Pocahontas And Gangstas: Has Halloween Gotten Too PC?

Each year, Halloween brings out the funny, scary and sometimes racist costumes. This year, a young man is getting criticized for wearing blackface to portray slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Our diverse panel of parents gives their take on when dress-up goes too far.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we're talking Halloween costumes. So maybe in your day it was simple - you ripped up some old sheets, tied them on and called yourself a mummy, or you threw on dad's old hat and jacket and an eyebrow-pencil mustache and out the door you went. But these days, things seem a lot more complicated, especially having to mediate costumes that you might think are too racy or that you might think are racist.

Not to mention accessories like toy guns in this hyper-alert post-9/11 age. We wondered how other parents were navigating all this, so we called Carrie Goldman. She's the author of "Bullied," and a mom of three girls. Dan Bucatinsky is a writer and Emmy award-winning actor and author of "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?" He's a dad of two. Fernando Espuelas is host of his own program on Univision America and a dad of two boys. Lester Spence is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a dad of five. Welcome back everybody. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAN BUCATINSKY: Hi, Michel.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thanks.

CARRIE GOLDMAN: Thank you.

LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Carrie, you wrote a piece about shopping with your three daughters. I'll start with you because you just wrote about this. Your daughter wanted to be a pumpkin. So off you go to the store and you find what?

GOLDMAN: Well, all day - she's only three years old - I have to start by saying that - and all day she wanted to be a pumpkin. She was very excited about it. She was very certain about it. And we get to the store and there's an enormous wall of nothing but basically Disney princesses, fairies and sexy other kinds of little fairies. And within two seconds, she had abandoned her idea of wanting to be a pumpkin, and she said no, no, no, this is what I want to be.

And if she had originally wanted to be a princess or a fairy, that would be different. But it's all about the commercialization of those types of costumes. In fact, we couldn't even find a pumpkin costume in her size. I guess it's not sexy enough. The only pumpkin costume they had was for age 6 to 12 months. And so my little girl's actually very tiny, so we bought the 6 to 12 month pumpkin and she's going to wear it. But it took a lot of persuading to remind her that she did not in fact come in with the intention of being some fancy, sexy little princess.

MARTIN: And, well, you were saying that you actually thought you had more choices when you were growing up.

GOLDMAN: Oh, without a doubt. I have three little girls. So my 10-year-old and 6-year-old were also with me and they were looking for costumes. And we looked at this wall - and there were literally hundreds of costumes - but my 6-year-old turned to me and she said, they all look the same. And she was right because everything was a sexy something. So if you were a pirate, you had fishnet stockings and a short dress but an eye patch. If you were a doctor, you had a sexy little coat - actually, I don't even think they showed a doctor because for girls they, you know, they don't even show those types of options anymore.

MARTIN: They always show boys in those. Interesting.

GOLDMAN: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Well, Fernando, you know, you have two boys and you were saying that you think that's a costume - I mean, I know a lot of moms complain about this - well, now parents, too. Let me just say, parents of girls I know complain a lot about the choices now. But you're saying, you know, you've got two boys and you feel the same - that there's still drama.

ESPUELAS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think the big drive for a boy, especially because of the stimuli of the media, is violence. And so, you know, how many different versions of soldiers, of storm troopers, of some sort of, well, very, very masculine kind of a costume. And when you're trying to sort of teach a different kind of value set and certainly don't want them parading around with machine guns in the streets, it's a big challenge.

MARTIN: What about the big muscle costumes? We went to a Halloween party over the weekend and I noticed that a lot of the boys' costumes came with a six-pack, you know, a six-pack and big musclely muscles, and not just the Hulk. I don't know. You know, again, a lot of parents of girls complain about the body image they think they're being steered to, but what about you as a dad of boys?

ESPUELAS: Yeah, I know last year, one of the Batman costumes one of my sons wore certainly made him look as if he had been working out for twice his age, for many, many years, and it's a little bit odd. I think that, again, media molds our perception of ourselves. And when little kids - boys and girls - are being told they have to look in a certain way, they certainly are absorbing that. And obviously, it may have a very negative impact.

