Offensive costumes and the fetish of the consumer
Halloween has come and gone, but the memories of this year’s crop of cheaply racist, sexist, and misogynistic costumes linger. It has become a seasonal ritual: For some, an awkward intrusion of uncomfortable politics into a lighthearted holiday; for others, a chance to make a point about “freedom” in the face of political correctness – via a set of cloth and plastic assembled by underpaid workers overseas, bought on credit at a store whose employees earn less than a living wage.
In an article titled 6 Most Wildly Offensive Halloween Costumes posted Oct. 30 at AlterNet.org, April De Costa takes the fact that costumes like “Sexy Indian Maiden,” “The Freshman 15,” and “Oriental Specs” exist, and proceeds to attack the imagined market, labeling hypothetical consumers as “obtuse jagoffs,” “human garbage,” and “everyday racists.” Her outrage is directed at the consumers, and it is overlaid with class hostility. These “racists” are not consuming the right things in the right way.
De Costa reserves little ire for the companies that directed and funded the production of the costumes in the first place. This is not surprising. Late capitalism, mainstream economics, and the culture industry all insist that production and consumption be treated as radically separate domains. Those domains are not created equal: Seemingly limitless choice confronts shoppers in an endless series of markets, each one promising to create distinction if only the right consumer choices are exercised. If occasionally those choices reveal one to be a racist, sexist, or misogynist, then facing the ire of the De Costas of the world is the price one must pay for “individual freedom.”
Meanwhile, labor is devalued through downsizing, offshoring, and industry consolidation; collective bargaining rights are undermined; and social safety nets are removed in service of neoliberal ideology. Workers, who might be united in the labor of production, are on their own. Consumers dissolve their natural ties of class and kin in pursuit of a distinctive self, validated by capitalism. In service of a consumption-driven ideology, the struggles of workers are erased, while the machinations of consumers are celebrated. More ominously, social ills like racism, sexism, and misogyny appear to arise because products that signify those traits are consumed, but the underlying circumstances of their production vanish.
As an alternative, following Bertell Ollman’s (2003) Dance of the Dialectic, we could interpret these racist, sexist, misogynistic Halloween costumes in light of the internal relations of production and consumption within which they are embedded. This sort of view necessarily considers production and consumption not as separate domains, and not as balanced forces, but as forces in contradiction. It might seem odd to suggest that, say, a plastic mask marketed as a Sexy Osama bin Laden costume is conjured into being by forces of global capitalism, but in fact it both reveals the perniciously mundane ways in which the system reproduces itself, and offers clues to how to fight it. Moreover, to ignore production, to place all the attention (and blame) on the consumer, works to further entrench the privilege that led to the creation and marketing of these racist, sexist, misogynist objects in the first instance.
Behind the masks
As far as I could tell from three hours of web searching, all of the costumes mentioned in the AlterNet article are sold by small, privately held companies based in the U.S., all of them apparently in the business of warehousing and shipping. In no case was I able to find information about country of origin of the costumes themselves, let alone any specific information about their manufacture or components. Emails to three companies inquiring about the place of manufacture of specific costumes went unanswered.
In light of this, I shall consider the Sexy Indian Maiden costume, sold, among other places online, at Amazon.com by a vendor called CostumeHub.com, to be representative of the lot. CostumeHub.com is a subsidiary of Best Service Stores Inc., on online retailer incorporated in 2006, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Best Service Stores’ “About” web page helpfully notes that its Lenexa, Kansas, warehouse contains “almost 150,000 feet of … space” and promises that “consumers will typically save themselves the hassle of returns, repairs and disappointment by purchasing the best product the first time around. We only offer products from companies we know and trust.” Those known and trustworthy companies are not named.
It is clear from the online text that Best Service Stores is not in the business of production. It notes “Best Service Stores stands out from other web sites because we determine what consumers want and then find the best products at the best prices.” Manufacturing is not their business. So the costumes must be imported.
The bulk of garments imported to the United States are assembled in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (between 40 and 90 percent, according to 2012 figures from the U.S. International Trade Administration, depending on how “garment” is defined and the raw materials that comprise them). In 2010, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reported average minimum wages for garment workers in those three countries are $0.93 per hour (China), $0.52 per hour (urban Vietnam), $0.36 per hour (rural Vietnam), and $0.21 per hour (Bangladesh). In comparison, the Institute reports, the minimum hourly wage for U.S. garment workers ranges from $8.25 – $14.00 (not including benefits).
The “Sexy Indian Maiden” costume was selling on Amazon.com for $21.21 at the time of this writing (shortly before Halloween), marked down from $29 (“You save $7.79”!). Assuming, for argument’s sake, that it takes one hour to fashion the assemblage of polyester into a finished product, the retail price minus labor at the going rate for Chinese garment workers equals $20.28; the same figure at the going rate for U.S. garment workers ranges from $7.21 – $12.96. I do not consider what appear to be plastic-and-faux-wool boots pictured in the Amazon.com image in this calculation, as the web page notes “The boots do not come with this sassy American Indian costume for tweens.”
