Why ‘Sexy’ Costumes for Men Aren’t Really So Sexy

Here in the UK, we don’t make as big a deal of Halloween as people do in the US. Heck, I really could have used almost any country in place of the UK in that sentence and it would have been just as true. Halloween is a big festival in the States in a way that it simply isn’t for most of the world, no matter how much we may try to play catch up, gradually trying more and more to emulate the sort of festivities we see in American films and TV shows.

Still, it can be a hard thing to translate internationally sometimes, as it doesn’t always work so well abroad. For example, last year I was actually in the middle of travelling around Australia “ specifically Adelaide, South Australia “ when Halloween hit, and it was interesting seeing what the Aussies made of it. There were the usual parties and dress-up opportunities for young people, obviously. But still, it didn’t quite ring true as Halloween for me. I mean, seeing a young man excitably running around, dressed as the killer from Scream and brandishing a plastic, faux-blood-stained knife might be mildly thrilling on a chill fall night in suburban Massachusetts or some such, but that same guy looks almost hilariously out of place when you find him on a hot, sunny, late-spring evening on the beach, as I did.

The truth is, I’ve never actually had an American Halloween. Nor have I had an American Independence Day, Thanksgiving (although the American students at my British university all tried really hard to push that one on us, and got mightily disappointed at the lack of holiday staples like canned pumpkin in British stores) or Christmas (yet another one that is so much bigger West of the pond), although I do intend to come and experience all of these at some point, if only simply to say that I’ve done them.

Still, as a foreigner, I do try to wrap my head around these things and comprehend them as best I can, especially with all of the American friends that I have. In years past, I may have spent post-Halloween early-November gathered round a big bonfire, sparklers in hand, at a Guy Fawkes Night (not Guy Fawkes Day, as Americans are wont to call it) celebration, rather than calling in sick to school/work after a massive overdose of candy/booze and shenanigans on Halloween night, but vive la différence, I say.

Still, one thing I can’t wrap my head around are the costumes. I’m all for dressing up. I actually quite frequently go to parties where dressing up as crazily and as creatively as one can is the norm; far more than just once a year, certainly. But Halloween, when it becomes assumed that loads and loads of young Americans are going to be dressing up for their evening’s jaunts, and ready-made costumes are pushed on young consumers with quite some veracity is something that still makes me scratch my head. Why? Because it brings into focus a most astonishing gender divide.

No, I’m not about to bring up the classic “why is there so much pressure for women to dress as sexy x as opposed to just x argument, which has been voiced in multiple different ways throughout the years (although still bears bringing up, of course), but instead I ask: why isn’t there the same pressure for men?

I for one embrace sexy costumes for men: costumes that are perhaps as flimsily connected to the concept they’re supposed to represent as Karen from Mean Girls‘ classic lingerie-and-tiny-ears “I’m a mouse, d’uh costume was to an actual mouse. “But Mike, I hear you say, “there are sexy costumes for men! Loads of them! Just do a search online and you’ll see! And indeed, I have searched and I have seen, and that’s really part of the problem and what inspired me to write this very piece. The notion of male sexuality presented by men’s costumes is a fairly problematic one.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably give some backstory here and explain more about my relationship with male bodies, costumes and the performance of sexuality. I volunteer at a magazine that is essentially an upmarket soft porn magazine for straight women, so I see lots and lots of images of men: images that have been engineered to try and appeal specifically to the female gaze. A lot of these men are just plain buck naked, some are naked apart from some Japanese rope bondage or the like, and some are in some pretty out-there get-ups indeed. The latest issue, for example “ a ˜supernatural’ themed one at that, appropriately enough for this Halloween season “ features photoshoots of men as sexy elves, sexy vampires, sexy greek gods and, believe it or not, even a sexy boy zombie, I promise you.

Now, the notion of sexy elf-boys or sexy vampire men may not be a new one, as anyone who remembers the massive outpouring of love for Orlando Bloom following the release of The Fellowship of the Ring can attest. As can anyone who hasn’t been living under the proverbial rock and has been exposed to some sliver of Twilight fandom. So yes, there is becoming a distinct mainstream-isation of tailoring supernatural & fantasy images to the female gaze. This is, I have no question, a good thing, as it’s a sign of a gradual mainstream-media acceptance of women as actively sexual and as gazers, if you will, as well as an increasing acceptance of men as acceptable subjects of being sexually gazed-upon outside of a gay context.

But still, returning to the theme of Halloween costumes here, this trend is only just beginning to break into the Halloween costume industry, a great deal of which still presents a rather broken and ridiculous take on adult male sexuality. I obviously need some examples here: a quick look through this slide show features some of the very worst offenders, I think. To be fair, it’s a bit skewed. It’s a humorous collection that’s actually designed to show off some of the very worst examples, but the fact that half of these costumes even exist, that people created them in the knowledge/faith that there’d be a market for them, the fact that I can all too easily imagine bumping into half of these at a party speaks volumes, I feel.

