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Ethical “gender bent” costumes Things to consider for Halloween, Cosplay, and every other occasion

A Black background with the title "Ethical Gender Bent Costumes - Things to consider for Halloween, Cosplay, and every other occasion. There are drawn images of Batman, Thor, Wonder Woman, and Xena gender bending in various ways.

Image by Sara Williamson @inkmitts inkmitts.wordpress.com

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! If you’re like us, you get super excited when the leaves start to fall and the Halloween decorations go up. Are you planning a cool costume of your favourite character? Are you wanting to play around with gender in your costume this year? Here are some things to think about when designing your look:

1) What Is The Intended Effect Of Your Costume?

Lots of people like to play with gender in costumes (and cosplay!). It can be a fun opportunity to imagine what your favourite character would look like if their gender presentation was altered. Could this superhero’s outfit be re-imagined to incorporate a skirt and heels? What would happen if this mythological figure also had a glitter beard?

While it can be fun to imagine a character or costume in a new gender-y light, it might be worthwhile to check in with yourself about why you wanted to do so. Are you imagining ways in which having a different gender could make the character stronger or more interesting? Or are you planning an outfit that draws attention to how ridiculous the character would look as “a man in a dress”?

Thor, carrying Thor's hammer, rocking a glitter beard

‘Thor-geous’ by Sara Williamson @inkmitts

Oftentimes, people who are Two-Spirit, trans and/or non-binary get criticized for not presenting in a way that allows them to “pass” as according to traditional cis-centric expectations of gender. If the entire point of your costume is to draw attention to how ridiculous it would be for someone with a certain body to wear certain clothes, take a second to reflect on how that may feel to someone who already deals with these kinds of criticisms and violence in their day to day life. While it might feel funny and unexpected for your friends to see you in a dress or with facial hair, it also sends a message to trans people that, if they bear even a passing resemblance to your costume, they’re an open target to be mocked and ridiculed.

2) Are You Playing With Gender, Or Simply Sexualizing A Character?

There are lots of ways that imagining a character having a different outward gender presentation could be interesting. If your interpretation of a character is more traditionally feminine, it could be a fun exercise to play around with the style and fit of their clothes, or maybe to incorporate makeup. You could devise a non-binary or androgynous representation of the character using a blend of gendered elements that might suit their powers better than a binary interpretation would allow.

However, if your entire scheme of “gender-flipping” is to put a character into skin-tight, revealing clothes and give them exaggerated sexual features, it might be time to take a step back and re-examine the situation.

An overwhelming amount of violence is directed towards trans women (especially those who are Indigenous, Black, WOC and/or sex workers), and often it is linked to conflicting messages about how trans people are sexualized. It’s a triple-edged sword (if that was a thing):

  1. When trans women and transfeminine people “pass”, they are often targeted and killed for “tricking” people who don’t realize they are trans into having sex with them.
  2. Trans women and transfeminine people come under fire for “fetishizing” women by presenting in a traditionally feminine way to (whether by desire or to avoid harassment, violence, etc) and supposedly reinforcing ideas that women must dress and present in a way that suggests sexual availability.
  3. Many of us who don’t “pass” are targets for violence and ridicule for “failing” at presenting as our gender.
An image of Xena with an excellent goatee.

‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ by Sara Williamson @inkmitts

This puts trans people in a difficult space where they feel they must be desirable (sexually and otherwise) to cis people in order to feel safe and validated in their gender. The tendency of cis people to “gender-bend” (usually feminize) characters into hyper-sexualized versions not only reinforces the notion that trans people are sexual deviants seeking to seduce innocent cis people, but it also implies that to become more feminine must necessarily also mean that you are sexualizing yourself.

The impulse to create huge bulging “packages” and muscles for masculinized versions of characters is a variation of the same dish. It reinforces not only the idea that all trans people aspire to be hotter, cis-passing versions of themselves, but it also suggests that there are certain physical traits that must be had to be considered masculine (i.e. a heavy endowment) or feminine (i.e. huge breasts). Plus, at this point, the tendency to over-sexualize “gender-flipped” versions of characters is overdone at best.

3) What Is Your Process For Playing With Gender?

How, exactly, are you portraying that your character has a different gender? There are so many fun and interesting ways to play around with gender while still being a bad-ass who shuts down the binary. Don’t forget that there are many ways to portray masculine and feminine traits within and between genders. It’s easy to imagine what Wonder Woman’s outfit would look like if she was suddenly wearing only clothes from the men’s section. It might be more interesting and challenging to look at ways in which women can signal masculinity without suddenly becoming a “man version” of themselves. Perhaps Batman has decided that he wants to be a little dandier and incorporate a bag and some nail polish into his look.

A drawn image of Batman wearing lipstick and nailpolish

‘Bat-glam’ by Sara Williamson @inkmitts

This can be a cool opportunity to poke fun at how gendered lots of costumes can already be. Maybe a fantasy character with revealing, impractical armour decides she wants to keep the hair and makeup but upgrade to a functional breastplate. When you’re playing around with the gender of a costume or a character, try to challenge yourself to go further than making a new version of them as “the opposite gender”. There are so many ways we signal our own genders in our day to day lives, such as makeup or facial hair or our clothes. Try to put yourself into the character’s head and imagine what it would actually be like for them to play around with their own gender. Maybe Thor wants to rock a pink glitter beard and some eyeliner for a fancy night out.

Don’t assume that the only way to show a character “gendering” differently is to show them as a different kind of cis person. Challenge the binary and get creative!

4) What Are You Trying To Say About Gender?

As we touched on before, playing around with a character’s gender can be a cool opportunity to look at how they interact with society, and how that would change if their gender presentation was different. It can be interesting to imagine how certain traits and abilities a character has might be interpreted differently if they were more masculine, or how their relationships with other characters might change if they were non-binary.

A drawing of an androgynous queer person in a Wonder Woman costume.

‘Wonder Queer’ by Sara Williamson @inkmitts

Challenge yourself to think critically about how the “message” of the character would change if they presented differently. If a character normally wears skin-tight, revealing clothes, how would you interpret this if you were to portray them as a man? What questions does this bring up? If they are known for being physically strong and imposing, how could you find a way to incorporate this into a feminine interpretation? This can be an opportunity to subvert people’s expectations of gender, not to reinforce assumptions that we already have. Have fun with it! And lastly….

5) Are You Planning To Buy A Caitlyn Jenner Costume?

Just…. don’t.

Halloween can be an awesome opportunity to get creative, push back against social norms, and explore sides of ourselves that you may not have social permission to explore every other day of the year. Just make sure that you (and your friends!) are doing that in a way that’s ethical and intentional.

Have a safe and happy Halloween from everyone at Ambit!

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