Why Dan Savage is wrong about Sexy Halloween

Valentina Tereshkova

Whenever I look at Halloween costumes for women these days, I think of Valentina Tereshkova.

Tereshkova was the first woman in space, a Soviet cosmonaut who made history when she flew the Vostok 6 into orbit on June 16, 1963. The Soviet press at the time made much of Tereshkova, highlighting her proletarian background and party loyalty. They also made a big point of stressing her femininity. News reports explained that a vanity mirror had been installed in Tereshkova’s space capsule, presumably so she could check her makeup while in orbit. The real reason was just to demonstrate to the world that, though Tereshkova might be a cosmonaut, she was still first and foremost a girl: an appropriately feminine woman who conformed to expected gender stereotypes.

See, here’s the deal: in a patriarchal society, women are defined by their sexuality. They are, to put it bluntly, the breeding stock. Men are the real people and women are just their wives and mothers. As Napoleon said:

“Nature intended women to be our slaves…they are our property, we are not theirs. They belong to us, just as a tree that bears fruit belongs to a gardener. What a mad idea to demand equality for women!…women are nothing but machines for producing children.”

And to this end, Rousseau explained,

“…the whole education of women ought to be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to make themselves loved and honored by them, to educate them when young, to care for them when grown, to counsel them, to console them, and to make life sweet and agreeable to them – these are the duties of women at all times and should be taught them from their infancy.”

You couldn’t ask for a better description of pure patriarchy. It’s a world in which women’s number one job is to serve men, sexually and domestically.

Thankfully, we no longer live in a pure patriarchy. The past two centuries of feminist activism means that we now live in what I call a transitional patriarchy. It’s transitional because women have won a large measure of legal equality and the right to pursue full lives. Yet our society’s unconscious mores and biases are still rooted in the patriarchal past.

The hallmark of this transitional state is that women are still expected to fulfill that number one job of serving and pleasing men. Sure, we can do other things—we can be astronauts and doctors and lawyers and police officers—as long as we continue to uphold our traditional obligation to be sexy and/or domestic.

That’s why Tereshkova’s space capsule had a vanity mirror. It’s why Amelia Earhart was pressured to wear feminine clothes, and why Babe Didrikson felt compelled to reassure the public that she liked all the “woman’s things,” such as sewing and cooking.

It’s why women today still do the majority of the housework and childcare, even while holding down full-time outside jobs. It’s why women professionals are routinely described as “moms,” and why women, but never men, are quizzed on whether they can handle their careers and be parents at the same time.

It’s why Hillary Clinton was judged on her cankles, and why pundits on national television actually discussed whether the nation could stand to watch a female president age in office.

It’s why Dorothy Parker said 75 years ago that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” And why, still today, teenage girls worry that going into STEM will make them seem unfeminine.

It’s why a Halloween astronaut costume for men looks like this:

while the astronaut costume for women looks like this:

And allow me to point out that all the female astronaut costumes look like this. There are no normal astronaut costumes for women. If you’re female and you want to dress up as an astronaut, this is it.

Shades of Tereshkova’s vanity mirror.

Now, Dan Savage does not understand any of this. He’s on record with defending Sexy Halloween as a kind of Heterosexual Pride parade. He thinks that Halloween is a chance for straight people to express their sexuality, which apparently they don’t get to do the rest of the year. He acknowledges (barely) that women’s Halloween costumes are more revealing than men’s, but he chalks this up to evolutionary psychology, which he thinks means that women have naturally evolved to wear miniskirts and thigh-high stockings.

He’s wrong.

Look, Dan Savage is a gay man and a sex columnist. He understands very well the problems that patriarchy imposes on gay men. Patriarchy—at least our society’s form of patriarchy—denies the right of gay men to even exist as sexual beings. This is why gay liberation tends to take the form of Gay Pride, in which homosexuality is defiantly celebrated and claimed.

But that’s not what patriarchy does to women. Patriarchy certainly restricts women’s sexual freedom, but it doesn’t deny their existence as sexual beings. On the contrary, patriarchy tells women that they’re nothing but sexual beings. Wives and mothers. Breeding stock.

Astronaut costumes that look like Hooters Girl outfits, cop costumes with plunging necklines, firefighter costumes with bare midriffs: these are not the expressions of a long-oppressed sexuality finally being allowed to show its face. They’re just the modern-day equivalents of Tereshkova’s mirror.

The message is clear. Women can’t just be astronauts or cops or firefighters. They have to be sexy astronauts, sexy cops, sexy firefighters. They have to uphold that traditional patriarchal obligation to be sexually pleasing to men.

One reason I’m so sure of this is because I know what happens when girls and women try to buck the trend. College girls are heckled by guys for wearing “too many clothes.” One woman wrote to me about being harassed so aggressively for her unsexy costume that she almost felt afraid. That’s not liberation. It’s enforcement.

Does this mean that sexy costumes are intrinsically wrong? No, of course not. Sexuality is part of who we are. And a lot of women definitely do want to sex it up on Halloween, which is fine. When I say, as I did in our Kickstarter video, that “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress sexy,” I mean it.

What I want is for women to have the freedom to be sexy if they want to, and the freedom not to be sexy if they don’t want to. I want both of those things to be valid choices. It sounds ridiculously simple, but you know what? We’ve been fighting for this for 200 years, and we’re still not there.



1 Comment → “Why Dan Savage is wrong about Sexy Halloween”

  1. anna


    Also, if Halloween is a straight pride parade, where are the sexy costumes for men to wear? Dan Savage seems to think women only want to be ogled and have no sexual desires of their own.