The world has enough Elsas: This Halloween, why not dress up as these real female heroes

Halloween done right.
Halloween done right.
Image: Kate Schatz
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Ah, Halloween season is upon us—and so are the mercurial whims of our children. (“I want to be a princess! No, I’m gonna be Cinderella? I changed my mind, I want to be a fairy! Elsa! Alice in Wonderland!”) That means it’s also time to deal with grossly gendered commercial costume options.

Cue the collective groans of parents across the land—especially feminist ones. For parents who want to avoid super-gendered and commercial costumes, Halloween is a challenge. On the one hand, you want it to be a fun time for your kiddo and let them relish in the realm of make-believe. On the other hand… ugh.

A Google search for “boy Halloween costume ideas” reveals a wide range of options—dinosaurs, vampires, ninjas. Mickey Mouse! An iPod! Meanwhile a search for “girl Halloween costume ideas” can quickly devolve into an exercise in futility. Sigh. There may be “options,” but they all look essentially the same, whether it’s a Disney princess, a generic princess, a peacock, or a cop. All involve tutus, gowns, tight tops, and short skirts. Lots of frills, hot pink, and little plastic high heels. Who wears high heels trick-or-treating?

Simply put, the popular costume options for young girls are unoriginal and highly sexualized—and just steps away from the overtly sexy costumes ideas for teen and adult women. And it’s not just the girl costumes. Many of the “boy” costumes have fake six pack abs and weird fake muscles, which is a whole other kind of problematic when it comes to lessons about body positivity and beauty standards.

So why does it matter? Who cares if your kid’s a princess for one candy-fueled evening? I should mention that my own daughter was totally one of the eight million kids dressed as Queen Elsa last year, replete with a shiny polyester gown. I never said the issue wasn’t complicated.

Look: I’m not saying that girls shouldn’t dress as magical pink tutu-clad fairy princesses. But there should be visible options. Halloween is a kind of imaginative play, and expanding the list of “what girls can be for Halloween” is one small step toward expanding the list of “what girls can be”—period.

Imagine what it would look like if the costumes that showed up on that Google search or in the pages of your local Toys “R” Us and Target catalogs were different—if the top hits were scientists, tigers, pharaohs, pilots, or doctors. Even better, imagine if the costumes were cool historical figures—women who’d done, or are doing, inspiring things. Then Halloween might take on another role entirely. It could be an empowering education tool, a time to teach your daughters (and sons, and fellow parents) about some of the cool heroes you aren’t likely to run across in a Halloween superstore.

When I wrote Rad American Women A-Z, I wanted to expand the list of historical American women that people young and old are familiar with—and to present unexpected faces, names, and ways to be an empowered change maker.

Why not do the same on Halloween—for your kid or for yourself? At a time when GOP candidates struggle to name even one important woman from American history, dressing up as an unsung woman from history is a great opportunity to have fun and educate others at the same time.

While researching Rad American Women, I learned about pilot Bessie Coleman—featured as “Queen” Bessie Coleman in the book—from the Halloween costume of a friend’s two year-old! (That kiddo is now five, and her mom tells me she’s going as ballet dancer Misty Copeland this year.)

These costume choices also highlight the significance of providing a diverse range of role models—and potential costume options—for young people of color.

Of course, while it’s awesome to dress as an inspiring figure from history, there’s a slippery slope when it comes to race, culture, and representation. For white people in particular, it’s crucial to do this responsibly and respectfully. That means no Afro wigs and no altering of skin color. No “Native American costumes,” either. Ever. The long history of white cultural appropriation—especially on Halloween—is no joke, making it a fraught holiday for many. (As Dr. Adrienne Keene of the blog Native Appropriations commented on in a recent episode of Buzzfeed’s Another Round podcast, “For Native folks, the time from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving is just the worst.”)

Pro tip: If you’re worried about whether your costume is offensive or problematic, it probably is. And you should probably change it.

