By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—Oh darn, I guess I’m not going to be able to wear that diaphanous costume with the teeny-weeny skirt and the plunging neckline after all. The “Garden of Evil Spiritina’’ is all sold out for this Halloween.
There’s barely even time to get L’il Bo Peep—or should I say the “L’il Bo Peep Show” costume—FedExed from my Web merchant. I could, however, get that “Hottie Little Red Riding Hood,’’ bustier and boots, to come over the river and through the woods to this grandmother’s house.
Yesss. Welcome to the Halloween horror show. This is the time of year when mothers across America get another chance to rant about the culture that pushes daughters directly from Barney to “Jail Bait.’’ This is when teens can surf the aisles or the Internet for those special costumes that are designed to help them fantasize about what they want to be when they grow up: “A French Maid.’’ And when young women raised on “Free to Be You and Me’’ find themselves free to be either “Biker Chick’’ or “Blushing Bride.’‘
Is there anything more depressing than the “Naughty Housewife’’ ready to go trick-or-spanking? Sure. It’s the number of young women who will tell you fervently that as part of a post-feminist generation, they are liberated to make choices. And their choice for Halloween is “Alice in Pornland’‘!
It’s enough to make the average feminist want to bite into that apple with the razor blade.
But first, let us take that “choice’’ banner, attach it to our broomstick and fly east as far as London, where there is another sort of masquerade going on. The story of the hour is not about young women uncovering their bodies. It’s about young women covering their faces.
London has been in an uproar about a 24-year-old teaching assistant and Muslim suspended because she refused to remove the full-face veil. A minimal number of veiled women caused a maximal furor. Prime Minister Tony Blair decried the veil as a “mark of separation.’’ Even the prime minister of Italy declared, “You can’t cover your face; you must be seen. ... It is important for our society.’‘
The young woman, Aishah Azmi, insisted that “Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens.’’ Then, in one of those wonderful ironies, she unsuccessfully appealed her suspension, arguing for the freedom to wear a garment that would have been imposed upon her in a fundamentalist Islamic country.
Have you noticed how much dress and undress matter? Even to prime ministers? Have you also noticed how many women believe they are making their own choices when they are actually caught in a cultural vise?
Here in America, our Halloween revelers have only the scantiest—and I do mean scantiest—idea of how the market has shaped the options that they regard as their own. Most women are only dimly aware of how we internalize the liposuctioned, breast-implanted, celebrity-shaped images that define the “right’’ female body. They are even less aware of a culture that defines sexy as something seen rather than felt.
There in London, a young teacher wearing the niqab seems equally unaware that the mask she dons as an act of self-expression aligns her with the mullahs of repression. After all, in today’s Iran the choices may be veil or jail. And in Afghanistan, women are choosing the burqa to save their lives. As Deborah Tolman, who wrote “Dilemmas of Desire,’’ says, the stakes are astonishingly high: “If we can’t cover it, we can kill it. That’s the context.’‘
Mullahs and marketers are not the same. Nobody is forcing an American woman into the “Sultry Witch’’ costume. Nobody is forcing a British citizen into a full-face veil. But there is something, well, scary when women claim the “freedom’’ to fit into such narrow constraints of sexuality.
Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author of “Packaging Girlhood,’’ says, “We can’t talk to girls about sexuality or desire but an entire media is pushing sexualization on them.’’ Nevertheless, there’s a fine line for girls between being sexy and being slutty. Halloween, Brown says, may be the one day “you can be a skank and get away with it.’’ But what a way.
On the other hand, the niqab may identify its London wearer as a pious Muslim and proud dropout from Western sexual culture. But it does so by making her faceless. What a way.
Remember when we used to talk about role models for girls and women?
At least one website is selling “Supergirl’’ costumes for teens. But what’s that I read? She’s “all grown up and is ready for some action of her own.’’ This Supergirl comes with a bustier and hooker boots. She’s definitely sold out.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.