Dressing in Drag:
What Makes a Movie Character Halloween Costume-Worthy
My proudest Halloween costume was when I went as Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka in the eleventh grade. Not a sexy, booty shorts version of Willy Wonka, the real guy. My mom helped me dye an old corduroy suit jacket Barney purple. I crammed a curly Napoleon Dynamite wig under my top hat, which prompted some Napoleon-Wonka impressions. On Halloween night, I strolled through my neighborhood with as much grace and whimsy as I could muster. Kids yelled, “hey candyman!” and I gave them a little wave, genuinely feeling like the most powerful person in the world.
Most of my dream Halloween costumes are of male characters. Maybe it’s because Halloween is a good excuse to live in someone else’s shoes for the day. I’ve seriously considered wearing a baseball cap and going around saying “excellent,” Wayne’s World Style. Buddy the Elf is another tempting costume. Who wouldn’t want to bounce around in bright yellow tights on a crisp Halloween night?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve scoured my brain for female equivalents. There just aren’t that many female characters out there that have the same greasy confidence as Wayne and Garth. There aren’t that many female-centric movies in general. Women and Hollywood’s 2017-18 statistics report that 30% of the top 100 box office movies include speaking female roles, and 36% of those roles represent LGBTQ people. Overall, only 9% of the top 100 contain a gender-balanced cast.* Talk about a male-dominated world!
Some female-driven movies, like Lady Bird and Booksmart, are rising to the top in the box office. Both of these movies, like their indie counterparts, aim to represent women as complex, determined individuals who wear their flaws on their sleeves. Then we have Ghostbusters, the 2016 remake with an all-female cast.
What Female-Centric Movies Do Right
Ghostbusters has a lighter agenda than movies like Lady Bird, thanks to its 1984 version. In many ways, Ghostbusters is the answer to my prayers. Like the original, the characters are meant to provide commentary on real people rather than to actually depict reality, so they’re given license to say ridiculous things and blast ghosts to bits. This is a breath of fresh air amidst the majority of today’s female-centric movies, in which women are more serious and revengeful.
I do have one issue with the Ghostbusters remake, which is that it seems to have over-shot the comedy factor and under-shot the realism factor. Because every character on the team is funny, the scenes are crammed with one-liners that distract from the course of action rather than enhance it. In the midst of all this humor, it’s hard to believe that the team is actually serious about their job, because the movie barely leaves room for real life. In the original, Dr. Raymond Stantz uses his parent’s loan to pay for their headquarters, something that clearly upsets him. In the remake, the issue of money is never addressed when they buy their headquarters. I am thankful this movie exists, nonetheless.
So what are female-centric movies getting right? In a study of gender portrayals in teen movies, it was found that female-to-female friendships are often “more adaptive and beneficial” than male-to-male friendships on screen. Male-centric movies were studied according to the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory, in which “the most frequently displayed components of masculinity were emotional control, risk-taking, violence, and dominance” (Zeglin, 2016). It is implied that female-centric movies don’t follow this trend, but nowadays movies are reversing the gender roles. More and more tentative, gentle male characters are coming to the screen, like Kumail Najiani’s The Big Sick. In this movie, his girlfriend is the dominant one.
Relatable Characters Make Good Costumes
This is a wonderful and progressive thing, but gender-reversed characters don’t always guarantee Halloween costume potential. Some researchers suggest that the more a viewer likes the characters presented to them in film, the more likely they are to adopt that behavior (Behm-Morawitz, 2008). Another study of masculinity in “guy movies” elaborates upon this, suggesting that guy movies are popular not because they display stereotypical masculinity, but rather because of an “ego-syntonic identification” (Zeglin, 2016). In other words, “consonance can only be achieved if the viewer is willing to accept the character as an iteration of his own self.”
This hits the nail on the head. Two recent female-centric movies that I believe contain likeable, relatable characters are Frances Ha and 20th Century Women. This is entirely my opinion, because everyone has a different idea of what “relatability” is. I personally relate to misguided goofballs who would rather chase a cat down the street than go to work. Broad City, for example, is an absolute treat because it concentrates on the duo’s hijinks instead of the female struggle, even though some of their hijinks are uniquely female.
Strength and Ambition
When a movie concentrates less on moments of self-pitying and more on a character’s personal ambitions, that character appears stronger. Strength is a huge reason to look up to someone. Strength is not explicitly associated with any one gender, which means that anyone on the gender spectrum can be strong. What today’s movies need to be doing is experimenting with the kind of strong. Strength is not limited to the CMNI, and doesn’t imply that a character never cries. Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll plays a raspy-voiced video game coder who battles depression in the midst of her birthday party. With an indifferent swagger, she pursues men, friendship, and her lost cat. The whole series perfectly summarizes what it feels like to come home drunk and a little sad, and also makes it look cool.
Strength doesn’t have to be complicated, either. Gregory, the deranged little boy in Over the Garden Wall, has a simple role: stay cheerful. He’s a kid, so he doesn’t know anything about the world. All he knows is that he cares about his older brother, Wirt. Wirt is the opposite, worried about everything and annoyed with his younger brother. He’s strong because despite his fears, he insists the two keep moving, and listens to his heart in dire times. This iconic dynamic would work for any gender or age combination, so long as they stay true to character.
So back to the Halloween costume problem. We’ve established that a well-written script, relatability, and strength are the makings of great characters, male or female. Although I’m not entirely certain a female remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with an impeccable script and relatable Wanda Wonka would convince me to dress as her for Halloween. I think pretending to be a different gender is fun.
Zeglin describes gender as a “performative” act, expressed through a series of “repeated actions.” Gender has its biological components, but only to an extent. The rest of it – how we dress, our tone of voice, is a result of social constructivism. I learned that today!
This means that we can break the rules as much as we want. Bill from Freaks and Geeks can’t be the only one who wants to dress as the Bionic Woman for Halloween. If we churn out more strong, iconic female (and gender-neutral) characters, Halloween would be a real party.