What's wrong with this Caitlyn Jenner Halloween costume?

Story highlights

  • Retailers offering Caitlyn Jenner costumes for Halloween
  • Critics say costumes mock transgender community, promotes transphobia
  • Retailer says it won't pull costume from stores or website

(CNN)Halloween is a long way off but one costume already has emerged as controversial.

Several retailers are offering Caitlyn Jenner Halloween costumes featuring variations of the ensemble worn by the transgender trailblazer for her iconic Vanity Fair cover.
Critics say the costume mocks the transgender community and promotes transphobia by reducing Jenner to a stereotype. An online petition singles out pop-up store Spirit Halloween's version, which includes a white corset and a wig. The petition urges the retailer to stop selling it.
    "Do not turn Caitlyn Jenner into a costume. Your profit will only lead to greater transphobia and marginalization of an already at-risk community," the petition says.
    The retailer has no intention of pulling the costume, which launched online this week and will be available in stores in September, Spirit Halloween spokeswoman Lisa Barr said.
    Spirit Halloween's "Caitlyn Costume"
    "At Spirit Halloween we create a wide range of costumes that are often based on celebrities, public figures, heroes and superheroes. Caitlyn Jenner is all of the above and our Caitlyn-inspired costume reflects just that," Barr said in an email.
    Wholesale Halloween Costumes also offers a "Unisex Call Me Caitlyn Costume" that comes with shorts, wig, padded top and "Call Me Caitlyn" pageant sash. For the time being, the costume will remain on the website, a customer service representative said in an email.
    Though it might be possible in a limited context to don the costume in a tasteful way, that's not likely to happen, transgender advocates say. Here are some reasons they say it's offensive:

    The costume reduces Jenner to a caricature

    Spirit Halloween and WholesaleCostumes.com are known for selling humorous, tongue-in-cheek costumes, from pizza slice to one-night stand. Others costumes, like sexy noble Indian sweetheart or down for the count, might be considered controversial or tasteless.
    WholesaleCostume.com's "Unisex Call Me Caitlyn" lives in the "humorous" section of men's costumes, along with Sock Monkey, red beer pong cup and other costumes meant to "surprise people with your great sense of humor," according to the category description.
    Jenner's inclusion in such company is a clear mockery, said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center.
    "It's really clear that the costume is meant to make fun of Caitlyn and transgender people by putting it under the category of humor," Hayashi said.
    And, for those in the transgender community lacking Jenner's financial security, reality is anything but humorous.
    "We're in a moment of ongoing violence and crisis in the community," he said. "It's a real affront to the community to think you can make fun of transgender people and go to a party dressed like Caitlyn when we're struggling to survive on a daily basis."

    The transgender community is still marginalized

    Transgender visibility in popular culture goes a long way in fostering greater acceptance. But the transgender community still faces disproportionate barriers to employment, education housing and healthcare compared with the general population, according to the National LGBTQ Task Force.
    Transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, which means a household income of less than $10,000, according to the Task Force.
    Consequently, they are especially vulnerable to violence. So far this year, 13 transgender women have been killed because of their gender identity, according to the Task Force, which launched a public education campaign to end anti-transgender violence called #StopTransMurder.
    Jenner may be a celebrity and a reality television star, but she's still part of a marginalized group. As the petition points out, "to make a costume out of a marginalized identity reduces that person and community to a stereotype for privileged people to abuse."

    It trivializes the struggles of the transgender community

    Many in mainstream America still think of gender identity as just a physical transformation, said University at Buffalo professor Jonathan Katz. In reality, it's the product of lifelong alienation from one's true identity.
    The bigger problem with the costume is "it reinforces the superficial misunderstanding that gender identify is premised on a superficial costume change," said Katz, the first full-time American academic to be tenured in gay and lesbian studies.
    "There's a real danger that by making this a Halloween costume that a very serious issue, the sense of complexity and empathy we should be feeling around these issues, is is trivialized."

    It's too soon

    Eventually, it becomes acceptable to make groups of people objects of satire when they have nothing to lose, Katz said.
    For example, there's low risk of causing offense by dressing like a rich banker and burning cash to light cigars,
    But this is a minority that's subjected to continuous physical attacks, one that's still fighting for access to basic rights, Katz said.
    "In a queer friendly context, this could be considered in good taste, where people are wearing the costume claiming solidarity," he said.
    "But that's going to be the distinct minority of cases," he said. "If someone wants to address transgender issues, costuming isn't the way to do it."