Monday, 14 August 2017

Limitless clothing choices and you pick that

This post is largely triggered by the film Valerian, which at the time of writing is still in cinemas and I had seen earlier in the week. It is not limited to Valerian though, or a full critique or review of the film[1], it is merely using it as a recent example of a common problem in SciFi.

Clothing. What your characters are wearing. You may think it’s trivial but really it’s not, especially in film and television where the visual image you create should be telling us as much about the story and setting as dialogue and and action sequences. Throughout history our clothing has told a story about how our culture functions, what is important to us, how we work, the economy, the tastes and ethos and of course the morals. To take a non-scifi example think about a period drama set in the early 1920s. Whilst most of the characters are still fairly conservatively dressed a female character that shows up wearing a knee length skirt will stand out. The skirt tells us as much about her character as do her actions and the reactions of supporting cast. Think also how in this period drama, we can instantly tell the difference between a servant, a working class character and an upper class character merely by how they are dressed: the cut and shape of the clothes, the fashions they pick, the fabrics and colours are all visual cues that tell us about the characters and the setting.

So how does that relate to scifi in general and to Valerian in particular? Well there were two areas that it stood out to me and we can tackle them individually. Firstly, gendered uniforms and armour and secondly, how you dress your aliens.

In the future our uniforms are old fashioned

In Valerian, there was a clear difference between the uniforms of male coded and female coded military/police/security personnel: trousers and smart jackets for the men and skirts and tailored jackets for the women. Short skirts at that. Very short. Now one of the nice things about the uniforms was how they varied them for rank, but due to the quite frankly ridiculous lack of female background characters there was no opportunity to compare like with like.

Screencap from Valerian City and of a Thousand Planets. The representation of female personnel is so rubbish this is the only still I could find that showed the uniforms

There are two arguments I anticipate here: that this is a film adapted from a comic and draws its design from the original art; that real female soldiers wear skirts so it’s not an issue. I’ll tackle them separately.

The first argument that it is staying faithful to the comic art can and should be dismissed easily. While the film does take a lot of influence and direction from the comic there are many, many things it has changed and redesigned. This is by no means a faithful and painstaking reproduction of the comic in film. The uniforms are almost entirely created from scratch for the film, as the comic’s chaotic style and strong colour washes mean that they rarely appear clearly or consistently in order to be reproduced. With that amount of creative freedom the only reason to create a starkly gendered uniform is the whims and desires of the creative directors.

The second argument, that real world female soldiers wear skirts is also, I would hope you can agree, just as easy to dismiss. Real world dress uniforms in many armed forces including the UK, the USA and France (the comic was originally French) are indeed often gendered with female personnel being required to wear skirts with their tunics. These skirts or generally knee length or there about. There are also specifically the dress uniforms, those worn on parade and for formal occasions. They are not their everyday uniform even when they are operational on[2] base or in “office jobs”. Even if there was some reason that a scifi film should be copying contemporary real world uniforms, this gender division would be incorrect. But it is a scifi film, a world that yes is a theory of future human civilisation, but it is not actually trying to represent the here and now of western earth life. 
The design of uniforms for men and women has changed considerably throughout the 20th and in to the 21st century, largely removing gender differences and better reflecting the status and roles of women in the military. In Valarian then, the creators have decided that the natural development and progress is that female presenting human cadets and officers should wear mini-skirts. They have an entire fictional universe to play with, they can choose literally anything and they chose miniskirts. The most stereotypically gendered uniform item available. Perhaps it was a deliberate choice to hark back to the comic’s 1960s origins, but if that was the case then they missed the mark entirely by deciding to go with something that is such a tired trope instead of reflecting the exciting visionary appeal of the early comics.

Valerian is definitely not the sole perpetrator of the “traditionally gendered uniforms in scifi” trope, but they are the most recent. There is just no fathomable reason why a future society would choose an archaic dress form for their uniforms that isn’t a decision based in real world sexism and lack of vision.

