05 April 2012

On Looks and Superficiality

By quirkybird - Source: Flickr

It is often assumed that discussions about clothes, style or looks are superficial and frivolous, at best. But when I started thinking about my personal style and looks, it made me ask myself a lot of questions on my cloth consumption and choices, which brought a lot of topics about self esteem, identity construction, consumer behaviour that I found very interesting.

However, I have come across some stuff lately, that make me kind of understand this assumption. While most feminine magazines are nothing more than a big brain-washing advertisement catalogue on what to buy and how to adopt a standardized “fashionable” look, even the pieces about cultural works (films, books, TV shows...) seem to be reducing everything to supercificial matters. It is like there is a whole movement out there that obliterates interesting topics brought up by these works and limit the discussions to superficial looks or by-product related topics.

I have two striking examples that actually shocked me as completely missing the point of the works and limiting discussions to superficial matters. These two examples of are the Mad Men TV series and the Hunger Games books and film.

  • Mad Men
The Mad Men TV series takes place in the US early sixties, just a few years before the huge contestation movement that shook our “western” societies. Through the main characters, different types of women of that time are described: the sexy secretary treated like an object, the carrier woman facing a men’s world, the unhappy housewife who does everything by the book… The series was originally created by a group of people, mostly women, who wanted to describe the society of the early sixties, conservative, rigid and suffocating, and to show a terrible portrait of the feminine condition at that time.

But what has been reflected of this message all over the press (mostly feminine press)? Articles about feminism and the progress we have made since that time? The path there is still left to walk to more equity and freedom? Nope. In fact, articles about Mad Men in feminine press are nothing but a praise of the characters’ looks – dress like the women from Mad Men! As Mona Chollet explains in her book Beauté Fatale, les nouveaux visages de l’aliénation feminine (Fatal Beauty, the new faces of feminine alienation), "the series explores the damage caused by obsession over looks, but the media reception and commercial strategy [of the series] only talked about… looks".

Basically, what she is saying is all the interesting thinking behind the concept of Mad Men has been completely obliterated, and, ironically, one main thing the creators are trying to criticize, how women existed through their looks, is the very thing feminine press puts emphasis on when they write about Mad Men. They urge women to dress like a woman from the sixties, with skirts and high heels and well-groomed hair – so trendy. Where is the fight our mothers put up against it these past decades? Are we regressing to be only interested in the shallowest subject of our looks and seduction instead of actually work, think and free ourselves from this out-dated vision of women?

I am still thinking and researching about all this, so I will leave the Mad Men case at that for now, but I must admit I find this very scary.

  • Hunger Games
If you don’t live in a cavern up in the mountains, you probably have heard about the Hunger Games books, turned into a multimillion-entry blockbuster film this month. The film adaptation itself is not what shocked me.

What I find striking is rather the commercial strategy around it. To place the Hunger Games book trilogy into context, the universe of this dystopian fiction places our future in a world where a small group of shallow idle rich people from a big technologic city abundantly consume, party, eat and drink while the biggest part of the population is parked into industrial Districts, living in poverty and manufacturing all these goods to be wasted by the richest.

As a reader, I saw a message in this dystopian universe where the murder of teenagers is reduced to a fancy TV show, where everyone wears trendy dresses and eccentric looks, completely oblivious to the suffering of the District people. I saw it as a sort of criticism of our own consumerist society, consuming and wasting energy and goods while the biggest part of the world work to create these very goods and starve in poverty. This should make us think about our consumption habits, our society, and our whole economic system.

Source: Brand Channel

But instead, it makes us buy Hunger Games branded stuff. Katniss uses a bow to kill her fellow Games tributes? Well, the sales of bows have increased in sport stores. And people buy Hunger Games branded T-Shirts, pins, bags and underwear (!). Even more ironic, Lionsgate studios created a tumblr about how to be trendy like the Capitol people (yes, these rich and shallow people…). So, wait a minute here, the book is describing a caricature of our consumerist society embodied by the Capitol people, who dye their skins, have cat whiskers surgically implanted and wear ridiculous outfits, and what do we do? We actually start dressing like them???

Even worse, the book describes how ironic and cruel the Capitol society is by interviewing tributes (the young people who are going to die in a TV game arena a few days later), making them wear designer clothes, train for the Games, conduct interviews on stage, as if their fate was nothing but a subject of amusement, and what do we do? We create a fitness programme called “train like a tribute”.

So, not only don’t we understand and discuss the intended message on our society, we actually behave as dumb as the Capitol people do in the book. What does it say about us? Or maybe I am overthinking and there is no such criticism in the Hunger Games, but I still find all this very scary indeed.


  1. I found your blog via 'Of Stranger Sensibilities', it is a really interesting topic, you have raised here. I often too feel that our choice in clothing is a lot deeper than jut shallow and superficial. (which can still be)
    I think that we are in the age of very much post-feminist, in terms of clothing. We, women have somehow forgotten how women had to liberate ourselves from corsets and other restraining clothing items. Instead, alot of the time, we are caught up in the hype of a trend, to have time to question why and what this is portraying, or the underlying messages are. Though, I haven't seen Hungry Games or Mad Men (yeah I live under a rock) I think there is definitely alot of sexist portrayals of woman, and dumbing down marketing.

    Anyway, stop ranting on. great blog btw.

  2. Thank you very much! I find it difficult to actually broach that kind of subject when talking about looks and clothing, due to its superficial image.

    If you like that kind of subject, you might want to check out Mad Men and Hunger Games though, the pieces themselves are really interesting, even if the resulting press coverage is not...

  3. Thank you so much for making me aware of this post; it's well-written and super-interesting! You're all too right: it's absolutely bewildering how "the general public" can take the messages of Mad Men/Hunger Games and pretty much flip it on its head. I don't think you're overthinking it at all.

    1. Thanks! I'm relieved to know that I'm not being paranoid on that matter, and that other people noticed the same things. I have completely stopped watching TV for that very reason, I felt like it was feeding me with pre-tailored thoughts and trying to shape my vision of the world. Maybe I'm overthinking again, but what's sure is that I don't miss TV at all. Thank you for the appreciation note anyway, I enjoy your blog a lot too.

  4. Wow, I just read this post as you linked back to it from a recent one, and I'm impressed. I LOVE Mad Men, if only for shows such as this one I could never give up tv. But it is true that it's hard to talk to people about what I love about it as that brings up topics like the slow pace, the 'spirit of the times', the implied politics and position of women, the irony in the sleek portrayal of the marketing world ... It's just so much easier to relate to people over the show based on the outfits :/. But then it becomes really ironic when Don Draper, who is shown as a real jerk and sort of a sociopath throughout the seasons, becomes one of the most popular figures of our day and age. I feel that irony has something to do with it as well: people like to admire Don Draper ironically, or throw ironic Mad Men parties knowing full well that they wouldn't really wanna live in those times ... But along the way and in the amazing hype, the irony becomes somewhat lost and what remains is a superficial admiration for all the stylistic archetypes.