THE only saving grace of Asda's Mental Patient Fancy Dress shenanigans was that the outfit didn't come with a sexy counterpart.
I mean, in a society where we have Sexy Crayon costumes for Halloween, Sexy Mental Patient only lightly taxes the imagination.
Earlier this week the supermarket was given a right old rap on the knuckles after advertising the aforementioned fancy dress costume. The costume's designer was plainly privy to an otherwise lost and forgotten chapter of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders because their idea of a "mental patient" was certainly enlivening. Picture someone with a mental disorder so severe they have required restraint by straitjacket, yet who has managed to procure a meat cleaver and whose face is peeling away in a rather alarming fashion. Oh, and has then been doused in blood. The accompanying blurb read: "Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume."
"Whoops," said a spokesman.
Almost immediately following this, Tesco was forced to execute a similar U-turn when it was found to be flogging an orange boilersuit-style Psycho Ward fancy dress kit.
While the obvious question is: who thought it would be a good idea to stock and sell these, a more pertinent question is: who is their target market?
Halloween and the realm of fancy dress as a whole has been subject to intense sexualisation during the past decade or so. You see more bare flesh in the nights pre and post October 31 than you do at the local lido. While sexy costumes have become so pervasive as to barely merit a mention, the proportion of bad taste costumes and bad taste parties has also been on the rise. This Halloween expect to see Jimmy Savile mingling among sexy skeletons.
Fancy dress is a chance to emerge as a more fantastic version of yourself, to show imagination, creativity and wit, but it seems fewer and fewer people are reading this memo. Instead it's used as a chance to push boundaries and thumb a nose at stifling political correctness.
Tesco found itself bobbing in a second pool of hot water, like so many dooking apples, when it was pointed out that shoppers could still view the item Inflatable Gay Best Friend on its website. A solution for modern women living in villages where the only gay is spoken for, the G*y Best Friend (lovely deployment of an asterisk by Tesco there) is "ready to give you fashion advice, tell you if your bum looks big and bitch about everyone who doesn't wear Jimmy Choos".
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay equality body Stonewall, verbally shrugged at the plastic diss. "We can't imagine why any woman would choose to buy an inflatable gay best friend when there are two million of the real thing already available in modern Britain and most of them are much better looking than Tesco's pale imitation," he said.
Humour's a useful tool, both for exploring issues and for diffusing situations. But when people dress up as Osama bin Laden or Jimmy Savile or a cleaver-wielding mental patient their defence is that it's just a laugh.
The problem is that the line between what is and isn't OK has never been more blurred.
The supermarket costumes in themselves are not that bad. Tesco's Psycho Ward is really just a Hannibal Lecter costume. Asda's confection is common to many a B-rated slasher flick. That's OK. The problem is that someone thought to market them by associating them with mental illness. That's not OK.
It's mind-boggling that some people think it's acceptable to dress up as a mental patient or Jimmy Savile or to black up, but at least when the dolts who do this end up in the public eye it gives the rest of us a chance to mull the issues over and reinforce the message that their behaviour and justification for it is not OK.
For that we should thank Asda and Tesco for the chance to discuss the stigma of mental health stigma. It may not be as traditional as a turnip lantern but at least it's more illuminating.
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