So without further ado, here are some easy, low- or no-budget, and seriously cute costume ideas for your rad kid (or your rad self!). You too can dress your thoroughly indoctrinated offspring up as an inspiring activist, athlete, pilot, dancer, rock star, judge, doctor, or writer! Or—yes, I mean it—as a glitter pony princess fairy, if that’s what she’s going to insist on. There’s always next year.

Angela Davis

A is for ANGELA! Angela Davis is an iconic activist/author/professor/scholar. With her signature Afro and raised fist, Angela makes for a pretty sweet costume. A red or orange turtleneck was a frequent Davis wardrobe item, though any funky 1970s top could work. She sometimes wore glasses, and often rocked hoop earrings. A black leather jacket, à la the Black Panthers, could work as well.

Image for article titled The world has enough Elsas: This Halloween, why not dress up as these real female heroes
Image: Michael Siegel

This is Malik, age four, as Davis. His mom Hindatu says she was trying to get him to do a more militant expression—but Angela loves to laugh and smile too. Malik’s costume consists of a wig and red turtleneck. Super simple, fierce, and of course super cute.

Dolores Huerta

D is for DOLORES! How about legendary labor leader Dolores Huerta? All you need is a sign, some “work clothes”(sweatshirt/denim shirt, jeans, boots), and maybe an UVAS NO button if you’re feeling particularly fancy. And voila! Si se puede! Dolores is 80 years old and still fighting the good fight — I like to think she’d be honored to know that kids are representing her on Halloween.

Image for article titled The world has enough Elsas: This Halloween, why not dress up as these real female heroes
Image: Kate Schatz

This is Sawyer, age two-and-a-half, as Dolores Huerta. Sawyer’s costume is one of her regular adorable outfits plus a sign and button that crafty mom Amanda made.

Kate Bornstein

K is for KATE! Radical transgender author, activist, and advocate Kate Bornstein that is. Kate has fabulous style and is always smiling, so dressing up like her was super fun for this kiddo, Ivy.

Image for article titled The world has enough Elsas: This Halloween, why not dress up as these real female heroes
Image: Kate Schatz



Or maybe you wanna go a little more rock star? This artist has a new book out and it’s about to be the 40th anniversary of her album Horses. That’s why we dedicate the letter P this Halloween to PATTI SMITH. The iconic album cover is insanely easy to recreate —you just need a  white button-down shirt, black suspenders (or black ribbon made to look like suspenders), black pants, messy hair, black jacket slung over shoulder, and a badass facial expression. Long live Patti!

Image for article titled The world has enough Elsas: This Halloween, why not dress up as these real female heroes
Image: Amanda Donoso

Here’s Sawyer again. This time she’s Patti in a white button-down shirt, black ribbon tucked into black leggings, and a black jacket over her shoulder. Also some hairspray.

Sonia Sotomayor

S is for SONIA! If you have a black graduation gown (or last year’s Hermione Granger wizard robe) it’s incredibly easy to magically become… her honor Sonia Sotomayor! Make a cardboard gavel, grab a lace doily, and boom—you’re on the Supreme Court.

Image for article titled The world has enough Elsas: This Halloween, why not dress up as these real female heroes
Image: Kate Schatz

This is Nia Bella, age 12, as Sonia Sotomayor. She’s rather cleverly wearing last year’s Hermione robe, a paper doily, an amazing cardboard gavel made by mom Karya, and a stack of books that look old and somehow law-related.

Zora Neale Hurston

Last but certainly not least: Z is for ZORA. If you wanna go legendary and literary and vintage, I suggest the incomparable Zora Neale Hurston. Zora was a major player during the Harlem Renaissance, so the look is 20s and 30s New York City chic. Zora was wildly talented and seriously stylish, so this is a fun one.

Image for article titled The world has enough Elsas: This Halloween, why not dress up as these real female heroes
Image: Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

This is Zoe, age five, giving us her very best Zora impression. Zoe’s costume is again incredibly simple, consisting of a spot-on  tilted fedora, beads, and of course that hyper-brilliant stare.