MARTIN: You tried to get him to go as a radio host, and he was like, oh, hell no.

ESPUELAS: Well, at one point, he did go as a snowflake, but that was years ago and I think we're past the snowflake moment.

MARTIN: OK. Lester, what about you?

SPENCE: You know, we've been - we're kind of the outlier here, in that - for a number of different reasons - we've just been making costumes when we participated. So my youngest daughter wants to be a social network, so she's probably going to paint herself up and create the symbols.

MARTIN: OK.

SPENCE: And then my youngest son, she's created a vending machine costume for him, complete with Fritos because nobody eats Fritos in the house. I'm like, why would you use a bag that's full of Fritos? Use the empty ones. But yeah, we haven't - those other conversations - as far as buying costumes, we've never bought them.

MARTIN: So never bought them. So, Dan, you know, we're so glad you're here because we could argue that as an actor, you get to dress up for a living.

BUCATINSKY: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so I'm wondering how does this strike you and how do you all work this out?

BUCATINSKY: Well, it's so funny. You know, I get so into the Halloween thing and, like, I want to be creative or I want to be sort of funny or rye or double entendre. I tried to convince my daughter to go as Olivia Pope, but, you know, from my show.

MARTIN: She's six?

BUCATINSKY: No, she's eight, which isn't...

MARTIN: She's eight now. Oh, yeah, OK, big difference. OK.

BUCATINSKY: She has no idea who that is, and that's fine with me.

MARTIN: I should mention, he writes for "Scandal," as you figured out. And "Grey's Anatomy."

BUCATINSKY: No, I write for "Grey's Anatomy" and I act on "Scandal."

MARTIN: You act on "Scandal." I'm sorry.

BUCATINSKY: That's OK.

MARTIN: Yeah, there you go.

BUCATINSKY: That's all right. But, you know, it's funny 'cause I find myself, you know, getting more - trying to get them excited about - excuse me - trying to come up with ideas for costumes. And they really are, you know, for lack of a better way of describing it, they are really motivated by what they see out there. And my son, Jonah, who's six, is really interested - you know, really into Spider-Man. And the minute he said he wanted to go as Spider-Man, Eliza wanted to go as Spider-Girl. I didn't know there was a Spider-Girl, but, you know.

And before we knew it, Amazon boxes had arrived and there was a Spider-Girl costume in a box and there was a Spider-Man costume in a box that lights up and has muscles, and they were in heaven. They were so happy. And I just - part of me was thinking, can't we cut out construction paper and get boxes and paint and - and that's totally motivated by my desire to do that. So I have to keep myself in check mostly because I'm the one who's dying to be a kid again and trying to get into my own costume craft project. But really, this is what made them really, really happy.

MARTIN: Well, that's in part, I think, what a lot of us want to talk about, which is, what do you do about that? I mean, what you want for them and what they want for themselves is different. I mean, where is that line, Carrie? What do you do?

GOLDMAN: That's a great question, and I think it's about meeting them - as my friend, Melissa Wardy says, who's an advocate in a group we're in called The Brave Girls Alliance, and she and I talk about how you want to meet people where they're at. So if your kid wants to be a princess or wants to be a fairy, great, that's fine. But let's, like you all said, let's make something special out of it. Let's design some homemade wings or make a dress with some special fabric from home.

You know, meet them and say, you know, I don't think you should be wearing high-heeled shoes at age six, and it'd be hard to trick-or-treat in these, but I understand you want some fancy footwear so hey, how about if we put some sequins or glitter on this, you know, old pair of shoes. And find ways to make them feel that they're being listened to while you're still observing your own ethical beliefs about what's OK.

MARTIN: I had to ask about guns. I've got to ask about the whole question of guns because, you know, gangsters are big, you know - storm troopers are big and they have a form of a gun. And a lot of people just think that is just in a very - especially if you live in an area where people are kind of tense, which is pretty much everywhere right now. I mean, there was just this terrible story in Sonoma County where a sheriff's deputy fatally shot a boy holding a pellet gun.

