Controversial costumes are an issue of imbalanced privilege

Provocative bop costumes amplify the same stereotypes that are used to attack minorities

Lady Margaret Hall

A recent spate of controversies surrounding insensitive costumes worn to college bops has sparked much debate around what is and isn’t appropriate to wear. Just last week, an able-bodied LMH student was reprimanded for dressing up as Steven Hawking for a ‘Dress as your degree’ bop.

Many criticised the lack of sensitivity in the specific prop choices he made, such as his decision to sit in a wheelchair. This criticism seems to insinuate that there exists a more ‘appropriate’ way to dress as Hawking.

So often, particularly in cases such as these, people try to assign ‘levels of appropriateness’ – as though there exists some hierarchy Steven Hawking costumes, within which the perfect getup can be picked out so as to ‘appropriately’ imitate him. Yet doing so overlooks the main issue, the true grievance, of such acts.

This was not an isolated incident as former bops have seen cultural appropriation dressed up as fashion and outfits deliberately chosen to shock. The most infamous of these is the ‘middle America’ costume, worn by a student at a Christ Church bop last year and a Harvey Weinstein costume appearing at an LMH bop.

Costumes are, by nature, like caricatures: they exaggerate and magnify certain aspects of a person or a group such that they become parodies, amplifying and endorsing existing stereotypes.These are the same stereotypes that are used in daily life to denigrate and humiliate the people of that group.

These costumes act as a funhouse mirror, in which people see what their identity represents to most of society, reflected back at them. To don an outfit which reduces whole groups to mere accessories, to spare parts, is audacious and, frankly, entirely unfair. This is especially the case at college bops, where you will likely come into direct contact with individuals who have been, and continue to be, seriously affected by such stereotypes.

Ultimately, the issue is one of imbalanced privilege. When someone is able to assume a particular appearance without ever having faced the struggles that come with it, and use it as a “costume”, they are in a position of power. To use that privilege in this way is not only unfair, it makes light of wider issues. In the case of LMH, it denegrates the struggle those with disabilities frequently face in a society that discounts or ignores them.

Of course, many argue that simply wearing an item of clothing traditionally belonging to a minority group doesn’t constitute mocking it – the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation is undoubtedly blurred.

Parul Sehgal of The New York Times writes, “what cannot be disputed is how profoundly we exist in one another’s imaginations” – we are allured and deeply interested by that which is different from us, constructing fantasies of what it would be like to be entirely unlike ourselves. To shut ourselves off from interacting with one another in this way would be wrong and ultimately counterproductive, but with this interest needs to come real knowledge of and respect for the big picture.  It is not wrong to admire other cultures, it is wrong, however, to cherry pick aspects of it for a party.

Activist Bell Hooks writes, “Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” – people so often use this fascination, this interest in other cultures to feel transgressive or to be provocative and funny, anatomizing it to extract and adopt only the parts deemed desirable, disregarding the rest.

I’m not suggesting that people are always intending to be cruel or provocative, or to commit any sort of great theft of culture, but obliviousness to this wider context is just as hurtful and, at this point, inexcusable; it’s not acceptable, nor is it really fair, to claim ignorance.

Kenan Malik terms appropriation more a “messy interaction” than any sort of a crime, and maybe so – but it’s about time that people learned how interact, to use an oft thrown around word, appropriately.


  1. There should be one night of the year where one can throw political correctness into the rubbish and be as insensitive as one wants, and the Privilege Police who are critiquing your every move can go sit and spin.

  2. Here are some very basic points that people seem to forget, or have never learned in the first place:

    Costumes don’t constitute rigorous arguments in favour of particular positions, nor are costumes really ever intended to express arguments that the wearer actually believes to be valid.
    Offense is entirely taken, not given. If someone is getting offended by costumes (or anything), it is entirely a product of their conditioning and choice. This is not only a fact of language (as words do not have intrinsic meaning/essence), but is true as long as there is some transfer of information where something is interpreted at the receiving end.
    You can’t infer someone’s belief system, knowledge about groups, or intentions, from costumes they wear. People can, and tend to, project their ideas of what the costume-wearers intentions are, onto reality. And these projections are unsupported, hence why they are called projections and not inferences.

    ‘These costumes act as a funhouse mirror, in which people see what their identity represents to most of society, reflected back at them.’
    This is patently invalid. There is no possible way to support the hidden premise that people wear things which are total (or close to being total) representations of their views about a particular group. They have no obligation to. You also cannot infer that the person has a lack of knowledge about said group for the same reasons.

    Are we approaching a point where it is possible that a student can’t imitate one of the greatest physicists of all time whom they admire, at a party in which the theme makes such a costume make sense, because they are concerned that some triggered young adults will project their interpretation of the costume-wearers intentions onto reality, and assume that the student’s wearing of a costume is representative of their belief system and knowledge they have?

    ‘Of course, many argue that simply wearing an item of clothing traditionally belonging to a minority group doesn’t constitute mocking it’
    You don’t say? Of course it doesn’t constitute mocking it, unless you can reasonably infer that the intention of the wearer is to mock, which requires extra information about how the person acts.

    One can quote as many activists as they wish, but when they are a reel of assertions or supposed analogies with no rigorous explanations for their truth, why inclu

  3. In a free society, people should be allowed to don whatever costumes they want. It may be tactless to dress up a black person, or as Stephen Hawking, or as Hitler, but it should not be “unacceptable”, and the people who want to make it unacceptable are trying to bully and cow their fellow citizens into accepting a diminution of their liberties.

    Plus, this constant taking of offence on behalf of others is childish. I am sure Stephen Hawking is much too intelligent to take offence at a student dressing up as him as a prank.


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