Regardless, not counting the cost of raw materials and maintenance (?) of the factory, the exporter, shippers, and retailer can split an additional 56% to 181% in profit based on outsourcing production to China over the United States. Naturally there are environmental costs to such an extensive transportation network, and social costs to maintaining underemployment among domestic garment workers, but those costs are externalized – they’re not a factor to the seller, only to the larger society.
In a sense, it’s easy to ignore the circumstances of production of any commodity. They’re radically opaque, and the more you learn, the more troubled you become. The picture doesn’t get much more comfortable when you think about conditions surrounding consumption – going a bit deeper than simply dismissing costume buyers as “racists.”
Blame the ‘everyday racists’?
Halloween in the United States is an occasion for children and adults to fantasize, to playact, to act out in ways that are culturally acceptable. And during this once-yearly liminal period, the bounds of what is “culturally acceptable” are stretched. Costumed playacting is an indulgence rarely granted, and consequently imbued with additional meaning in light of its generally forbidden nature.
Some of the costumes that made AlterNet’s list play off deep-seated stereotypes that one encounters daily in U.S. culture, and others represent prejudices that are somewhat topical. For instance, the growing sense of outrage over racist Native American mascot caricatures like that of the Washington NFL team has led to a backlash in which some seem to revel in racist, colonialist language. In that light, it is easy to imagine (though not excuse) that some fraction of consumers would make a misguided attempt to play dress up in mockery of a topic that is current and controversial.
We are long past the days when Halloween costumes were home creations. It is rare that one has the time (between working multiple jobs, or working a job and going to school, or working overtime to compensate for company downsizing), or the resources. U.S. official unemployment stood at 7.2 percent in September 2013, 40 percent of them out of work for 27 weeks or more, but not counting 2.3 million additional who are “marginally attached” to the labor force (source here). In that light, the pressure on consumers to acquire an inexpensive entre into this meaningful cultural touchstone is intense. Many are driven online, where few questions are asked about conditions of production, and even less information is readily available.
Those who fire up a browser gain access to one of the privileged spaces of late capitalism: The space in which individuality and “freedom” is validated by consumer choice. A shopper who types “Halloween costume” into the search field at Amazon.com finds, at this writing, 295,872 options. It’s dazzling, in its own way. Faced with seemingly limitless options, surely one’s choice represents one’s individuality?
Donning a costume promises two magical moments of self-enhancement: First, the association with the Other that accompanies the wearing; and second, the disassociation from that Other, in which the individual is enhanced and transformed through that double movement. What emerges is both different from one’s self, yet also, through the secret of the fetish, a contributor to one’s new self. One is no longer simply “That guy, John;” he’s now “That guy, John, who dressed up like a sexy Indian.”
That John’s freedom of choice, his validated self, required accepting the trappings of oppression does not bother him. Just as the conditions of the costume’s production were obscure, so were the conditions surrounding John’s consumption of it. This point is made repeatedly by the Frankfurt School critique of the culture industry. Herbert Marcuse notes in One Dimensional Man that the dominant interests of any society demand repression, encode it in consumable products of culture, which are then bought through an apparently free exercise of choice and act to perpetuate that repression. John’s consumption of that costume, regardless of his internal reasons for it, enact for all of society a small drama of privilege and Otherness.
A better (costumed) future
As Marx made clear in Wage Labor and Capital, capital savings through reduction in labor costs force, in turn, greater production to offset lower selling prices, and hence the need to create larger markets to consume those lower-priced goods at a rate that ensures continued profit. This is the key to understanding production and consumption as antagonistic forces: Development of one undermines the other, forcing a quantitative transformation, which reaches but then surpasses the balance point, renewing the whole process.
The “Sexy Indian Maiden” costume is simply an element in that endless, snowballing, cycle of contradiction. That does not mean it isn’t significant, and odious. It merely means that it doesn’t exist because a market of “human jagoffs” is clamoring for it. It exists because capitalism demands that it exist, and capitalism demands that consumers buy it. The particular form of the costume, in all its racist and sexist wonder, is the result of a scattershot attempt to push enough cultural buttons to hook enough consumers to cover the (very low) cost of its production. Anything beyond that is profit.
None of this is meant as an excuse for buying, let alone wearing or dressing children in, what are demonstrably repulsive costumes. It is easy to muster outrage over outfits like these. What the righteous fury misses, however, is the political economy that underlies their production and consumption. Blame for the costumes lies at least as much with those who direct the manufacture and sale as it does with the buyers – buyers who are, incidentally, even harder to find than information on the origin and components of the costumes.
Ultimately, racist, sexist, misogynist Halloween costumes are a (small) symptom of a social-economic system that is working exactly as it is intended to work. If we change the system, better costumes will be just the beginning.