And I don't know why he was holding the pellet gun. He wasn't in a costume. And yes, the gun does look like a real gun, but he's 13 years old. So on the one hand, Halloween's all about fantasy. On the other hand, do you - Fernando, do you let your kids have costumes with guns? And if you don't, what do you say?

ESPUELAS: Well, we started out with our oldest boy, you know, we're not going to let him play with guns. And then we found him making guns out of bananas and, you know, cutting them out. And we found across our friends that this is really - there's something in the culture or something inside of the boys that gets drawn out by the culture, that drives them to the guns. So, you know, at the end of the day, I think, as one of your other guests said, you kind of have to meet them halfway. There was one particularly horrific costume last year that one of our boys picked out that was a ninja monster, and it was just too much.

MARTIN: So what did you say?

ESPUELAS: We sent it back. We sent it back and, you know, we had a bad couple of hours and then he got over it, so.

MARTIN: Dan, where are you on this?

BUCATINSKY: You know, I - my son's obsessed with guns, and we really didn't want to have them in the house. And I found my son biting the shape of a gun out of a piece of toast. And I thought, oh, OK, I'm not going to be able to control this. But we do, we do. We talk about the difference between a toy gun and pretending, and he makes the "pew-pew-pew" sound every chance he gets. So for the costumes in general, just because we don't want to be out in the dark or as it's getting dark with him holding things - last year he went as Captain Hook and he wanted to have a sword and we attached it to the side of his waist. And, you know, if he has a fake pistol that he wants to have around his waist, but we pretty much try to have him not holding weapons in his hands and aiming them at people. That's pretty much where we draw the line.

MARTIN: Yeah. Lester, what about you? Where are you on this?

SPENCE: Yeah. I don't expect that - we've never had to deal with this. But if I would, my only thing would be where they have it, right. If they're talking about going out trick-or-treating and they're wearing a costume that has a gun, you know, with three black boys, that's a bad look. But if they're talking instead about a party - about going to a party or some type of private event, then that's a different deal. I believe that they're smart enough to understand that they're playing with toys. So my challenge would more be how people perceive them. And they already know that they've got certain hurdles because they're black anyway.

MARTIN: See that's one of those things I think is tricky for a lot of people because they ask yourself - it's almost like the conversation we often have about sports, which is people say, I don't want the politics and the sports to intermingle, but they are. They already are anyway. So the question is, how do un-mingle it, all right. I think I just made that word up. Sorry, Dan, the writers - all the writers here, I apologize. OK, now I have to ask about the whole question of the racial - or costumes that some might interpret as racially offensive. And this seems to be a particular issue with college-aged students - college kids, where you have less control or involvement in what they're doing.

But every year there's a story about somebody. This year, the story was Julianne Hough who dressed up in blackface to go to a party. She said she was one of the characters from "Orange is the New Black" and she said it's just because she likes the show so much. It was an homage to this character. And then she said she's sorry if anybody is offended. And then there's the - and then of course there's the ever popular ponchos, sombreros - Fernando's kind of not laughing. What do you say about that? I mean, Fernando?

ESPUELAS: Well, you know, after seeing Prince Harry years ago dressed as a Nazi - and, you know, I think he set a new standard. And as long as they're not wearing swastikas, blackface or other paraphernalia of certain groups, we're pretty OK. We're more focused on the gun issue.

MARTIN: More focused on the gun issue.

ESPUELAS: Yeah, the violence issue.

MARTIN: Dan, where are you on that?

BUCATINSKY: Well, luckily, we haven't - I mean, you know, the only thing that came up last year was Eliza really wanted to go as Tiger Lily, you know, the Native American character from Peter Pan. And so, you know, there's this issue of how dark to make her skin. She wanted to look like a Native American. And the notion of dyeing - you know, and she really wanted to show her belly button. So there we crisscrossed the racial issue with the over-sexualization of a 7-year-old. And so we had to navigate around moving the costume up or down over the bellybutton, down the belly button - it became a real, you know, sort of like a where we drew the line in the sand.

