Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Distressed and Undressed

Retailers would love to put up the pumpkins and skeletons the second week of September, but some remnant shred of decency prevents them. You can almost feel their relief when the third week of September grants permission to go orange. Finally! Death, horror, decay, candy — it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Well, your mileage may vary. If you have children, it’s okay. Some older people like to participate in the confectionary-extortion portion on the 31st, just to hammer home some basic manners. What do you say? (Grudgingly:) Thank youuuu. If you’re looking forward to standing around in a kitchen talking to someone whose face is rotting off, that means parties, and that means costumes, and if you’re under 30 and female, that might mean Sexy Archetype.

At least it used to. Sexy Nurse, for example, is probably offensive now. Never understood that one in the first place — you’re weak, nauseated, depressed, fuzzy, hooked up to things that go beep! to tote up your finite heartbeats, and oh, look, here comes the lady who wants you to roll over, yank up your gown, and get a needle stuck in your spotty bottom.

The objections, however, are different: Sexy-nurse costumes are insulting. Enlightened people know that all nurses are sexy in their own way. Strong and confident are sexy. Plus-sized nurses are as desirable as clichéd “sexy nurses,” and it’s society’s fault that men have been programmed to think they like tall buxom slender nurses. In the time of the great painter Rubens, women with substantial avoirdupois were obviously prized, which should make today’s larger nurses feel empowered, but on the other hand, the paintings showed them naked, objectified for the male gaze, which is bad. The ideal representation of a nurse would be someone plain and lumpy, handling a bedpan, as a symbol of the way women have had to deal with men’s (bleep).

How about Sexy Pioneering Computer Programmer? Say, Ada Lovelace? Heck, she was Lord Byron’s daughter. Maybe a 19th-century dress, slit up the side to the knee?

Objection: Why does she have to be seen as a famous man’s wife and another famous man’s daughter?

Weary response: Oh, it’s just cool that a famous rake and Romantic poet had a daughter whose practical accomplishments helped make the modern world possible, whereas Dad just wrote a lot of words and caught an infection in Greece and is mostly known now for being an adjective. “Byronic.” Hey, Sexy Pioneering Computer Programmer could be worn byronically!

Objection: Why does she have to be sexy?

Depressed response: Because it’s Halloween and the people who wear these things are generally not history buffs but party people in their twenties who are looking to subvert an archetype they don’t completely understand? I mean, pirates are popular, and they were horrible, malodorous, bad-toothed, scurvy-souled criminals. But sure, by all means, sexy pirates. Sexy astronauts. Sexy Mister Rogers.

The most controversial Sexy Archetype costume this year? Sexy Handmaiden, which took the now-iconic red robes and snow-white surplices and slit them up the side. Because this is 2018 and humor is being replaced with the grim crack of the flagellant’s whip, there was an outcry on Twitter. The company apologized and removed the costume. Why would anyone have gotten offended?

It was blasphemous. The Handmaid’s Tale is a holy text now, a preview of the world right around the corner when religious lunatics force women into a role of permanent subservience and take away their right to accessorize. The Left believes this is the endgame for any Christian to the right of a lapsed Unitarian.

Women showed up in Handmaiden raiments to protest Kavanaugh, presumably because he would use his eeeevil powers to abolish abortion. This is like showing up in Planet of the Apes costumes because you fear he will deny Second Amendment rights to primates, or Star Wars costumes because you think he’ll rule against the Intergalactic Criminal Court.

It convinces no one. But it heartens the faithful — and in this case, lays the groundwork for recasting the nominee as Icky Sexy SCOTUS, injecting sex into a process that was supposed to be an exchange of views and opinions.

The faithful, however, might consider the rhetorical lucre they left on the table when they howled about Sexy Handmaiden. You’d think they’d embrace it as a rebuke to the joyless, pleasure-denying, rigid roles of the hallowed text, but they just revealed themselves to be joyless, pleasure-denying, and rigid in their own way. Message: No one should be overtly sexy in the traditional, clichéd ways, because that reinforces hetero-patriarchal norms.

Out: sexy nurse! In: quietly determined young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Out: adult-film star Stormy Daniels! In: underpaid court stenographer taking Daniels’s deposition.

Unless it’s a man who wants to dress as a clichéd porn star, in which case the costume is awesome, because it’s just subverting paradigms all over the place. If only Nixon could go to China, only RuPaul can wear Sexy Handmaiden.

Halloween used to be a time when people had license to pretend, but so much of modern life consists of nodding along with preposterous pieties that you wonder when the 31st of October will permit people to behave as they really feel and say unacceptable things without fear of social censure. “Great costume, but what are you?”

“Someone who believes that the constitutional basis for Roe is shaky and fears that any attempt to approach the subject from the standpoint of originalism will be regarded as misogyny. And you?”

“The belief that the treatment of Merrick Garland justifies any tactics.”

“Ah, I see. I saw that costume online. Sexy Senator Feinstein, right?”

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners




A reader sympathizes with Rael Jean Isaac’s frustration in reporting on Frank Fuster’s plight (“The Last Victim,” September 10).

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