The first time I dressed in drag for halloween was in the fifth grade. My mom, exercising the good judgment befitting someone in an alcoholic free-fall, helped me put together my outfit. She lent me a frizzy pink wig, a black halter top, some high heels, pantyhose and to finish the outfit, she sewed me a black vinyl miniskirt. Thinking back on it, my choice of costume might have been ill-advised.
The previous year, my quasi-stepdad Dave died of a heart attack. When it happened, we were living in a large house with an in-ground pool in a nice, white Chicago suburb called Flossmoor. We had moved there two years before as part of a great white migration from the town I was born in, University Park. After Dave’s death, my mom could no longer afford to live in the house with the pool, and because she never sold the University Park place, her and I moved back.
It was 1986 and gangs were becoming more prevalent. The year before, in the fourth grade, much to the dismay of my teachers, I had my ear pierced. Their displeasure was nothing compared to the daily beatings I received at my new school in University Park, the victim of mistaken gang-affiliation.
It was not a good year. I felt pretty alienated being one of four white kids in my fifth grade class. My sensitive nature and stylish wardrobe didn’t help either. Getting my ass kicked daily for the most arbitrary reasons sucked too.
And things were not much better at home. My mom reaching the nadir of her alcoholism in the wake of Dave’s death. Beside her more quotidian debauches, I had to call the ambulance twice that year to pick mom up from alcoholic catatonia.
And yet, somewhere in the din of this social isolation, violence and domestic chaos, I had the idea, “Why don’t I dress up as a hooker for Halloween?”
I dumbfounded the kids. It was almost too freaky to instigate a beating, as if even in their violence-riddled minds, my cluelessness deserved their compassion. My teacher sent me home, likely due to the self-evident inappropriateness of a ten-year-old boy in a miniskirt coming to class.
Perhaps if I were in a similar situation as my mom, I might guide my child in a different direction. But there was something deeper going on there. I wanted to be a girl.
Halloween ideally is a day where we are able to play with the plasticity of identity. It’s a once-a-year pass on our typically unchanging sense of self. A dentist can be a Backstreet Boy. A teacher can be a witch.
But how plastic are we really? How far from our normal identity do our costumes veer? For instance, my drag costume was reprised for many years. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect in fifth grade I wanted to be a girl. Girls didn’t get beat up for wearing earrings. In fact, they didn’t get beat up much at all. They didn’t need to be tough. In later years, despite the acquisition of body hair and broad shoulders, my persistent desire to dress as a woman likely reflected a reluctance to own my masculinity. For much of my life, I struggled to assert myself. Being a woman represented a liberation from the bondage of masculine assertiveness. Rather than creating a new identity, my costumes was a reaction to an old one.
Looking at other people’s costumes, it doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out what they are reacting to. There’s the phenomenon the pimp and ho. The pimp signifying a loss of sexual power. The pimp doesn’t take shit from woman, unlike the man who wears the pimp costume. The ho allows herself to be demonstrative with her sexuality and be fey in the force of brute masculinity. The wearer of the ho costume probably suppresses her sexuality and has difficulty allowing men in her life. Other examples include dressing up as a celebrity to mask feelings of obsequiousness. Superhero costumes to mask feelings of powerlessness. Animals costumes to mask a loss of primality or innocence. Any gender-bending costume to mask latent desires to embody the qualities of the opposite sex. And so on.
Dressing up in this fashion may be therapeutic. It might be liberating to take on an aspect of self that we typically suppress. By entering the look and consciousness of a hooker, a woman might be able to lube seized parts of her psyche. She might be able to recognize her sexuality in ways she can’t while in her normal identity.
And yet there seems something inherently uncreative about this use of costumes. It makes me think of an ad for something called the “I Can Do It” Conference. The conference features the titans of self-help like Wayne Dyer and Marianne Williamson, who will descend upon the spiritual hub that is Tampa, Florida. They will presumably tell the throngs of conference-goers that they can in fact do it.
Aside from the pastel and lotus-laced graphics on the website, there is something else profoundly lame about the ICDIC. I can’t help but think that the only people who need to hear the mantra “I can do it” are those who believe they can’t do it. It’s an implicit regard for the audience as a powerless. Of course, the practical reality is that we often don’t feel like we can do something, and I would never suggest that we should feel ashamed for seeking out the cooling words from a friend that, “Yes, you can do it.” The statement, “I can do it,” in its purest sense, is a challenge to our beliefs.
Yet something seems reactionary about the statement “I can do it.” How can you state it without imposing its shadow “I can’t do it.” The problem is not the belief in whether you can or can’t do something. The problem is that we believe there’s an “I” who can or can’t.
When we believe in the “I”—in the fixed nature of self—all new worlds of impossibility open up. Things that we thought were possible extend out of reach because “I” is unchanging. “I” is the voice in our head that says whether something is good, bad or indifferent. “I” is what tells us what we are about. “I” dictates what is acceptable and what is not. “I” tells us what we can and can’t do.
In the same vein, how can someone dress up as something they are not without reacting to—and unwittingly reinforcing—that which they see themselves to be? The more we struggle with our opponent, the stronger he becomes.
It tough to imagine an act of pure creation—something divorced from our past, something not viewed through a reactive lens, something not meant to fix an undesirable situation or characteristic, something free to be what it wants to be. For the most part, we can’t or don’t. We are in constant conversation with our identities, and this conversation dictates our decisions and even our acts of creation, which are often tethered to subconscious reactions and memories.
But it begs the question: what would I be if I could be anything?
To truly answer, the response must not be reactive. It cannot be “not-something”—e.g. “I wouldn’t be indecisive.” Nor can it be its positive corollary: “I would be decisive” because this just reinforces my identification with indecision. No, to be purely creative, we would have to move beyond literalism, beyond archetypes like hookers and Harry Potter, beyond the fulfillment of needs, beyond reaction. We would choose without reference—allowing the possibility of creation without the strictures of the past.
Personally, I would be Chewbacca.