Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Shortstack Lightning

My friend Michele has had desks thrown at her in her former job as a New York City public school teacher, so I trust her when she tells me how a parent might handle the whole deciding-what-to-be-for-Halloween thing with a child.

“You ask, ‘What’s your dream?’” she tells me.


No wonder I was so freakin’ confused when my mother dressed me up as Aunt Jemima when I was in 2nd grade.

Already I had issues surrounding female-ness, hating my stupid Malibu Barbie because she was blond and tan. I pulled her long, shiny hair, ripped her head off and drowned her in the bathroom sink, feeling so bad because she was at least two things I couldn’t be. One of us was the monster, and she didn’t look like she was about to ‘fess up to anything…

So you can imagine how bewildered I was when my mom stuffed a pillow under my nightgown, burnt a cork and rubbed it on my face, and handed me a bottle of maple syrup and a wooden spoon. I loved pancakes, so I definitely identified with Aunt Jemima a lot more than I did with Malibu Barbie. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like standing next to the princesses and ballerinas in my class at Most Holy Trinity. I wanted to be a ballerina or a princess, too, but it looked to me like you had to be small and graceful. Besides, breakfast was my favorite meal and I ate too much anyway, so it made some sense that I would portray an overweight lady who used food to express love. And had an unlimited supply of gooey maple syrup.

A few years later, when I did get to design my own costumes, I mixed flour and water and green food coloring and slapped it all over my face. Pretty!

And yes, I know there’s also the issues of respect and diversity. Can you imagine if some white girl came into school today dressed as Aunt Jemima? But this was the late 70s, in a conservative small town where complacence and consumerism and ignorance were BFFs, and Aunt Jemima was a fictional character you saw on commercials who made everyone feel safe and happy in carbed-out bliss. Do they still even make that brand of syrup now? And what about Mrs. Butterworth?

The thing I’m wondering is where she got the idea in the first place. Maybe that was a common costume when my mom grew up in 1940s Queens? I actually did an image search for “Aunt Jemima Halloween costume,” and check out this reveller from the 2006 West Hollywood Halloween Costume Carnival:

The best part is that last February I finally got to wear my tutu, in a costume I designed for a student performance for my jazz class. It was hot pink and black, accessorized with ripped tights and a belt with silver chains and skulls. It made me really, really, really happy. And dang if tutus and crinolines—for adults, in a retro-80s sort of way—didn’t start showing up in store windows that spring.

Music to take off and put on the mask by


  1. I just laughed all the way through that. Oh Pune, I love these stories. Aunt Jemima totally kicks my 3rd grade Playboy Bunny's ass.

  2. Great costume, wrong time/wrong place. An 8-year-old white Aunt Jemima would be the absolute STAR of the Village parade!

    I'm with Brenna, this whole thing cracked me up!

  3. Conservative small town? Why whatever could you possibly mean?
    Funny, my brother said to me a few years back, we thought we (our family)were normal. We weren't; we were the Munsters.

  4. Pune, fabulous, as always. I was also forced to wear whatever was handed to me by my mother. I went a lot as gypsies, hobos, and witches. (Mad Men had an episode last year called "Gypsies and Hobos," very popular costumes of childhood.) When I finally was able to decide on my own ensembles (maybe when I was 11), I went as a baseball player, popcorn bucket, and a hippie. Then I graduated to high school, and I stopped the ritual. Halloween says a little bit about who you want to be, but much more about how creative you are with the limited budget or sewing kit on hand.

  5. woo-hoo, i gots comments! Thank you so much!! Kick the Bunny's a@@? Alas, all Aunt J. would need to do was sit on her... Elyse, I love your vision of the ultimate tolerant world : ) Kate, better than the Munsters than the Stepford Wives. (The Munsters?! Really?!)Stephanie, the popcorn bucket is a good one! What'd you use for the kernels?