Cultural Appropriation of Halloween

Every year, the last day of October marks not only an event that is nationally celebrated, Halloween, but it consequently also marks the day in which many people decide to dress up as people of various cultures. Through analyzing the major trends in Halloween costumes and using Lev Manovich’s understanding of the nature of everyday media life, I will make the argument that this practice is in essence the embodiment of “cultural appropriation.”

In his essay The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production? Lev Manovich draws attention to the relation between industrially produced cultural artifacts and their relation to subcultures that exist within our communities. In his words, “consumer and culture industries have started to systematically turn every subculture (particularly every youth subculture (bohemians, hip-hop and rap, Lolita fashion, rock, punk, skinhead, goth and so on) into products (324). In essence, what Manovich describes here is the adaptation of subcultures by the culture industry, as a means to monetary gain. For instance, traces of tge cultural artifacts that make up the apparel of the punk subculture (think studs, ripped fabric etc) can now be found in every major clothing store, and though these artifacts have no direct relation to the subculture, segments of it have been “remixed” into the mass culture of clothing.

Manovich uses the example of Anume Music Videos to make his point regarding the remixing of culture. According to him, the majority of Anime Music Video makers use videos and music from commercial music products and merely imitate them using certain segments and fragmets (p.322). In short, this phenomena that Manovich describes as the “remix” culture, draws in certain segments and aspects of a culture, and appropriates it within the “prosumer’s” own culture. This segmentation of a much larger image, in this case the larger cultural context, is what is known as cultural appropriation. As the name suggests, it is the appropriation of a second culture within the primary culture of the prosumer, involving the tactic of portraying of only certain aspects of said culture aimed to benefit the prosumer in one way or another.

As mentioned before, however, my aim is to pay more attention to how Manovich’s theory applies not to the everyday ritual of dressing ourselves based on our identities, but to the annual Halloween tradition of dressing up based on the identities of others (who are usually part of a subculture.) A walk through any of New York City’s many costume shops provides us with a good starting point to analyze the ways in which cultural appropriation occurs every year on October 31st.

More and more costumes are poorly put together depictions of subcultures and minorities–from the white dishdasha gown of an Arab man, that is distastefully put together with a red plastic bomb replica that is to be wrapped around his chest suggesting an Arab jihadist, to the costume of a Mexican man which inflates a donkey as a suggestion of his mode of transportation. These costumes entail tiny fragments of cultural indicators, but those that are used are complete misrepresentation of the culture.

While Manovich’s article rather tiptoes around the concept of cultural appropriation, it fails to mention the negative aspects that might come with it. For Manovich, cultural appropriation is merely a term that is used interchangeably with “remixing,” without examining further the implications such appropriations may have. No matter how humorous these costumes are meant to be, their lightheartedness comes fully loaded with cultural stereotypes whose most fanatical and extreme aspects are now being appropriated.

To tie this example back to our debate on cultural appropriation, Kjerstin Johnson, an online blogger sets to shed light on how this takes place through costumes. Johnson justifies herself by stating that “Dressing up as “another culture,” is racist, and an act of privilege. Not only does it lead to offensive, inaccurate, and stereotypical portrayals of other people’s culture (Do you think Día de los Muertos is just “Mexican Halloween”? Well it’s not, so put away your facepaint), but is also an act of appropriation in which someone who does not experience that oppression is able to “play,” temporarily, an “exotic” other, without experience any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures” (Johnson, 1). These premises that Johnson draws explain to us that there is a much larger picture–one that is neglected by the person doing the “remixing.” Furthermore, this cultural appropriation, which can in this case be classified as the selective remixing, may also be highly negligent and offensive.

The costume industry, hence, is much like Manovich explained, forming its product using a very thought out customization of the true representation of a culture. The part of the culture that deems to be more profitable for them, reflecting low production cost and high familiarity of the masses with the certain artifact of clothing, becomes the categories which decide the basis of the costume, and the accuracy of the culture is therefore not the important factor in its production. The culture is appropriated and remixed to fit the needs of the producers, regardless of taking into account its derogatory nature.

All in all, Lev Manovich’s article The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production? provides a very good insight into the remixing nature of culture–how different people recreate certain aspects of a subculture. However, by looking at the cultural appropriation of Halloween costumes in particular, it becomes apparent that this appropriative act is in no way neutral, but that it may take on a negative slant.

Works Cited

Johnson, Kjerstin. Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes. Web. October 25, 2011.

Manovich, Lev. The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production? Print. 2009.

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