On October 31, 2015, the Internet ignited as an image of a man wearing an offensive Bill Cosby Halloween costume made the rounds online. With a Cosby dummy on his back, the slouched-over man was dressed as a woman who had been drugged by alcohol and prescription pills. This costume was largely praised for being “ingenious.”
Comments backing the costume overwhelmingly dominated those that found it to be distasteful: “This guy wins Halloween!! #BestCostumeEver.” “Yeah, I’m sure the victims of Bill Cosby all find this just as outstanding and hilarious as some of you do…not.” “I think the costume is clever and hilarious. Stop being so sensitive people” “If people don’t see that this is making fun of @BillCosby then that sucks 4 them.”
And there it was, the man in the egregious Cosby costume was dubbed “Halloween King” for depicting the iconic comedian who’s had his title of America’s Dad revoked due to the public firestorm surrounding drug-affiliated rape and sexual assault accusations. The line between a joke and flat-out insensitivity seems to have been blurred, as one could argue that it is solely Cosby who is being roasted, laughed at and shamed for what has become of his legacy. But it is the 57 women who have accused Cosby of sexually violating them that are also attached to such a costume and let’s face it, without the depiction of a drugged woman that insinuates rape the costume wouldn’t stick or be funny.
Perhaps it is the portrayal of sexual violence and hypersexualized images of women in the media that have made it widely acceptable for the offensive Cosby costume to exist. On a superficial level it may not seem that deep, but the constant consumption of women as sexual objects, slut shaming and victim blaming go hand in hand, with the costume being generally interpreted as entertaining. Often times, when a woman makes an allegation of rape, people wonder: Why was she alone with that man? What was she wearing? Or, Why did she get drunk at that party? These types of questions are a direct reflection of what is known as rape culture. The term is defined as the acceptance and normalization of sexual violence against women due to societal views on gender and sexuality.
“It’s very clear if you’re walking down the street and somebody pulls you into an alley and rapes you, no would blame that woman,” says Dina Carreras, chief operating officer at Seamen’s Society for Children and Families, a foster care agency that provides case management services to families on Staten Island and in Brooklyn. Carreras, who has worked with rape and domestic violence victims for over 11 years as a rape crisis counselor and a legal advocate states that “historically rape and abuse is acceptable, it is the cultural norm and it has not been extinguished.”
In 2014, Janay Rice and her then fiancé, former Baltimore Raven player Ray Rice, were the butt of costumes poking fun at their aggravated assault case in which the football player dragged Janay’s limp body out of an elevator after he punched her so hard that she fell unconscious. An array of images of white men in blackface, dragging black blowup dolls while wearing Rice jerseys, became a popular costume that year. One depiction came from a white couple with brown painted skin; the man wore a Ray Rice jersey and the woman sported a black eye. The coupled smiled for an Instagram photo that was posted by their son, who uploaded the picture with the caption of “So my mom and dad win best Halloween costume ever. #HitABitch.” In response to those who had a good laugh at the painful experience that played out publicly for Janay, she tweeted, “It’s sad that my suffering amuses others.”
Through dissociation people detach themselves from the reality of what these women experienced. Sure, anybody has the right to wear a costume that makes fun of whomever or whatever he or she wants, but Carreras says that images like the Cosby and Rice costumes could be emotionally upsetting and damaging to women who have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence. “Sometimes there’s suppression and they can’t feel the reality of what happened to them, sometimes they forget but their behavior will change when they are triggered.”
Not all women who have experienced abuse are triggered by these depictions.Caroline, is a 28-year-old woman, who was once in a physically abusive relationship with a man. She admits that she was conflicted when she saw the Ray Rice costumes. “I’m not going to lie, I laughed about that,” she says, explaining that she’s not condoning the costumes. “But I’m not looking at the deeper picture. It stops right there for me. It doesn’t take me back to when I was abused.” Men who wear these costumes don’t bother Caroline. What she is disturbed by are the women who partake in such costumes like #HitABitch’s mom.
Carreras says that men who wear costumes that depict the abuse of women can do so because of the male privilege construct. “Men have the privilege to say ‘I would never do this and this shouldn’t be done, but it’s funny, the costume is a joke.'” She states that women who find these costumes amusing are able to see themselves as different from the women who experienced the abuse; they can’t empathize and see how they are alike.
Aside from the costumes that depict abuse against women, there have been other horrific events that have played out in the media that have been turned into Halloween costumes. Just two years ago, a pair of British teenagers won a Halloween costume contest for dressing up as the World Trade Center. They had airplanes and flames bursting out of the sides of their cardboard box towers and wore American flags on their heads, earning them £150 for best costume and landing them on the cover of the Sun, an English newspaper that blasted them for their offensive depiction. “Exclusive: Sick Contest. Towering Stupidity,” read the headline. The teens apologized, stating that they wanted to depict a modern day horror but did not mean it as a joke.
In 2013, a 22-year-old woman from Michigan went to work as a Boston Marathon bombing victim for Halloween. Dressed in running gear and a race bib, her bruised, burned and bloodied legs could be seen as she posed for a twitter photo with a big smile on her face and her hand on her hip. She stated that she knew that her co-workers wouldn’t be offended by the costume. In turn, the woman received multiple death and rape threats and she was fired from her job.
The same year, the 2012 death of 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin was depicted by white people in blackface and hoodies holding skittles and iced tea for Halloween. The images mocking the teen’s death became popular online and caused a firestorm of backlash. One of the costumes came from a Florida trio in which a white man wearing a neighborhood watch t-shirt had his fingers, in the form of a gun, pointed at the head of another white man in blackface and a blood-plastered hoodie. The women between the men posted the picture on Facebook with the caption of “Happy Halloween from Zimmerman & Trayvon [smiley face.]” The woman has since been fired from her job. In contrast to the Rice and Cosby costumes, these depictions have caused more of an uproar in response to their offensiveness and insensitivity. But no matter the costume, is any backlash warranted, or, should a blind eye be turned because of the intrinsic right to freedom of expression?
On October 30, 2015, Erika Christakis, the Associate Master of Silliman College at Yale, wrote an email to her students responding to the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee’s email which advised them to avoid wearing “culturally unaware or insensitive.” costumes on Halloween. In her response, Christakis spoke of a “regressive” and “transgressive” college experience, she wrote “I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room any more for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Protests ensued on campus as students and faculty members disagreed with Christakis’ stance that encouraged students to don themselves in offensive costumes if they wanted to and an open letter describing Christakis email as “jarring and disheartening.” received hundreds of signatures. Tension boiled over and Christakis has since resigned from her position.
What people process as offensive, or, as a joke, is highly layered and complex as the interpretation of provocative costumes are seen through the lens of biases and experiences. Essentially, people do have the right to be offensive on Halloween or on any other day for that matter, but why would they want to? Caroline believes that being offensive is a reflection of our society. “It’s a part of our culture,” she said, “there’s no structure, it’s not a surprise, it’s not a shocker. There is so much toxicity and there’s no one saying no, this is not right.”
Carreras states that perpetuating violence is culturally acceptable. “A lot of people don’t have the coping skills to stand up to a group and be alone.” Whether the decisions to wear the Cosby or Rice costumes were lead by what’s popular, or, by simply seeing the humor of it all, it should be understood that rape and physical abuse is real life for many women and not fictional depictions that are encapsulated by one-day only, funny costumes on Halloween.