Halloween is almost upon us, and with it, a multitude of cultures to be appropriated, or so many would have us believe. Once upon a time, many people would not have thought twice before dressing their children up as little Native Americans or Hula Dancers, but nowadays many people are beginning to check themselves. To a certain extent, I believe that’s a good thing. It’s simply bad taste to attempt to symbolize any culture, but especially a marginalized one, in a single novelty costume. However, I believe that there are also some people who take the battle of cultural appropriation too far, and in doing so, both take away from the whole reason why it’s offensive and prevent cultural appreciation from happening.
Recently, People wrote about an article by blogger Sachi Feris, titled “Moana, Elsa, and Halloween.” While Feris’ original article was initially published in September, People brought it to the forefront for Halloween, specifically because it addresses the controversial topic of cultural appropriation through Halloween costumes. Feris outlined in her article her process of discouraging her five-year-old daughter from dressing up as Disney’s Moana for Halloween. The article also talked about her desire to keep her from dressing up as Elsa as well, albeit for different reasons.
I can understand the position that Feris is coming from. We live in a society where black face still happens, sombreros and shot glasses are considered good representations of “tequila,” and a Google search for “sexy Native American costumes” brings up far too many disturbing results. Teaching children to be aware of what costumes are good and which ones are problematic or in bad taste is important. However, there’s a difference between teaching a child to be culturally sensitive or just downright paranoid — not to mention Feris’ original article has some serious argumentative flaws.
First of all, Feris started by saying that Elsa is a made-up character — and that Moana is based on real history and a real people, and that is what would distinguish the two costumes. She said, “If we are going to dress up as a real person, we have to make sure we are doing it in a way that’s respectful.” The first issue is that both Elsa and Moana are fictional characters. Also, both of them have equally important historical backgrounds. Elsa was meant to be a representation of Scandinavian fairy tale tradition — a kind of fantastical spin-off of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Snow Queen.” Moana is based off of the traditional Polynesian mythology and legend of the demigod Maui. While I understand that Feris is making the distinction between the two cultural traditions based on a privilege and marginalization that doesn’t negate that they are both still valid traditions. Feris is claiming that Moana isn’t a valid costume because she has a distinct culture and Elsa does not, and that is simply not the case.
Secondly, Feris talked about why Elsa, even though it was better than Moana, was still not an appropriate costume because it furthers white beauty standards. Feris said that she encouraged her girl to be an Elsa with brown hair, so that she wouldn’t have to wear a white wig. However, her daughter was adamant that it needed to be blonde, just like Elsa. Here is where I seriously took issue with Feris’ argument because it becomes completely contradictory. She doesn’t want her daughter to be Moana, a Polynesian Princess, because of cultural appropriation, but then on the flip side, she also doesn’t want her daughter to be a white princess either. What’s left for the kid to do?
Kids express their desire for the things that they love and admire by imitation. People and the media, including The Washington Post, are always talking about how Disney needs to make better role models for little girls — women who do more than sit in castles and wish for love. Disney has made them to an extent — they made Belle, Mulan, Tiana, Moana and others. Now, little girls everywhere want to emulate them and I’m struggling to see why that’s so terrible.
I understand that dressing up as a “Native American girl” or “Hawaiian girl” is problematic — a culture isn’t a costume. Moana is not a culture, though; she is a character. Elsa is also not a culture; she is a character. How are kids going to know that there are heroes in cultures other than their own if they’re not allowed to explore them in the ways they do best. If you confine a child’s costume choices to their own culture, they will grow up thinking that they can only find inspiration within their own cultural boundaries, and that other cultures are not for them to experience or explore in any form.
The most ironic part to me is how Feris’ actions might sound to a bystander. What if her daughter told someone, “Mom wouldn’t let me dress up as Moana — I’m going to be Elsa instead.” In other words, “I can’t celebrate an indigenous hero because my mom says it’s better to celebrate a white one instead.” I understand that is not at all where Feris is coming from. However, I do think that if you’re taking cultural appropriation to the point where it could potentially be viewed as racism, then you need to take a step back and evaluate your actions. Extremists don’t do anything for their respective movements — all they do is create scandals.
On Halloween, there will be people who will culturally appropriate, and it’s going to be upsetting and discouraging. However, from that discouragement, people need to come forward and teach others how to be culturally appreciative, not how to exile oneself from another culture all together. We shouldn’t distance ourselves from other cultures to the point that they become foreign to us, and that includes allowing our children to experience them in their childish ways. Feris and a co-author, Lori Riddick, wrote a follow up to Feris’ original article on Oct. 27 entitled, “Halloween as an Opportunity to Dismantle White Supremacy: Three Things We Believe this Halloween.” They basically state that parents have a responsibility to use Halloween as an opportunity to teach their kids about White Supremacy, power and privilege.
While I do believe that these are important topics to expose children to, I challenge people to instead use Halloween as an opportunity to focus on dismantling negative stereotypes of cultures by allowing children to dress up as strong characters from those cultures. Don’t let your son and daughter play “Cowboys and Indians” — let them learn about and play as Sacagawea leading Lewis and Clark across the Louisiana Purchase. Don’t let your daughter run around in a sombrero and says that she’s Mexican — teach her about Frida Kahlo and the effect that she had as a renowned artist and feminist. Teach history and don’t give into stereotypes on Halloween. Even still, don’t exile cultures from your children’s list of role models.