As Halloween nears, whenever I teach late, I come home to find a different cast of characters galloping triumphant through my house, including Howl’s Moving Castle, pirate vs. ninja, kung fu masters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Steampunk, Goth Lolis, and more. A raucous combination of cosplay and Halloween, the spirit is festive, the creativity fun, the details impressive. Last week, even my old prom and wedding dresses were both trotted out and Steampunked. “Don’t you kids have homework to do?”
And the background music in our house these past few weeks has been Psy’s “Gangnam Style” with its driving beat and in all its many variations (UC Berkeley Style, Michigan Style, Gundam Style, My Little Pony Style, Umma Style, Lungi Style, Klingon Style, Mitt Romney Style).
For several weeks, which is unheard of in internet time, folks have been loving and discussing and parodying Korean rapper Psy’s music video, “Gangnam Style.” With its cool style and critical social commentary and fun dance moves, it is now the most viewed YouTube video ever. I love what Asian Americans in particular have been doing with “Gangnam Style,” although I am also wary that some of its crazy popularity might rub a little too close for comfort to laughable Asian male stereotypes—is the mainstream laughing at or with Psy?
However, all alarms went off when I realized that Psy is going to be a huge Halloween costume this year. In the Los Angeles Times article announcing Psy’s new clothing line with Jill Stuart, also came the announcement that Halloween costume companies were putting together Gangnam Style Halloween costumes: “Party City said it has costume accessories in stock to pull off a “Gangnam Style” costume. ‘We expect this to be a HUGE costume trend this year,’ spokeswoman Ressa Tomkiewicz wrote in an email.”
This puzzled me. The Psy look is so easy. All one needs is a suit or tuxedo jacket and a pair of sunglasses. Why would anyone need or want to buy a pre-packaged costume? What would be in it that people did not already have? What are all these accessories they already have in stock?
Then as the reviews of this year’s most sexist and racist pre-packaged costumes began to pop up, I began to fear that Psy costumes might also add other additional accessories like black bowl-cut wig and buck teeth and taped-up eyes to make sure that he is fully “Oriental-ized” (sic). I know Psy does not really look like that, but tired old stereotypes are particularly virulent at Halloween time. (Friends and I have been monitoring the Psy Halloween costumes and so far so good.)
So now I am knee-deep in monitoring this year’s crop of “Sexy” costumes and “Oriental” costumes. Wow. I am so depressed by the thought of women dressing up as Pho King Hot sexy take-out food containers (with light-up boobs) and bizarre geisha-ninja-prostitute-farmer conflations, even worse when these costumes are on little girls. What is most telling is comparing the male and female versions of the same costume idea. And fyi, yellowface, blackface, and brownface are not funny, are not okay anymore.
However, I am pleased to discover that the courageous “We’re a culture, not a costume” poster series out of Ohio University in Athens are back again this year. Created by Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) last year, this poster series challenged people to stop and think about what they are doing, who they are representing, “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.” This year’s message goes even further, “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.” Representation matters.
I love Halloween, all fun and candy, imagination and creativity, but I would challenge folks to be more creative and not assault others with tired old stereotypes. The effects linger. It is better to, as Psy says, “Dress classy. Dance cheesy.” I will be eating leftover Kit Kats and hoping that the only yellowface I encounter at my door this year will be Big Bird, perhaps accompanied by binders full of women or by horses and bayonets. (Yeow! I just heard about the Sexy Sesame Street costumes! NO! My eyes!)
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media Ethnoblog, Chicagoistheworld.org, PacificCitizen.org, and InCultureParent.com. She team-teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at franceskaihwawang.com, her blogs at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com and rememberingvincentchin.com, and she can be reached at email@example.com.