Halloween: When the princess is the elephant in the room

Halloween is almost upon us. In the book Gender Born, Gender Made Diane Ehrensaft says,

When Halloween arrives, it is not just the goblins that come out of the closet. So do children’s wishes to be all that they may not be allowed to be the other 364 days a year. . . . For gender-nonconforming children, it is the awaited day when they are truly “free to be me,” if only their parents will allow it. The boy who dreams himself a princess can beg for the costume — just for this one occasion. The girl who really is Batman, if only everyone stopped to notice, can step out and for just one night truly be the flying male hero that resides within her. Even in communities where there is little option for gender freedom, even in families where gender ghosts have squelched gender creativity, on Halloween children can revel in the once-a-year opportunity to be who they really are or who they dream themselves to be.

From that passage, you would think that in families who support their gender-creative kids freedom to be themselves, Halloween would be a delight, a highlight of the whole year. Yet in our community, every October the posts begin to fly about the stress, and sometimes the agony, of Halloween. I asked a fellow mom, JT, to share a recent post as a guest blog because for me it captures the reasons so eloquently. I’m curious if some of you can relate:

Halloween has always sucked for my son. Or maybe it’s just always sucked for me as a mother because every year I feel like I’ve failed.

When he was in preschool, “we” chose this gorgeous elephant costume and he brought it to preschool with him to wear for the school’s Halloween parade. It was raining that year and so the parents lined the edges of the school hallways, creating a path for all the kids to parade in their costumes. When we arrived, my son took his costume and ran (I thought) happily up to his classroom and I waited with the other parents … finding just the perfect spot for parade viewing.

You see, our son’s preschool classroom had a dress up area, stocked with all of the Disney princess costumes. Back then, I knew that he loved to dress up, but I didn’t think much of it other than that it was probably “a phase.”

So I stood that day on my tip toes watchingcinderella the kids come down the stairs and turn the corner to the hallway of cheering parents. And there was my boy donned in all of his splendor as Cinderella. He was not an elephant. He was Cinderella. He was beaming. Beaming. He wasn’t parading in a costume, either. He was probably more himself in those moments than perhaps he had been for much of his life before that moment.

Then reality set in. A father standing beside me (and who did not know me or who my son was) said “Oh my God! I would NEVER let my son dress up as a princess!” My inner Mama Bear came forth, turned to him and said “Really? Because I most certainly would!”

Every Halloween since then has been difficult because he struggles with wanting to dress as a princess or other fabulous, sparkly or gorgeous female villain (think Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Aayla Secura, Queen Amidala) and then realizes that the “world” outside in our little town knows him and won’t understand. Even last year, he dressed as a black cat – trying to be fabulous and not so fabulous at the same time – and a boy in the neighborhood said “why are you dressed as a girl cat?” He was so heart-broken. And again I had failed.

So here we are again – on the edge of the Halloween season and he has decided that he’s not “doing” Halloween this year. I’ve told him to choose his costume and I’ll take him to another out of town neighborhood. Nope. Halloween’s not fun if you’re not with friends in the neighborhood. It’s funny because a boy we know dressed up as an old lady last year (great costume, by the way) and no one made fun of him. Was it because the “she” he was being wasn’t a princess or sparkly? Curlers, a bathrobe, slippers and a shower cap weren’t quite girl enough to cross over into teasing?

I always loved Halloween – the chance to just be someone else. My son wishes to be someone else just about every day and yet even on the day society says it’s OK to be someone else, he still can’t or won’t out of fear. It’s not fair and I don’t have the answer. I want to tell him to be that princess and to hell with the neighbors!

And so I’m turning to all of you for guidance and strength and courage because I want my son to have his Halloween back. And being an elephant just isn’t going to cut it.

elephantcostumeBy the way, here are some suggestions for dealing with Halloween that I wrote last year.

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11 Responses to Halloween: When the princess is the elephant in the room

  1. Laura Hinkle says:

    This is my dillema except my son, thankfully, has not lost his desire to celebrate Halloween – he’s just turned 5 so it’s still a concern that it could happen. This year he will be Minnie Mouse. He is still trying to decide if he wants to wear it to school for the parade and he’s leaning toward wearing it for the parade and to trick or treat. I have more anxiety over it then he does, I think. I want to prepare him for what he may hear but I don’t want to make him anxious about it. This is a tough path we’re on – loving our children and encouraging them to be who they are but still trying to protect them from those who don’t understand.

  2. Stacey says:

    I am in the same boat. My son is almost 6, and still does not quite understand that the “world outside” will judge him or tease him. I overheard him telling a classmate (another boy) that he was going to be Sofia the First for Halloween. The boy laughed, naturally, and my son did not seem fazed by this in the least. But I know this won’t always be the case. And you’re right–it sucks. Last year, my son dressed as Rapunzel. I found that being in a super duper girly costume (complete with the long wig) helped a lot because when he went to houses to trick-or-treat, they assumed he was a girl…so it was a non-issue. Our neighborhood friends all know him so well and know that he likes to dress as a princess (every day–not just on Halloween). I am fortunate to have such loving and accepting friends. It’s the “outside world” that you mentioned that scares me. Our elementary school doesn’t allow costumes, so I don’t have to worry about a school party. But still, I know it’s just a matter of time until the comments will hurt his feelings. I tell him that “some people don’t think boys should wear princess clothes,” but that we aren’t like those people! And that however he wants to be is okay with us 🙂

  3. Abigail Thomson says:

    Being strong for him and letting him be comfortable in his home is a great step! He is figuring himself out and bold enough than a lot of adults doing the same thing! I hope he can be whatever he chooses and not have any fear in it. It is so sad that children can’t even be just that. More power to your wonderful son and you for being a strong parent and guiding him wherever he chooses to go. Kudos and good luck. You’re strong enough to face anything for your baby.