This list of “inappropriate Halloween costumes basically features a large number of costumes that are, essentially, dick jokes, just dick jokes that happen to be wearable over your body. There’s the banana penis and the elephant-trunk penis. There’s the genie’s lamp penis, the frankly baffling prisoner penis and truly strange, not-even-really-a-pun “Knight to remember penis. It’s not just dick jokes, though. Other costumes in this list that play upon a “oh, isn’t it hilarious version of male sexuality include a ˜funny bestiality‘ (?) costume, a ˜funny blowjob‘ one and a ˜funny “the shocker‘ one.

All of these are, apparently, professionally produced. Each of these plays upon the same fallacies of what actually makes something ˜sexy’ as do novelty cookie-cutters in the shape of a penis or drinking straws made to look like cock & balls: it’s all just a bit too silly and demeaning, and the butt of the joke is the idea that men can, in fact, be seen as legitimate sexual objects, not just as all a bit silly. ˜Sexy’ for men in the Halloween costume industry seems to mean something very different than it perhaps should. I know that these costumes are perhaps some of the sillier examples but they belie an unfortunate trend: male sexuality as a joke, male sexuality played for laughs and male sexuality and, really, sexiness being seen as something all a bit silly. It’s that last part that really riles me in particular, as again, it seems unfair to not just make jokes at the expense of men’s desirability, but to also jab at those who would otherwise find men sexy.

Again, I work around a lot of images of attractive men “ or at least, I’m told that they’re attractive by the many straight women I surround myself with “ and not just for the magazine, either (Filament magazine, in case you were wondering). I’ve been to a lot of boylesque (boy burlesque) shows that have, in the tradition of classic burlesque, had an awful lot of intelligence, creativity and humour about them, all of which enhance rather than detract from their sex appeal. I’ve seen an awesome boylesque show wherein the performer comes out as an honest to goodness mouse. No, not the Mean Girls mouse, a big, pantomime-style mouse costume (not quite all-covering, like a furry or mascot get-up), with whiskers and a nose attached to his face. But the unexpected thing is, this performer works it. He makes it work as just about the sexiest mouse boy you’ve ever seen.

At the Male Tournament of Tease in London earlier this year, I saw men absolutely rocking looks such as hot Cossack (dancing Russian guys), hot Scottish highlander, hot Billy Elliot (really!) and, my personal favourite, hot The Groom (as in, a male version of Kill Bill‘s ˜The Bride’, complete with yellow & black jumpsuit). These costumes didn’t, like the ˜sexy genie’ example linked above, mock or degrade the sexuality or sexiness of the men who wore them or the women who might want to gaze upon them. Hell, I’d love to see a hot The Groom costume available in stores in Halloween. I’d probably wear it.

To be fair, there are costumes that do play up male sexuality and appeal to the straight female gaze, but a lot of these simply tie-into and repackage the hot male pop-culture figure at the moment, such as Captain Jack Sparrow or Heath Ledger’s Joker. While that’s nice to see, it’s a far cry from the sexy female costumes. Many of the female costumes do mimic pop cultural icons, but, as with the above examples from the Tournament of Tease, they also take archetypes that may not be generally considered sexy and play up the latent sexual content in them. Although really, by the time you’ve resorted to ˜sexy’ Nemo from Finding Nemo or ˜sexy’ Cookie Monster of all things, I really don’t know what to say. However, maybe these two are done in some sort of ironic jest. Maybe it is, in fact, a very subtle commentary on the very absurdity and ridiculous-hyper-sexualisation of other ˜sexy’ women’s costumes. Although really, probably not; though I still live in hope.

In the end, whilst I’m not too pleased about the old, much-discussed gender divide and uneven social expectations that mean men can just dress ˜in costume’ while women have to dress ˜sexy’ on Halloween (I feel your pain, Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls), I’m much more pissed about the massive divide between ˜sexy’ costumes for men and women. I don’t want to see costumes that, ultimately, work to insult, degrade and demean male sexuality and those that actually find men sexy. It’s offensive and frankly, not very funny. Sure, you probably wouldn’t find the guy who’d think to buy the ˜Rub Me’ genie outfit very sexy anyway, as I can’t imagine that he’d have that great of a sense of humour.

Still, come Halloween next year, I’d love to see costumes being pushed on men that attempt to get them to play up real, adult, male sexuality. It’s not hard. Hell, even if you do have to just mine from the year’s blockbusters for a while, producing yet more like Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter or Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd or whatever the hell else Johnny Depp is being. I imagine it’ll be a while before we get round to male sexy Cookie Monster though, but I like to think that we will at least get some more sexy male archetypes sometime before I start to look far too old to go out in costume Halloween night.

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