Costume Controversy

November 3, 2011

Political Theory, Uncategorized

Dressing up in my favorite costume was something I looked forward to as a kid and still love to do. However, recently there have been actions in schools against students dressing up for this holiday – especially around college campuses.

In an article recently posted on (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) it discussed whether Halloween was a time for expression or censorship. The article included excerpts from the emails that college and university presidents sent out to the community. At Northwestern they have been trying to get students to think more wisely about their costume choices due to a past incident involving students painting their faces black and saying they were the “black face”. The vice chancellor of University of California at San Diego said that these emails are meant to tell students to use good judgment while choosing their Halloween costume because “racially stereotype costumes and themed parties can be harmful to the campus community,” said Penny Rue.

Students at Northwestern dressed in the costume "blackface".


Mill has thoughts on freedom of expression and speech, but does this apply to this particular situation? Some may ask if costumes are considered speech? According to Mill speech is used to educate people and move closer to finding the truth. First people might not think that costumes can be compared to speech, because what to they teach you? Nothing – they are just something fun to dress up as. However, if you consider the uses of costumes in not only a Halloween context, they can add purpose to someone’s point. For example, if someone is in a play they need a costume so they can represent a type of person. This allows people to know the stereotypes of different types of people (even if they aren’t truthful). But isn’t knowing what isn’t true is just as useful as knowing the truth? Also stereotypes – even if they aren’t correct – communicate the values or beliefs of a group of people. If you are dressed as a guido for example, what type of message or personal values are you conveying of that group?  You learn that guidos are self-centered and egotistical. However, removing yourself from the situation is a way of gaining your beliefs. Because you look at these guido costumes per say and realize that they are a laughable type of person – even though they are not how all Italians are. It may be a roundabout way but you learn about different types of people through their stereotypes and learn more about what you believe in and/or against, but costumes can teach this.

However, Mill believes that freedom of speech is good as long as it doesn’t harm anyone: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (9)” Is offensiveness harm – might not be physical but it could be mental? Offensive statements can cause people to feel less confidence, feel excluded, and feel emotional stress. This can be considered harm towards someone. However, people can take offensive statements very personally, which can affect them more than people would think. But Mill said “if the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered (15).” Which allows people to voice their own opinion to have the community gain knowledge, even if it could be immoral and people don’t understand. In the guido example, people who are from New Jersey could take the guido costume very offensively because it is stereotyping all people from Jersey. But also if a little girl is dressed as Pocahontas – is that offensive to Indians or not? Where is the line drawn for offensive costumes or non-offensive costumes? Offensiveness is when people’s beliefs are disrespected; levels of offensiveness can be subjective.

Costumes are a fun way for people to express themselves or other groups of people. So in reality, would Mill really believe that costumes are a part of expression and freedom of speech? And where is the line drawn between offensive costumes to non-offensive costumes? There is no way to tell where Mill would stand on this topic but why not let Halloween continue on and stop trying to regulate fun.



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2 Comments on “Costume Controversy”

  1. blogger32 Says:

    I thought this post was interesting, because as Halloween was approaching, I spent a lot of time reading about student groups and other organizations who were hoping to eliminate stereotypical Halloween costumes from college campuses. I was even handed pamphlet in the diag about what it means to take a Halloween costume “too far.” When trying to tackle the question of whether Halloween costumes fall into the subject of freedom of expression, I think the answer is yes. The reason I feel this way, is that when you dress up as someone or something for Halloween you are sending a message to everyone who sees that costume. Whether it be dressing up as a sports player, a doctor or guido, the costume you wear sends a message to others, whether you like it or not. I think someone dressing up in a costume in some sort of show is not relatable to Halloween because everyone who sees that person in their costume knows they are wearing it because they need to for the show, not because they picked it out. One argument you do make in your post that I agree with, is that depending on your age a costume will be interpreted differently, because the message sent by a child in a Pocahontas costume is very different from that of an an adult.

    Lastly, one thing I wanted to add to my comment is this link:, which takes you to an article that explains how an Ohio University student movement against racist and prejudice costumes made national headlines.

  2. jgurwitch Says:

    This is a really interesting article that brings up a very good point. I think that there is a slight difference between speech and action, but in reality they are still in the same playing field as to what can be considered free or even offensive as well. People’s actions represent who they are and what they do, and even something that is not spoken, such as a costume, is still a representation of who they are. Sure Halloween is in fact supposed to be all fun and games and should not be offensive, there are clearly some things that cross a certain line that society deems as acceptable. It is the same thing with free speech; sure there is free speech, but people know that there are some things that should be said depending on who you are.

    Mill would probably think that if speech should be free, the way you dress and act should be as well. I would think he would agree with that Halloween should be up to whoever chooses the costume, but I still feel strongly against the idea that wearing anything you want is completely okay. Most things yes, but some should be truly thought about. Kids at Northwestern dressing as “black face” was extremely offensive to African Americans, and that is extremely understandable. It is as if white students dressed up as the Ku Klux Klan or slaves, or a non-Jew dressing as a Nazi. Sure those are extremes but it still brings on the same ideals that should not be crossed in order to respect who it can be sensitive to. A lot of emotions can be involved. And although I think that people should be able to wear what makes them happy, they should definitely take into account what other people think and feel about what is being worn and how it could affect others. I do not think what people wear can truly be regulated unless it is by the individual person/ group using the costume. But as blogger32 and you discuss, there is definitely a different interpretation as to who is wearing what depending on their age. Certain costumes are more acceptable depending on the age, but at all ages costumes should still be comfortably chosen in order to not potentially offend anyone.

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