The Reasonable Person’s Guide to Political Correctness on the Occasion of Halloween

For a certain sort of smarty-pants adult Halloween-goer, topical costumes are the only game in town. Forget the uniformed worker or hellish creature standbys—these folks want to design clever or ironic takes on the news and cultural events of the year, often by dressing up as individuals, sometimes even as concepts. (Last year, for example, I went as the “Deep Web” from House of Cards. My brilliance was not widely appreciated.) But there’s a danger in this: Given that certain news stories are still playing out or touch on issues of power, privilege, and basic human decency, your clever costume can all too easily cross the line from funny to offensive. So, as a Halloween treat for you, a coven of Slate staffers and I thought up a list of potentially—or clearly—touchy costumes, and I’m going to help you parse how to have fun without needlessly angering the PC gods. (There will also be a few hard noes—just because souls are free to roam the earth does not mean you’re free to give your own the night off.)

First, a few general rules of thumb. When making fun of a real individual, it’s best to keep your sartorial commentary tightly focused on elements that convey what’s objectionable to you about them. Avoid cheap shots at looks, weight, disability, or anything else that a person cannot help; these traits aren’t really funny, and focusing on them suggests you aren’t the most inventive costume creator. (See our Kim Davis video for a good example of this.) Second, remember that it’s always better to punch up rather than down. Powerful folks doing ill in the world deserve your Halloween mockery; folks who are truly beleaguered or already the butts of stupid, prejudiced jokes do not. Similarly, strive to avoid relying on base group stereotype for your performance: If, for example, the gay person you’d like to be minces about proudly in real life, please do him justice—but don’t add it in otherwise. And lastly, consider whether certain costumes are just too fraught with history or controversy for someone of your particular race, gender, or other category to pull off—in other words, no blackface.

Can I Go As … ?

1. Rachel Dolezal

Jan. 16, 2015 file photo, Rachel Dolezal at EWU in Cheney, Wash.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review via AP.

Yes, but probably only if you are a black person. Members of that community are justified in wanting to joke about Dolezal’s strange adoption of black identity, but other racial groups cannot don the costume without weirdly taking part in Dolezal’s own troubled logic of race as something you choose to “put on.”

2. Syrian refugee

No. This group is in the direst of situations, and there is nothing incisive or redeemable about making light of their tragedy. Don’t be that asshole.

3. Petra Laszlo, the refugee-tripping camerawoman

Petra Laszlo.

Screen shot/Twitter/Stephan Richter

Yes! This person is literally the worst. Feel free to adopt her garb and camera—but please, don’t trip anyone at the costume party without their consent.

4. Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion

Yes. This dude’s creepiness gives the most ghastly ghoul a run for her money. He’s also white and rich enough to go on a gross safari, so there’s no risk here of making fun of the wrong thing. Maybe keep the gruesomeness of your lion prop to a minimum, however.

5. Cecil the Lion

Cecil the lion.
Cecil the lion.

Photo courtesy Andrew Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Unit www.wildcru.org

I guess. I think you probably want to play this one in a melancholy, if-you-don’t-laugh-you-cry sort of way, so don’t go for too much blood or gore. (A poignant arrow in the side is enough.) The power of this costume comes when people ask if you’re the Cowardly Lion and you answer: No, I’m just a normal lion who’s dead because I was tricked into meeting this messed-up dude who gets off on killing majestic creatures. Sigh.

6. A mass shooter

Nah. Given the frequency with which gun-related massacres occur in the United States these days, it’s too likely that your fellow celebrants will mistake you for the real thing—or at the very least, be unable to see gun violence as a joke. There’s just not much to laugh about here.

7. The NRA

Yes. If you care about reasonable gun control in this country, these guys are the monster under your bed. Give them the send-up they deserve by tattooing yourself with the Second Amendment and spreading irrational fear to any gun nuts you encounter.

8. Black Lives Matter

Lol, nope. While I’m very into the idea of being ideas for Halloween, I cannot think of a good way to approach this one—certainly for non-black folks—without stepping in it. Maaaybe you could argue that you’re just a billboard for the cause or, more of a stretch, that you’re echoing the way BLM protestors interrupt events to share their message. But the potential for being seen as making fun of the most vital racial justice movement in decades is strong. You’ve been warned.

9. Josh Duggar

Anna Duggar and Josh Duggar.
Josh Duggar with his wife, Anna.

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

Sure, if you do it carefully. Duggar’s status as supreme hypocrite makes him, like Kim Davis, prime costume fodder; just be sure you don’t drag the victims of his abuse into your look. Indeed, when referencing his failings, I’d focus more on his Ashley Madison scandal than on his teenage molestation crimes. And remember, keep your commentary on the man, not the broader faith or region he comes from.

10. Bill Cosby

Depends. Sometimes, the appropriateness of Halloween costumes depends on the audience who will encounter it. If you are certain that everyone you’ll be interacting with knows that you are against date rape, understand the importance of consent, and are generally a feminist, then you might be fine doing Cosby in a grim sort of way. On the other hand, strangers might read you as endorsing Cosby or making light of the very serious allegations against him. Think hard about your plans before attempting this one.

11. Caitlyn Jenner

Unlikely, but maybe. This costume (which you can buy from certain vendors) has already generated a ton of controversy. Many trans activists decry it outright, saying it encourages man-in-a-dress misunderstandings of trans identity. Meanwhile, Jenner herself has said she doesn’t mind it. I think men should steer clear—it would be almost impossible to do Jenner as “drag” without suggesting that you don’t take her identity as a trans woman seriously. That said, Jenner is also a celebrity, and we dress up like celebrities all the time. Women would seem to me to be safer in this case, drawing on, say, the Vanity Fair cover for inspiration. And again, this one also depends on how you carry yourself in it. If you are simply complimenting Jenner for her stunning and brave looks, go for it. If you are clowning about the realness of her gender identity, please stand down.

12. Pope Francis

Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

God in heaven, yes. As became clear during this year’s visit to the United States, this man has the power to command the attention of Catholics and, inexplicably, heathens alike. Also, his doubletalk about opening up the church while refusing to make any real doctrinal changes is annoying. Mock him, and mock him well.