Tom Purcell: Are costumes expression or offense? |
Tom Purcell, Columnist

Tom Purcell: Are costumes expression or offense?

Tom Purcell

Everything is offensive now — even Halloween.

In Sandy Springs, Ga., a fellow’s humorous display featured a pumpkin man mooning the street.

“His pants are halfway down, showing his backside which is made up of pumpkins,” reports

Neighbors complained to their homeowner’s association that the display was offensive, so the fellow altered it.

Which is regrettable.

Halloween is — or used to be, anyhow — a time to blow off a little steam and have a little fun.

Long a staple of childhood, Halloween in the past few decades increasingly has been celebrated by adults — for good reason.

Eleven years ago, when Halloween’s popularity among adults was rapidly growing, Robert Thompson, Newhouse Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, explained why.

“It’s the one day where almost anything goes,” Thompson told me in 2008. “Adults can be a wise guy or do something outrageous they’d never do normally.”

Thompson said adults generally picked costumes that mocked or satirized popular culture. In my opinion, nothing is healthier for a well-functioning society than the ability to freely and heartily mock things we find silly.

Such free expression is under attack in some quarters.

Some are pointing out costumes to avoid because they may offend. Good Housekeeping suggests avoiding Holocaust-victim costumes — though for the life of me, I don’t know why anyone would want to sport a costume like that.

But last year, Good Housekeeping says, “several retailers came under fire for selling an ‘Anne Frank’ costume for little girls.”

I scratch my head at the stupidity of my fellow human beings who came up with an Anne Frank costume — but the idiotic retailers who stocked them quickly pulled them off their shelves.

Hitler and Nazi costumes are out. A Marie Claire story mentions the hullabaloo in 2005 over Prince Harry going to a costume party dressed as a Nazi.

But couldn’t point of such a costume be to mock and berate the followers of the evil mastermind who plunged the world into a horrendous war and created the Holocaust? Might it be meant to remind us that we must never forget the evil that some humans are capable of, and that we must be ever-vigilant in preventing it from ever happening again?

Any costume displaying blackface is out this year, which is obvious to everyone — except the fools, no doubt, who aspire to political office.

Costumes that play off animal cruelty, eating disorders and mental illness are out, too — though again, aside from some idiotic retailers, I can’t think of anyone foolish enough to target such subjects.

Zombie costumes are out — if one dresses up as a zombie version of a recently deceased celebrity. Why? Because, says Good Housekeeping, “a dead — or undead, a.k.a. zombie — version brings to mind the phrase ‘too soon.’ ”

Look: On one hand, adults should be mindful to avoid offending others with their Halloween costumes.

On the other hand, it’s dangerous to limit free expression in a free and open society. Satire may not always be pleasant — a bold satirist always risks crossing the line — but it plays an important role.

May the pumpkin man’s mooning commence!

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at

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