Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In which the author responds to another advice column

Retrieved from NY Times Social Q's column, on August 8,2013

A Hero's unwelcome

We received a “save the date” card for a fifth birthday party for a boy my daughter knows. It was to be a Superhero Soiree. But shortly before the date, we were uninvited. The party is now just for boys because of its “masculine” theme, and my daughter was invited to a separate party for him just for girls. I don’t want to tell my daughter that she isn’t allowed to attend the real party, but she is going to want to know what happened. Something about this feels wrong. Should I mention it to the mother?

Anonymous, New York

Dear Anonymous,

Allow me to give a different construction to your questions---though you will ultimately understand the purpose of my digression. Your letter gives me license to pursue a topic of personal interest, familiar no doubt to readers of my blog, regarding the nature of all those modern events, set up for the entertainment of children, known as costume parties or masquerades, of “superhero soirees,” or any such kind of spectacular mummeries, whatever be their names. For these are all vile events wherein children are inevitably spurred into Dionysian revelry, with the aid not of libations but an excess of confectionaries, which plunge the poor children into an epileptic sugar orgy. They writhe on the floor and thrash about the room like demented Maenads.   

Yet the greater offense of these costumed parties lies in their being supportive of that vile  and all-powerful social abstraction, which I continue to rail against, that many-headed monster known as consumer culture. For what is the real purpose for the existence of those modern-day popular children’s characters---such as Dora the Explorer, Spiderman, Sponge-Robert Square Pants, and the ever-famous Michael Mouse--- what is their purpose if not simply as means, established by the capitalist business ventures, to compel your children to compel you to buy them merchandise bearing the face of these characters? These toy-generating businesses know very well that if the children, being thus seduced by the shallow glamour and the oafish humor of these personages, if the children's demands be refused by the parents, the children may resort to whatever desperate length to achieve their objective, such as depriving their parents of sleep, destroying household furniture, or simply producing such monstrous wailing as to frighten all the dogs and cats in the neighborhood.

Thus by advising you to avoid all costumed parties for you children I hope to have cut the Gordian knot of your dilemma. There is, however, positive counsel I can offer you, which is to suggest a viable alternative to modern-day costume parties---a children’s party modeled on the Elizabethan masque.

There are indeed many costumes that may be worn for this occasion. It is recommended that girls attend the party dressed as a Virtue, while the mischievous boys may dress as a Vice. And as Virtue always triumphs over Vice, so the boys will learn to emulate the Virtues, whilst the girls will learn to be wary of the Vices. Here are some costumes that may be appropriate for the girls to wear---


The personification of Innocence is a sweet, small young girl, robed in virginal white, and with flowers in her hair. 
from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia
As Innocence, you are to be washing your hands, or applying liquid soap, whenever possible because your ablutions indicate freedom from blemish of any kind, spiritual or physical. You are to carry a palm frond---for that is the symbol of the purity of you received after baptism. You may also carry a stuffed sheep with you, if you are unable to bring a live one, as that, of course, is the symbol of the Great Redeemer, who represents innocence and purity.


The personification of Diligence is a girl dressed in red who holds an hourglass and a spring of thyme. Over her wrist hangs a spur. Beside her, a rooster pecks at the ground. You may bring a toy rooster, if a live one cannot be obtained.

from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia
The hourglass, symbolizing time, represents the industrious person’s wish to do something and finish it.

Here is a list of costumes that may be worn by mischievous boys, who may thereby represent different types of Vices, in contradistinction to the Virtues represented by the girls.


To represent Deceit, the boy ought to wear a cloak decorated with many masks, with goatskin hanging over one shoulder, and a fish net over one arm. In the other arm, the boy ought to carry a fishing rod with a long line and a hook. The panther, by hiding his head and only showing his beautifully spotted back, attracts those who marvel at his appearance, and then springs up and devours them. You may carry a toy panther if a live one cannot be obtained.

from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia
The goat is much beloved by the sargo, a kind of fish, and the clever fisherman, according to Alciatus, covers himself with a goatskin to lure the infatuated fish into the net; thus the deceitful person, through an appearance of innocence or affection, tricks the unwary.


To represent Obstinacy, the boy ought to wear a multicolored sixteenth-century costume, holding a bellows in one hand, a spur over the wrist, and be pointing to his forehead.  

from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia
The varicolored dress refers to the variety of thing youth can get stubborn about. He touches his forehead, for willfulness is a state of the mind, a determination to have one’s way. The spur is a goad, a means of imposing one’s will on others, and the bellows is used to whip up the fire, just as persistence or stubbornness is whipped up by the desire to have one’s way.

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