Cultural appropriation and Halloween

Halloween (my personal favorite holiday because you get to play dress up) is coming and I’m all excited. Of course, Halloween is an opportunity for costume manufacturers to appropriate other people’s cultures and sell them as cheap stereotypes for fun and profit – which I’ve always condemned roundly as being lame. But this Halloween, I’m wondering exactly where that cultural appropriation line is and if my potential costume might be crossing it.

My sweetie and I want to dress up as Malcolm Reynolds and Inara Serra from Joss Whedon’s brilliant Firefly series. Most of the series’ costumes were inspired by the neo-Victorian steampunk trend, but Inara’s regal, intricate costumes were closer to the saris worn by traditional Indian brides. This always struck me as problematic because on the show, Inara is a courtesan with a mysterious past and it seems like her wardrobe might have been designed to evoke the “sexy and mysterious east” trope.

That problem aside, Inara is an awesome character. She’s a sex-positive, brilliant, complex and flawed female character who challenges stereotypes of sex workers and dances rhetorical circles around the show’s leading man. I’ve always loved her and wanted to be just like her when I grow up. Dressing up as her for a night is kind of a dream come true for me.

So here’s my problem: I love to go all-out for Halloween, so I started shopping for wedding saris like some of the ones I’ve pinned here in search of the perfect Inara look. I’ve always wanted to wear a sari because I think the’re elegant and fucking gorgeous, but I’ve been reluctant to borrow from centuries of someone else’s tradition because I think the result is pretty. I’m particularly uncomfortable with using a sari as part of a Halloween costume because it’s already such a loaded holiday – what with the history of cultural appropriation and all.

So, what do you guys think? Am I being a culturally insensitive jerk? Am I really over thinking this? Should I dress up as Kaylee instead?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Fair warning, I’m not an expert on racial issues and I’m a white guy whose wife got him to dress up as Mal to complement her Inara costume, so I may be coming at this from an ignorant or biased viewpoint.

    It seems to me that the main reason we recognize culturally appropriative costumes as terrible is that they a) trivialize other people’s whole cultures, that the currently dominant culture has a history of oppressing, into something that is a simple costume but moreso b) it represents a whole society as just one (stereotypical) figure, and also slots that one figure into the “other” category: a character to dress up as, rather than a person to be. So, if you were to dress up as “an Indian woman” that would be really discomfiting because it rolls together all the millions of different people into one simplified figure, and also implicitly is slotting them as a fictional/archetypical/”other”/not one of us figure.

    When you’re talking about one, particular fictional figure it sort of seems to me like those problems are not relevant – Inara is not supposed to be a generic version of an entire ethnicity or society, and you’re not categorizing real people as ‘something to dress up as’ because she isn’t a real person.

    So, to me, if you are dressing specifically as Inara, that seems reasonable to me – especially if you copy one of her outfits exactly (which you kind of have to in order to be recognizable, although having a partner to press into service as Mal helps a lot).

    Now, if we want to talk cultural insensitivity in Firefly, we can bring up “is this kinda glorifying the American Confederacy” and “where the hell are all the Chinese-descended people, anyways” ;)

    • Posted September 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      *I accidentally clicked “report comment” link because it’s rightnexto the “reply” link. :( *

      @Sam – I think you hit the nail on the head, I’m not going as an “Indian Woman” but rather as a character whose clothing was inspired by Indian (and Chinese, for that matter) traditional fashion. Thanks for helping me think this through.

      Now I have to find the perfect salwar kameez! :-)

  2. Posted October 11, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    If you’re going as a specific person because of attributes that person has, OTHER than their ethnicity (or stereotypes based on that) then there should be nothing wrong with it, but that said –

    Your costume should reflect that. So, you need to look *like Inara* not like “an Indian lady”. At the moment, you seem to be confusing saris, with salwar kameez, and both with what Inara’s actually wearing, which is worrying. They’re not the same thing, and “generic” is what you’re trying to avoid.
    IMHO Inara’s outfits look nothing like a wedding sari, for a start.

    Good luck!

    [Disclaimer: I'm not from a culture that celebrates Halloween.]

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