Within our current media landscape, heavily populated by Young Adult novels and their inevitable adaptations, there is one YA novel that stands above the others. Not because it's necessarily better, but because it's the mother of them all and has, at this point, spawned a thousand rip offs and copycats. We are talking, evidently, about The Hunger Games.
The 2008 novel by Suzanne Collins (and its 2012 movie adaptation) could actually be blamed for the dystopian obsession in media that has dominated the movie/book industry for the last years. And, whilst dystopia can be a very clever tool for pointing out real problems in our society, it needs to be careful not to oversimplify those problems and therefore, trivialize them.
But what does this have to do with Costume Design? Sometimes, the visual choices taken in this type of media can actually come to reveal even more problems with our social worldview than the creators originally intended.
In this particular case, the very specific choices taken in the costume design managed to shed some unintentional light on how our society represents good an evil and what attributes it associates to each group.
So, today, we will be looking at how The Hunger Games visually codifies villainy and what does that tell us about our society and media.
THE FILMMAKER TOOL: VISUAL SHORTHAND
First and foremost, it needs to be acknowledged that there are a lot of different way in which film can create visual ideas. But, the most widely used, and most efficient, is visual shorthand. Which is the one form of visual coding that we'll be talking about today.
So, let's start with the basics; what is visual shorthand? It's the use of visual cues to convey narrative information without the use of expositional dialogue or text.
For instance, in 1997's Disney's Hercules, our protagonist goes to pray at the temple of Zeus. So, to quickly convey the action of praying, he goes down on his knees and bows his head. The filmmakers chose to depict him in the act of praying through Christian tradition instead of Greek (which would have involved him bringing an ox and slaughtering him on the altar) because most of their audience would be more familiar with Christian dogma and imagery than Ancient Greece's ways of worship. That is visual shorthand. And it's highly effective and, therefore, highly utilized.
Because of that effectiveness, shorthand is also a very recurrent tool in Costume Design, as it helps to quickly identify character traits and character types. For instance, putting glasses on a character is shorthand for marking them as smart. Or putting a leather jacket on a character to mark him as the bad boy.
What shorthand does, in costume design, is to use stylistic elements which have a pre-established implication in our society in order to quickly transmit an idea. It's a simple way of saying complicated things.
The sad truth about it is that, many times, movies end up relying on the use of stereotypes to create that shorthand. Why? Because it's easier to work them in and people recognize them immediately and without an ounce of effort.
The most unfortunate side effect of that use of stereotypes is that, sometimes, they can create damaging associations.
With that in mind, let's have a look at how The Hunger Games portrays its villainous characters.
A SHORT HAND FOR EVIL
Loud fashion, bright colors, outrageous hair and completely out there make up are the stylistic basis for the look in the Capitol, Panem's capital and a hole of luxury, excess and decadence, whose population is depicted as cruel, decadent and superficial.
Men and women with their hair dyed bright pink, blue, or bleached, styled in the most outrageous fashion, tons of make-up caked on their faces and layer on top of layer of brightly colored clothes in flowery patterns... Basically, "they are all dressed as a bunch of Lady Gaga's". Which is probably the best description I can come up. Not very professional, but 100% accurate. And, the truth is that it works. It quickly and effectively captures the excess and decadence of the Capitol and its population. But it's also highly problematic.
All the specifics of this style (bright colors, obsession with fashion, extensive use of makeup, creative use of hairstyling...) are exclusive stereotypical feminine associated traits. And when applied to men, they become stereotypical identifiers of the queer community as well.
So, what the design of the movie is doing is using femininity and queerness and their stereotypical identifiers to imply despotism, cruelty, decadence and superficiality.
The idea that women are vain, cruel, despotic and superficial is not very new. We have texts that go back to Ancient Greece criticizing women for that. And let's not mention the Bible, which is riddled with that type of criticism towards women. So the designers are not inventing anything new here. They are taking a preexisting prejudice and using it to create an "easy" association.
But, as many of you will be pointing out by this point, President Snow is the main villain for a great portion of the story, and he isn't characterized by such overtly queer coded visuals. True, maybe because these are not traditionally thought of as menacing. Despicable, cruel, vain... yes, but never truly menacing. Which further demonstrates the inherent problems with this type of visual coding. You are just furthering the very damaging gender stereotypes that, unfortunately, still circulate in our current society.
Particularly when you take into account that these visual stereotypes are being used to dehumanize these characters, not only to characterize them. Then the problem becomes even more transparent.
The heroes in the grand narrative of The Hunger Games are Katniss and the rest of the population of the poorer districts. For them, the movie created a gritty and "realistic" look, deeply grounded in the image of the American Great Depression and its most destitute sufferers.
The designs consist of simple working clothes in drab, organic colors: jumpsuits, simple pants and T-shirt combos... it's the opposite of fashionable. Everything is directed at highlighting their humbleness and strength in the face of adversity.
On the other hand, the "fighting" suits are heavily inspired in military and athletic gear, in all blacks and grays.
And, whilst I'm all for realistic battle wear for female characters, it is undeniable that the heroes' whole design (both civilian and miliar) is heavily centered around traditionally male traits. Dark and mutted colors, simple style of clothing, military oriented... all of which are used to visually infer the character's heroics.
HOW IS ALL THIS PROBLEMATIC?
In itself, using gender-specific visual cues to characterize your villains or heroes is not problematic per se, it's the juxtaposition between the two of them that raises concerns. It's the use of male associated visuals to create the sense of heroism to contrast the female associated visuals that define the villains which creates the "problematic" part of the equation.
"Problematic" at this point, has become quite a despised word to throw around in the media-related discussions. It makes people uncomfortable. But if it keeps popping out is because it needs to.
At this point, many might be questioning my sanity and telling me that I'm overreacting. But whether you want to see it or not, or feel offended by it or not, it becomes undeniable that many of the visual cues used in the design in this movie are rooted in preconceived stereotypes about gender that do more harm than good.
Why? Because those visual stereotypes are used to create moral associations: the stoic, strong and masculine dressed heroes are honorable and good, standing in stark contrast with the extravagant, loud and feminine/queer dressed villains who are cruel, vain and despotic.
This, of course, is nothing new. Cinema stands on a long tradition of "gay coding" villains through either effeminate behavior or looks (or both). There are many examples of this, but the Disney Animated Movies stand with a vast number of gay coded villains to exemplify this: Scar, Governor Ratcliff, Ursula... but it can also be found in movies such as Rope or Strangers on a train. Apparently, "femininity" is an easy adjective to stick on villains as a mean to define them.
All in all, it's not a new idea. But does that mean that we should continue to use it? Especially when your movie is trying to build a progressive narrative.
And, though we are fairly certain that those implications were completely unintentional, they still exist on the screen. And whilst you can still like something that is problematic, it's always good to be aware of it and know exactly why it is problematic.
As it is, we live in a society where "femininity" is systematically regarded as less than "masculinity", be it displayed by a woman or a man. So, maybe this is not the most fortunate use of visual shorthand, because, even if it's on a subconscious level, it sticks in people's minds, and it can be harmful in the long run.
Also, maybe, in a movie that tries to forward female agency by actually placing a female hero at its center, shouldn't also end up implying that "femininity" is the enemy. Because, in the end, it looks like you're implying that females can only be heroes as long as they look and act like men.
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