Erin Stewart: How Halloween costumes can promote gender bias

Oh, Halloween. A magical time when pumpkin spice creeps its way into everything, and store shelves offer heaping mounds of candy along with egregiously outdated gender stereotypes.

Don’t believe me? Meander down any costume aisle right now. Now imagine you’re a young girl, trying to decide what you want to wear to trick or treat, and you want to be a doctor this year.

A doctor? Oh no, honey, that’s in the boy’s section. How about this pink princess costume? It’s adorable. Just. Like. You.

Or picture a young boy, his heart set on being a nurse. But all the nurse outfits are skirts, or pink and have a picture of a girl with pigtails on the package. Wouldn’t you rather be something more manly?

A quick glance at any retailer’s website shows a Halloween stereotype we’ve all become accustomed to, and we all kind of collectively agree to ignore because hey, it’s all in fun, right?

On one site, in the “professional costumes” section, all the astronauts are boys. There are a few “police girl” uniforms although I can’t recall the last time I saw an actual police officer wearing a skirt and high-heeled go-go boots (yeah, this outfit was for a 6-year-old). There are plenty of nurse options for girls, and even one girl in a doctor costume, but the scrubs were pink, and, oh no, wait, it’s a veterinarian. Close enough?

Not by a long shot.

I’m sure many people will simply say, “Just buy from the boys’ section then.” But that doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. Why can’t there be a gender-neutral career section where girls can be astronauts and boys can be nurses without having to pick a costume from the “wrong side” of the aisle, an act that in and of itself sends a message.

When we tell young, impressionable girls and boys that they “should” want to be a certain thing because that’s the norm, we enforce stereotypes in small, subtle ways that stick with kids long after Halloween is over.

A friend of mine in California recently came face to face with a pretty egregious example of this kind of thinking when her kindergarten daughter came home with the proofs from her school portraits. The company had brought several dress-up outfits for the kids. For the girls: Safari explorer in khaki, an Asian girl in a pink dress and parasol, and princess featuring a purple feather boa and…

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