And she would cross it and we would cross it and we finally came together on that. But I think that as part of a character, if you are trying to portray a character and letting a kid sort of pretend and play a character, I feel like the intention behind the costume and how much fun they might have, you know, dyeing their hair, looking like another race - I think that's all coming from a place of pretend. There's nothing about that that is denigrating. But again, we have to sort of teach them as they get older and older the impact that what they wear and what they put on, even on Halloween, has an effect.

MARTIN: Would you let her darken her skin, though? I mean, that seems to be a particular flashpoint for a lot of people. I mean, obviously, when older people do it, people feel you should know better 'cause you should understand how that feels to somebody else. But a lot of younger people - there are costumes and characters where they want to be of a different race. That's kind of part of the fun of it is being somebody else. Would you let your darkened her skin, Dan?

BUCATINSKY: It's a really good question. I think we would have to talk very - we'd have to really explain to her how the look of - you know, what that evokes in other people, that the very act of creating sort of blackface on a white - on a very white skin, in particular - or on any Caucasian person - it evokes something in other people and it would be something that could be looked at as offensive by other people and other parents and other kids who are trick-or-treating. And so we have to be sensitive to that. I think that would become one of those, what they call, teaching moments. And we'd have to sort of decide where we - how we can maybe do that in a different way.

MARTIN: Lester, what about you? Have your kids ever wanted to be of a different ethnic group? And how have you handled that? And it's interesting 'cause I'm looking at a site - a Los Angeles Times story now - the comments about a story where Pottery Barn was offering costumes of Asians - buy the sushi chef and geisha. And a number of groups said that they did not appreciate that and they withdrew the costumes from the marketplace and apologized. And it's interesting that the comments are all against Pottery Barn for withdrawing the costumes. They're all - get a life, give me a break. You know, can we - now to rid Halloween of the offensive witch costumes that unfairly portray wiccans and practitioners of witchcraft, get over it. I mean, that's - it's kind of pretty much a heckler's veto on that. But what about you, Lester? What do you think?

SPENCE: Yeah, so my daughter who's going as a social network, she originally thought about being an Eskimo. But - then that would be the closest to the scenario we're talking about. But what I - you know, I was going to wait just to see what she comes up with. And I'd have a conversation with her. But the bigger concern for me is what do my - like, I remember when I first got the job at Hopkins, they had kids in blackface at one of the fraternities.

And the college students were - felt - the black students felt like the environment had all of a sudden become hostile. So for me, given that I have a college-age daughter, is if that happens at her school or with the black students I teach at Hopkins, if that happens again, how do I actually prepare them? How do I deal with that? That's a far bigger issue for me than the choices my children make as far as what costumes they wear.

MARTIN: So, Carrie, final thought from you. It just seems like every year we're having this conversation. It seems to be even more and more tricky, you know. What do you say about this? Yeah.

GOLDMAN: It's tricky for a couple reasons. One is that kids are very influenced by the media and by the marketing and the advertising. So we have this cycle where the advertisers and the media show them very narrow interpretations of what is sexy or what is heroic. And when kids see over and over and over the big muscular Superman or the sexy princess, and that is what's marketed to them, then they say this is what they want. So then we have this cycle where they're clamoring for it and the marketers are telling parents, well, we're only producing what they ask for. We're just, you know, fulfilling the request of the market. But it's sort of a chicken and egg thing. So one of the things I'd like to see happen is to see a broadening of interpretation of costumes and of options. And one other thing...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, we don't have time to have one other thing.

GOLDMAN: Oh, OK.

MARTIN: But we do have time to just say, you know what, grow a spine parents.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: 'Cause no always works 'cause who's paying for those costumes? You.

GOLDMAN: Right.

MARTIN: Carrie Goldman is a mom of three girls and author of "Bullied." She was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Lester Spence is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, a dad of five with us from Baltimore. Fernando Espuelas is host of his own show on Univision America, and a dad of two boys, here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Dan Bucatinsky is an actor on "Scandal" and a writer for "Grey's Anatomy." Emmy award winner, dad of two, joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you all.

BUCATINSKY: Thank you, Michel.

ESPUELAS: Thanks.

GOLDMAN: Thank you.

SPENCE: Thanks.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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