Sunday, November 02, 2008

Pirates, Elvis, and Superman

One day when my mother was in grade school, her teacher told everyone in the class to draw a dog. So she drew a picture of a crying dog in a cage, with footprints leading away from the cage. For this, she was castigated for not following directions. She cited this story on more than one occasion when I was growing up, as part of a larger thesis that adults should not stifle a child's creativity.

So this was likely why she allowed me to go to school one day dressed as a pirate. I clearly remember I was in second grade, which would have made me seven or eight. And like pretty much all boys that age, I thought pirates were cool. I honestly don't think I was trying to get any extra attention or notoriety. It was not a stunt. I just wanted to be a pirate. I'm no longer sure of the exact details of the costume, but I remember a makeshift eye patch, a bandanna, and a cardboard sword being involved.

I'm not sure exactly what kind of a reaction I was expecting, but I remember being surprised by the one that I got. Immediately upon being picked up by the school bus, I was greeted with jeers from the older kids. The ones who were not scornful were nonplussed. "Why are you dressed like that?" one asked, "It's not Halloween." I was equally nonplussed by this question. "It doesn't have to be Halloween for you to dress up," I retorted. And though I stubbornly held to this ideology all day, I don't recall ever again attempting a non-Halloween identity shift.

While many have theorized at length about the cultural need fulfilled by a national dress up day, I have seen less about the reaction afforded those who choose to appropriate the idea for non-sanctioned occasions. One exception would be Chuck Palahniuk's essay "My Life as a Dog," in which the author performs the social experiment of walking around tourist areas in Seattle in a large dog costume, and is subjected to stonings, beatings, and hurled epitaphs. The implicit argument is that if you step outside of a set of prescribed social identities, you will be punished. And though this societal self-policing is on some levels reprehensible, it is also understandable. If people were allowed to whimsically and chameleonically alter their identities willy-nilly, the threat to society would be grave. Every aspect of our society, from our economic laws to the structures of familial relationships, are built upon the assumption that who we were yesterday is who we will be tomorrow.

Yet there are people who are allowed to flaunt this dictum. Obviously, celebrities, particularly entertainers, fall into this category. Actors are paid to constantly re-invent themselves. KISS has probably made just as much money during the Christmas season as they have during Halloween. The cultural role these entertainers serve as obvious: as much as we know we can't engage in theatrical identity posturing, (and as willing as we are to punish those who do) we still want to. Seeing some get away with it allows us to project ourselves onto them.

But then there is still another group that is allowed to break away from the restriction on playing "dress up". They are the impersonators, the people who take on the identity of a famous other. Most famous (or infamous) of these would be the Elvis impersonators. This phenomenon has been the subject of much academic study, with many researchers speculating that there is a whole lot more to it than the motivation of financial gain. According to one Gael Sweeney, the phenomenon...

offers a spectacle of the grotesque, the display of the fetishized Elvis body by impersonators who use a combination of Christian and New Age imagery and language to describe their devotion to The King. 'True' impersonators believe that they are 'chosen' by The King to continue His work and judge themselves and each other by their 'Authenticity' and ability to 'Channel' Elvis's true essence. True impersonators don't 'do Elvis' for monetary gain, but as missionaries to spread the message of The King. Especially interesting are those who do not perform, per se, that is, they don't do an Elvis act, they just 'live Elvis,' dressing as The King and spreading His Word by their example.
Though not as prevalent in pop culture as Elvis impersonators, I've noticed a definite phenomenon in recent years: Superman impersonators. Many applied for a recent opening as the "official town Superman" of Metropolis, Illinois. At that town's "Superman Celebration" this summer, a world record was established for the number of people dressed as Superman in one place. There is a guy who makes his living dressing as Superman and walking down Hollywood Boulevard. NPR recently profiled a different guy who goes out a couple times a week dressed as Superman.

What do Elvis and Superman have in common? As you can see by clicking on their names, there is no shortage of people who theorize that they can serve as "messianic figures". (The other thing they have in common is this guy.)

So it would seem that the only thing that would allow a non-celebrity to be able to dress up with impunity outside of the Halloween holiday would be to adopt a messianic identity. But just as there are rules that govern one's ability to assume an alternate identity outside of the context of a sanctioned festival, the festival itself apparently has boundaries. Consider the case of an 8th grade boy in New Jersey who was sent home from school for adopting a taboo identity, that of a first century Jewish carpenter.

I wonder what his mom was thinking letting him go to school like that.


Blogger Casey said...

Awesome costume Blog. I like pirate costume very much. I am always thinking like to be a pirate. Also I like superman costume. I am crazy about these two costumes.

Happy early Halloween…

7:14 AM  

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