  4. Ann says:

    In the UK we have a tradition called Pantomime where Prince Charming is a girl dressed as a (glamorous) boy – often in tights and a powdered wig and cloak or cape. Could your little boy wear something like that perhaps? Also you may have heard of a pop star called Adam Ant who dressed in a ‘glam’ way and put stripes of coloured make up across his face (try Google for images of him as well as Prince Charming.) Hope this helps.

    • pink says:

      Thanks, Ann. This works for some boys — for example, there is a trend of being into Dracula, because you get to wear a long satin cape and put make-up on. One year my son was a wizard — long purple and blue satin robes. However, sometimes boys are not satisfied with the substitute (and they totally get the difference). I have written elsewhere about trying to get my son to wear a kilt because it felt safer as far as potential teasing. He was very clear that he didn’t want a “version of a skirt for boys;” he wanted a flowy, flouncy, white skirt with lace on the bottom. Likewise, some boys don’t want to be a kind of boy who gets to dress up for Halloween; they want to be a princess!

      • AMM says:

        I agree. I’m a guy who likes to wear skirts (and dresses), the prettier, the better, and I’ve had lots of people ask me why I don’t just stick to kilts. My answer: do you think those women who have dreamed all their lives of the wedding dress they would get married in would be satisfied with getting married in a kilt instead? Or can you see Cinderella going to the ball in a kilt? It’s like giving a tennis racket to a boy who has asked for years for a violin.

  5. Stephanie Wells says:

    As a person who is planning on starting graduate school next year and someday becoming a counselor, I encourage you to find a therapist. Do I think there’s something WRONG with your son? Absolutely not. The problem is in our society and cultural acceptance of deviation from “norms”. The reason a therapist might help (one chosen CAREFULLY who has sensitivity and experience in gender issues) is because first you and your son both need to accept whatever it is that creates a desire in him to break “gender barriers” that our culture confines us to. Self-acceptance is so important. Children see things so black & white that what I found therapy can help with is teaching them at a younger age than usual about the gray shades in life, and that not everything has to be so concrete. A therapist can help teach your son (and you) how to react to people who have negative reactions to this. A therapist can create a relationship with your son of unconditional positive regard. We all have these gender “norms” imbedded in us from birth. It’s just how we are, but we can change. There is nothing wrong with your son. There is something wrong with our culture. So I suggest a therapist and building a positive and accepting community around you and your son, because he’s just fine, but he has to navigate in a world where people might not treat him or you that way.

  6. Chris says:

    I understand your dilemma, my son is 11 and seems to be phasing away from most of his girly things except handbags and nail polish,
    Maybe if you dress as a man you can possibly motivate him to take back his halloween. Good luck and god bless

  7. mdaniels4 says:

    I agree with Stephanie. I am a therapist and in my practice I try to normalize this, via a via the rest of the world as much as possible. I have a lot of clients, men and boys that are non conforming, I call it gender creative, because in my view they are creating a new vision of gender for the rest of our rather closed culture.

    I have come to the conclusion that almost all, no, take that back, ALL the dsm,’s are looking at this backwards. If society wasn’t so illogical, or judgmental without foundation, there’d be no distress in the individual for me to set an appointment with. I would have no clients with this “disorder”.

    What I would have is children and adults who were diagnosed as early as possible with a form of antisocial personality disorder that I think of as rigid thought disorder. That is, the inability to hear anything else but unconscious suggestion, and then expressed by taking out their insecurities on others.

    It is imperative that we are to stop the bullying we see today, which I’d guess has taken on more emphasis on gender and sexuality as being outside the norm, versus wearing funny clothes or just being thought of as weird as it was in the past, I would speculate that this has occurred because outspoken challenges to gender and sexuality have been so prominent and therefore absorbed, as is gender meaning as a result of advertising and media at a much earlier age, reinforced by continual bathing in the messages.

    Does this make sense? This is way too short of space to discuss it more completely. My advice is to instill confidence in however one chooses to live their life. To cow to others is in effect, choosing their life as having more validity than your own. That is sad, and very wrong in my view. This is, without going to the metaphysical, the only life you get. So make it solely your own.

  8. bw says:


    <Stephanie Wells says:
    October 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    I encourage you to find not a “therapist”, but rather someone who can “talk” to your child.

    I have spent 20 to 30+ years dealing with “encouragement” for councilors, school & “medical” shrinks, etc, FOR BEING “PULLED” OUT OF CLASS!

    I would get returned to class, “what is WRONG with you?”


    It has taken many, many years,,,,,,,,,


    I,,,just,,,, do NOT fit into “normal”, what ever that may be!?

    (Normal being society (mob rule) mentality)!

    How…….. “I”…….. “dress”, “ think”, “behave”, is NONE YOUR of business!

  9. Cat says:

    One thing to consider that we have done for our 5 year boy who is fabulously unique loves pink, glitter, sparkles, dolls, dress etc on Halloween when he dresses up for Halloween, we follow his theme. Example, he wanted to be Tinkerbell. So, I was Peter Pan and Dad was Wendy. When the whole family is involved it’s harder to target the child. Also you are not as likely to say something about boys in dresses when Dad is standing there in one also.

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