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What Scientists Now Know About Halloween and Gender

Just in time to make you the least popular (but most well-informed) attendee at your kid’s Halloween party.

Boys dress up as doctors on Halloween. Girls dress up as nurses. Boys dress up as knights. Girls dress up as princesses. These are cliches and they sound heteronormative and antiquated or just kinda dull, but they also remain true. This is how it goes even when parents strive to be more fluid and inclusive (Zombie Girls! Kitten Boys!). Whether this is the result of natural inclinations (boys like swords, girls like wands) or social conditioning (boys are pressured to like swords, girls are pressured to like wands) remains up for debate.

Here’s what researchers know about gender, sexuality, and Halloween costumes, just in time to make you the least popular (but most well-informed) attendee at your kid’s Halloween party.

Halloween Costumes Are Polarizing

A recent study of 469 children’s Halloween costumes found that fewer than 10 percent were “gender neutral” and that gendered Halloween costumes tend to cluster around a few tropes. Feminine costumes largely consist of beauty queens, princesses, animals, and foodstuffs. Male costumes, on the other hand, “emphasized the warrior theme of masculinity and were more likely to feature villains, especially agents or symbols of death,” the authors write.

So if you have a son who wants to be an animal or a daughter who wants to be an agent of death, you’re probably not going to be able to buy this year’s costume off the shelf.  

Sexy Halloween Costumes May Hurt Girls

Sexual Halloween costumes for young girls may contribute negatively to how young women see themselves, psychologist Rebecca Bigler told The New York Times in 2015. She suspects that girls who are drawn to sexy costumes may be getting the message that they are most valuable when they’re attractive to men, a disadvantage that studies suggest could set them up for failure in the long term. Indeed, Bigler co-authored a study of girls ages 10 to 15 that found that those who felt that women should be sexually attractive to men earned lower grades than their peers.

Masculine Halloween Costumes May Hurt Boys

Masculine Halloween costumes represent “the colonization of masculinity by commercial interests” and “branded masculinity,” according to the authors of a 2014 study published in The Journal of Men’s Studies. The study analyzed 100 men’s Halloween costumes, and concluded that warriors and zombies are not necessarily what young boys want to be, as much as they represent what corporate America tells them they should want to be. The costume industry “masquerades as consumer ‘choice’,” the authors write, “while simultaneously masking the continued transformation of American masculinity into specific brand products.

The Older Your Kids Get, The Less It Matters

Little boys seem to have their hearts set on traditionally masculine costumes, and little girls seem dedicated to traditionally feminine ones. But one 2010 study suggests that all changes as we grow up — older boys and girls are more likely to buy gender-bending costumes. Whether that’s because older kids understand irony and want to get a laugh out of their friends is unclear. But it’s also possible that corporations market gender-specific toys and products to young kids, and that preteens and teens are savvy enough to buck that trend and wear what they want.