off. I would most certainly offend, and why do that.
So tonight I’m Cher. Half-Breed. Long hair, Indian headdress. My own skin.
I plan on touching my tongue to my upper lip, tossing my hair, and giving my best Cher-ala-Jack “whoooah.” And if anyone doesn’t like it, too bad.