I was at Party City the other day, and as I picked through racks of polyester and rayon it felt like I was wading through the physical manifestations of sexism. There is an overarching theory among much of popular opinion that women’s rights are on a path of constant progress; that we are smarter, more liberal, more open minded, and more enlightened than we were in the past. But the image of the Fallen Woman has followed us from the Bible, Eve haunting the corners of our collective understanding of female sexuality.
The “sexy schoolgirl” with her thigh-high socks, short plaid skirt, cleavage-bearing blouse, and pigtails embodies the archetypal woman who is naive, innocent, and young. We are presented as the sexual students; we need to be taught, and in return we owe something to our teachers. Women of the 21st century have found themselves caught between a culture that still values this phenomena of “virginity” and its indication of “goodness” and the barrage of ads, TV shows, music, and movies which tell us that sex sells. Do we follow the example of Miley Cyrus and run of the risk of being slut-shamed? Or do we reject that sexuality and become labeled as prude? We seem to be caught between a rock and hard place, no pun intended.
The schoolgirl outfit is designed to be sexy while also projecting innocence. It’s a Freudian explanation of female sexuality that did not disturb the ever-thriving patriarchy of the 1900’s. While it is easy to scoff at Freud, the man every feminist loves to hate, his idea has somehow translated into the 21st century. There seems to be a perverse desire on behalf of our society at large to corrupt women through a sexual awakening; a concept which denies us any sort of agency, linking morality with sexuality. “I know you want it, but you’re a good girl” croons Robin Thicke, meaning what? That good girls never show desire? That those who do are bad? The idea that becoming sexually active, or liberated, is a corruption of a woman’s “natural” purity gives Original Sin a frightening power.
The schoolgirl is not alone on the rack of Party City. She waits alluringly next to her comrades: sexy firefighter, sexy nurse, and sexy sailor. Each of these costumes, with their almost comic representation of the job, has taken a profession and dismissed a woman’s ability to do it. In the men’s section of costume shops a cop outfit looks like the uniform of a New York police officer. What does this say about our society’s acceptance of career-driven women? What do any of these costumes tell us about all women? Perhaps this Halloween, we might be more conscientious of the costume choices we make and what those choices say about our culture and about ourselves.