Let's face it: No matter how independent our news or ad-free our dreams might be, as 21st century humans we're all marinating to some degree in a hyper-sexual brew. But the routine fare offered by mainstream marketers would just seem juvenile if it wasn't profoundly affecting culture at every turn. It's climate change of a whole new order.

Halloween is clearly just one spike on the commercial graph. While in theory it's the most playful, creative and freeing day of the year for everyone's self-expression, most retailers still manage annually to dredge up the worst sexist sludge to boost sales. What's scary is just how transparent the market agenda via costumes has become.

Demeaning costumes aren't new of course, nor are women and girls their only targets. But today's gender divide in merchandise could not be any more glaring. In recent years, there's been a morphing trend for women's costumes: basically, to just Sexy Whatever. Whatever career or character we'd like to portray (powerful/authentic/you name it), we're urged primarily to look like a male-fantasy audition, even if that's totally unrelated to the costume. It's part of a broader backlash of sexy being trumped by sexist -- a portrayal happening mainly to women and becoming the main way we're portrayed. While clearly dealt their own distorting messages of power and hyper-masculinity, mens' and boys' costumes have stayed pretty much intact over the years. Meanwhile, more hyper-sexualized costumes appear each year for women.


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Sure we can modify them or just make our own, as many do, but that's not the point.

However it's told -- with costumes, or cameras, the public broadcast is pretty clear: it's open season on women's bodies, whether to sell magazines, sell beer, or just mock cellulite. As a country churning out more callous headlines -- from sexual harassment by politicians, to sexual assault by fellow soldiers, from viral footage of teen rape, to guys bonding around sharing it -- we need to unpack the bigger commercial message. Media creates consciousness; it sets a tone and tells a story about what matters, and who doesn't. It's time we think critically about the just-for-sex spin put on so many images of women and masquerading as a joke.

Nowhere is marketing more disturbing these days than for costumes aimed at little girls. Pink and princess still dominate, which by itself could be fun and harmless if other costumes got equal press. But without question, not all choices are created equal: girls get fewer options up front, especially in career costumes, and right up the age-range, there's a similar disappearance of fabric and relation to an actual theme. It's a rapid indoctrination that for them, it's all about beauty, which puts true power in the eye of the beholder. Of course boys get that message too about girls. And while that's not news either, it's critical to realize what is: as predators and child pornography make growing headlines around the country, retailers are pitching sexualized costumes for girls, even toddlers. In recent years, Halloween nightlife for kids has included adult-themed lingerie, G-strings, toy stripper poles, and tiny high heels for infants. This parallels the school-girl trend in costumes pitched for adults. And this in a dominant culture that still equates revealing clothes on women, and now girls, with "asking for it" when they're harmed or assaulted. But the reality is, no one ever asks to be harmed through their clothing, and kids didn't ask to grow up in this commercial hyper-sexual world. On Halloween and every other night, we need to ask whose fantasy life is it all really serving.

Understandably, many parents and activists are fed up, and are working to reverse this whole narrative. They've created some terrific online resources that are well worth checking out: The Representation Project is one, as is a boycott campaign called Sexism Sells, But We're Not Buying It. Some great activist sites for men and boys include The Good Men Project and the Men's Resource Center for Change. There are also sites specific to raising healthy daughters: A Mighty Girl, Girls Can't WHAT? and Powered by Girl are good examples. And just to plug it for next summer, the Women's Freedom Center hosts two free and fabulous weeks of a Quest camp for girls in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, where we explore media literacy and all kinds of adventurous fun.

And we always encourage bringing sons, brothers, dads and friends into the broader conversation here, because speaking out about social justice taps the best in each of us, and helps rid society of the false notions of gender we've all been taught. For way too long, patriarchy and profits have been a lame excuse for lousy programming. As kids, and as humans, we're all way too creative and colorful to get painted with any one brush.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.