Politics & Policy

Halloween Etiquette

This year Barack Obama masks are big sellers. And that's probably a good sign.

For those of us disinclined toward glitter, face paint, and costume stores, Halloween can be complicated. For kids, dressing up is simple: a superhero, a ghost, or whatever Miley Cyrus recommends. Teens usually take a sabbatical — too young for pumpkin beer, too old to be begging neighbors for Snickers bars. It’s only once one gets to college that Halloween becomes an event.

For years, an easy way to get laughs was to pick up a George W. Bush mask at the local pharmacy. Wear the mask, add a suit, boogey to the “Monster Mash,” and you’d be the life of the party. Wear the Bush mask and convict orange, and people thought you were downright hilarious. Wear a Barack Obama mask, however, and — well, no candy for you.

You see, until quite recently there was an unspoken rule that Obama wasn’t funny. A lefty student sweating under a rubberized Barack could get away with it, barely, if shrugged off as a bit of ha-ha worship. But wearing Obama to spoof could raise some eyebrows. As the Columbus Dispatch reported last October: “Dressing as your favorite presidential nominee for Halloween could be socially risky.”

“It’s uncharted territory that we’re in,” Ohio state senator Ray Miller, a Democrat, told the Dispatch reporter. “We’ve made a lot of progress in America on the issue of race relations, and we need to be careful not to move backwards.”

How things have changed in a year.

On Halloween night 2008, hope and change was in the air on college campuses. Sorority sisters put Obama campaign posters in their windows, and legions rallied to his cause. Poking fun at Obama was simply unacceptable. For liberal co-eds, the real glee came in shimmying around parties as Sarah Palin, or her daughter Bristol, with a pillow strapped to their midriff. Such getups were an easy way to generate giggles while waiting for the keg.

The real problem with the Obama mask was that we didn’t know how to pull it off. All we knew was the mask, not the man. We knew Obama’s story, but not what made him tick. Sure, you could buy the mask and yell, “Change we can believe in,” but it didn’t feel clever. At least the crude Palin impersonations could get you a wink.

Now we know what’s behind the president’s smile. Pick up an Obama mask this week and you’ll have plenty of options: Obama mask, ATM bottom. Obama mask, Caesar toga. Obama mask, Nobel medal. (If you want, you can use the poker chip in tinfoil from your Michael Phelps outfit from last year.) Perhaps you’d like to dress up as Obamacare — Obama mask, scrubs. Or, call up the White House, and see if you can borrow one of their nice leftover doctor’s coats, starched and ready to go. A grim reaper’s outfit would also work, for the more macabre trick-or-treaters.

According to a recent Comcast poll, the Obama mask is now the second most popular mask in the United States, lagging just a bit behind Hannah Montana. All in all, Americans seem more comfortable this Halloween with the idea of poking a little fun at The One. Concerns, though, still pop up. In a recent washingtonpost.com webchat, one reader asked Celebritology Live columnist Liz Kelly whether it was appropriate to wear an Obama mask:

Location withheld: This is a serious question to which I do not know the answer, and I hope readers can please advise. It is quasi-celebrity related. They are selling Barack Obama masks in stores, even in neighborhood drug stores. Is it racially insensitive for a white person to wear a Barack Obama mask?

Liz Kelly: Hmmm. My initial reaction is no. Why would it be? He’s a well known public figure and wearing a molded rubber mask of his face doesn’t strike me as any more egregious than wearing the likeness of Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton or Dick Cheney — all of which are readily available at local costume shops.

I think things would be different if one were to attempt the costume using makeup, tho.

Such worries aren’t isolated. Earlier this year, during preparations for a school talent show, an Oregon fifth-grader was barred from wearing an Obama mask similar to the one that then-senator Obama wore to spoof himself when appearing on Saturday Night Live. The boy’s father couldn’t believe that his son was attacked by other parents for doing a little song-and-dance routine about the president. “I understand the history of black face and how African Americans were caricatured by it,” the father told The Oregonian. “However, we now have a popular biracial president who is admired by white and nonwhite people. At what point will it become OK for an 11-year-old admirer to dress up as the president without fear of offending someone?”

Not that you need a Barack mask. A Michelle Obama mask, hula hoop, and some veggies? You’re set, ladies. Or, find a Mao suit and you can be Anita Dunn. Tape over your mouth? An easy Joe Biden. A leotard? Hello, Rahm Emanuel. And, if you find a Hillary mask, the possibilities are endless.

So buy that mask and wear that suit. This is the holiday you’ve been waiting for. Halloween is America’s one day each year as a welfare state, with every comrade spreading the sugar around. Besides, conservatives are known for their ingenious costumes.

Just ask Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe.

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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