What Hazmat Suits, Ray Rice, and the Washington Redskins Have in Common With Human Trafficking

Co-authored by Jaclyn Houston

Leading up to Halloween, there has been a surplus of offensive costumes floating around on the internet -- hazmats suits for Ebola, dressing up like members of ISIS, and making light of domestic violence by dressing up as former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice while holding a doll with a black eye. Not only do these Halloween costumes spark controversy, but they also raise a greater discussion of the representations that are reinforced in the media around particular social issues.

Researchers have explored how specific social groups are represented in the media and they have noted how these representations perpetuate stereotypes and dishonor cultural traditions. College mascots such as the Chief at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are disrespectful to Native American traditions such as the sacredness of headdresses and traditional tribal dances.

In a study titled "Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots," researchers found that high school students who were exposed to common American Indian images (e.g., Chief Wahoo, Pocahontas, Chief Illinwek) had lower self-esteem and lower sense of worth to the community; and college students exposed to these same images identified fewer achievement-oriented goals. The images and portrayals that society offers marginalized populations may have implications for youth development, and they may invoke a larger discussion of the role that these images play.

We related these negative images to our own work on the public perception of human trafficking and the media's depiction of human trafficking survivors. Interviews with advocates working to end human trafficking revealed multiple images, stereotypes, and perceptions in the media that have negatively impacted survivors of human trafficking.

With a great cultural focus on "sex," the media largely focuses on sex trafficking, while overlooking other prevalent forms of trafficking (e.g., labor and debt bondage). Advocates in our study believed that sex trafficking was "sexier" and that media outlets focus on that because "sex sells."

Although attention to sex trafficking sheds light on an important social issue, the question arises as to who benefits from such portrayals and what pieces of the story are missing? Indeed, researchers have criticized the prevalent depictions of human trafficking as they stir up a modern version of the "white slavery" myth, seeking to shock individuals with images of survivors who evoke pity, outrage (i.e., the innocent, virginal youth) and the most viewers. When the media continues to focus on what sells or fails to take into account the potential harmful effects that these images encourage, stereotypes and misperceptions are reinforced instead of counteracted.

For instance, in the media, survivors are often discussed as helpless victims -- perpetuating a paternalistic "savior" mentality -- instead of strong survivors who have survived trauma and abuse. Helpless victim images and offensive Halloween costumes may play into larger cultural scripts of commodification, oppression, and disempowerment.

Although the Chief is no longer the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's mascot and there has been a recent discussion on the offensive racial connotations of the Washington Redskins' name, it seems that some fail to apply the same consideration for Halloween costumes.

To be sure, individuals have a right to choose their Halloween costumes, and that in fact, even if offensive, it may be society's way of "working out" fear through humor and making light of serious issues.

And others may further argue that these costumes are offensive, but that being offended is a reality; however it still doesn't resolve the greater issue of the commodification of serious social issues and the reality that individuals are making light of another human being's real experiences of disease, violence, and terrorism.

Jaclyn Houston is a doctoral student in the department of psychology at DePaul University.