Lin Kramer’s three-year-old daughter came home from pre-school one day with a story to share.
Daughter: “Mommy, *David told me that I can’t be superman.”
Lin Kramer: “Why can’t you be superman?”
Daughter: “Because I’m a girl. He said I can’t be superman, I can be a supermodel.”
Little did her daughter know, this encounter came shortly after Lin Kramer wrote an open letter to Party City on their Facebook page, expressing her concern for the young girl’s options for Halloween costumes.
“When you look around at the police officers in your city or neighborhood, the uniforms they wear are probably substantially similar to the costumes you have elected to offer for boys,” Kramer said in her Facebook post. “However, the same cannot be said of the costume you market to girls. Generally speaking, real life uniformed female police officers do not wear short skirts and low cut shirts, but instead wear exactly the same slacks and shirts as their male counterparts.”
Gender stereotypes are perpetuated early and often, even in seemingly-innocent Halloween costume aisles. Whether it is sexualizing young girl’s costumes or strictly defining what boys should wear and what girls should wear, experts agree that this early labeling can be limiting.
Parent Toolkit expert and psychologist Dr. Michele Borba said that by dictating what children should be, we may be stifling what they could be.
“There are so many other qualities than gender,” Borba said. “The bottom line is we want to raise happy, healthy, strong kids. If we stereotype in gender, race, age, we really start to pigeon-hole them and it begins to set up bias that there are certain things they can’t be.”
Borba says a great way for parents to support their children in instances when gender stereotypes seem prevalent is to practice “check that.”
“For example, young girls may say they can only grow up to be a nurse,” Borba says. “As a parent, check that. Check the bias. Ask your child to think about women they know. ‘What about aunt Sally? She works for NASA.’ Counter it so the child expands their view.”
Kramer responded to her daughter, checking the gender bias.
Lin Kramer: “Is this boy superman?
Daughter: “No, he’s pretending.”
Lin Kramer: “Exactly, he’s just pretending. So if he tells you that you can’t be superman, tell him that you can be because you are just pretending too.”
Parent Toolkit expert and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Richard Weissbourd, said the Halloween costumes marketed to young girls can really reduce their sense of possibility and self-worth.
“This is the scariest part of Halloween to me,” Weissbourd said. “The hyper-gendering. It tells girls to come to value themselves in terms of their attractiveness to men.”
University of Waterloo Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Dr. Adie Nelson published a study in The Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2000 called “The Pink Dragon Is Female: Halloween Costumes and Gender Markers.” She found that even costumes for little girls were gendered, often in “passive, femme fatale imagery.” Less than 10 percent of costumes examined were gender-neutral. Nelson said she recently finished an update to the 2000 study which replicated its design and largely found support for its findings.
“Both [studies] found a greater range of costumes for boys than girls, with both hero and villain-style costumes stressing the agency of boys and the ornamental-passivity of girls,” Nelson said. “The costumes for girls today were much more likely to be sexualized in the marketed name of the costume as well as in its design.”
Costumes for young girls are becoming more sexualized, raising concern for experts and parents alike.
“It’s really important to know that it’s only increasing,” Borba said. “Every year around this time, I always get this same kind of question. Girls are becoming more and more sexualized at a younger and younger age. Once a year, we give in.”
But Lin Kramer isn’t giving in.
“It isn’t that I want my daughter to grow up and be a firefighter and not be a princess,” Kramer said. “I have no preconceived notions of what I want her to be or not be. I want her to thrive and be happy and to feel personally fulfilled in whatever way is most appropriate for her. We tell little people that they can be whatever they want to be. But those words are completely contradicted when you look at Party City’s website. And other retailers too. The message they send to children is you can be whatever we tell you you can be.”
In a statement to NBC News posted in Today Parents, the company explained in part that "Party City supplies a broad assortment of costumes suitable for all styles, tastes, and budgets. We believe parents are as involved in their children's costume choices as they are in selecting their everyday attire ..."
While Kramer received overwhelming support for her feedback to Party City, some asked the question, “Why does it matter?’ and suggested, “just buy the boys costume” as a solution.
But research suggests it does matter. Weissbourd and the Making Caring Common Project recently put out a study, Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, finding that teen girls face a formidable barrier of gender bias when pursing leadership roles.
Weissbourd said these costumes marketed to young children only amplify stereotypes.
“There are really powerful forces in culture pushing girls towards being overly-sexualized and to traditional nurturing roles like childcare,” Weissbourd said. “As parents and educators, we have to be aware of these cultural currents and be proactive in providing girls a wide array of options so they are not slotted so early in narrow conceptions of the things they can do.”
“What is the purpose of there being different options for boys and girls?” Kramer asked. “Because I can’t come up with a satisfying answer.”
She’s not the only parent asking why. Recently, Paul Henson posted a photo on Facebook of his son dressed in an Elsa costume.
Henson posted, “Anyone that knows us, knows we generally let Caiden make his own choices, to an extent. Well he has decided on a Halloween costume. He wants to be Elsa…Game on…Halloween is about children pretending to be their favorite characters. Just so happens, this week his is a princess.”
Parent Toolkit expert and education consultant Jennifer Miller said expectations about gender roles affect both boys and girls.
“Sadly there is still a fear that if a boy explores girls' toys or costumes, it may say something about his sexuality,” Miller said. “There is absolutely no correlation between kids' exploration of toys and costumes that favor the opposite gender and future sexuality…Our hard and fast cultural rules about gender come back to haunt us in adulthood when we are not as open to those who are different.”
Weissbourd said because stereotypes are so ingrained in our culture, parents have to be proactive in teaching their kids.
“There is this passivity that we’re never going to be able to change it,” Weissbourd said. “But you can change how kids understand gender and teach them to be more critical. It takes courage for parents to stand up for their kids and challenge it.”
Lin Kramer says she always tries to make sure she talks to her daughter when she hears or sees limiting ideas and messages.
“It’s worth taking the time instead of just accepting it,” Kramer said. “Don’t just endorse or accept those limiting attitudes and marketing practices to children. I tell her that that’s not reality. She can do anything.” And anything this Halloween for Kramer’s daughter is Mary Poppins.
*Not the real name