Now on to the second recurring problem:

Your aliens are dressed according to Western Earth morals

This is an issue that rises again and again in multiple scifi films and television shows. The carefully crafted humanoid alien race is encountered for the first time. They are new and strange their ways different to ours, their understanding of the world and how we live novel and ripe for study. Their men wear trousers and shirts and their women wear dresses. Or for variation, their men wear loin cloths and go bare chested while the women wear complicated bikini like garments that hide their surprisingly human like breasts and nipples.

Still from Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets. Alien landscape, very human modesty
Now I know there is a frustratingly mundane reason for this – we have some ridiculously strict regulations about exactly how much flesh, especially female flesh certain cinema ratings allow. If you want your film to have a 12 Certificate in the UK (suitable for persons aged 12 and over), essential if you want that big summer hit while all the kids are off school, then you need to abide by the regulations and keep female nipples and anything deemed titillating to a minimum and that means bikini tops at the very least. It’s frustrating but it is something that film makers have to keep in mind. It’s barely an excuse though and definitely not for those that are content with a higher certificate or for adult audiences on TV.

And why is it such a flimsy excuse? Because there are so many ways you can deal with that issue without resorting to familiar Western Human Civilisation standards and methods of dress. We can’t deny that fashion in most of the human world, especially those “western” societies is shaped by morals (often religiously derived), norms and prejudice. We have, over centuries decided that women’s breasts should always be covered (though not so that we can’t tell that there are breasts at all), that women do not wear trousers and if they do they must look suitably feminine and that men definitely don’t wear skirts except perhaps for certain “traditional dress” occasions. Of course there is far more to it than that, but they are the very basic rules that we can observe and see in the world around us. Crucially they have come out of our human early culture. It is of course possible that other cultures will develop in that way, but there is no reason for it. If you are truly wanting to create a new, mysterious, intriguing alien culture that is so different to ours, why would you then decide to dress them in a way that adheres to our cultural norms and morals.

In the issue of men having bare chests and women covering their breasts, let’s consider some solutions. Firstly, does your humanoid alien actually have to have breasts which are so human and sexually dimorphic as to risk the wrath of censors. Make them a different shape. Make them all flat chested. Reposition them. Do away with a gender and sex binary in your alien characters and randomise features. Don’t sexualise them with the same features as human breasts.
If for some reason you must have female human shaped breasts on your aliens then do they have to be dressed in the same way as human females? Fine, you have to bend to the will of the certification authority and cover any pesky female flesh but there are other garments available than just bikini tops. Have all your aliens regardless of gender wear the top. Have them wear tunics. Have them loose and draped. Have them incidental, garments that just happen to cover the breast and are as likely found on a male character as on a female or any other gender. Wrap all your aliens in bands of cloth from chest to hips.

Again, in the whole galaxy of human imagination and options available to us in scifi, even if we adhere to the concept of scifi as metaphors for human social issues we should be able to conceptualise our aliens as, well, alien. In an era of advanced CGI, animation and costuming to see Valerian create beautiful and enigmatic aliens[3] with wondrous skin and empathic reactivity and then dress them in fanciful reproductions of bikinis and loin clothes was just sad. It’s an inability to break the bonds with human morals and ideals even when at liberty to be as free and creative as you please. I know that there are a whole host of constraints on a costume designer: what the producer want, what the director wants, what will sell, what the animator likes to draw. My argument isn’t specifically directed at the costume designer but at productions teams as a whole that have an opportunity to create aliens and instead create humans with blue skin.

Aliens don’t need to care if 21st century humans find female breasts too risqué to be seen they don’t even need to know what a human breast looks like. They can be humanoid and have very different genitals and very different attitudes to if they are left covered or not. They can create their wardrobes, fashions and conventions based on their culture, on their society and their world. There is no need to imagine something free, new and exciting and then to bind it in human standards.

When it comes to Valerian, as noted, there were other issues with the film, and indeed other issues with the costume and wardrobe choices. We could talk more about why erotic fashions 500 years in the future are still centred on pseudo-Victorian corsets and 20thCentury show girls or speculate that some people in The City of a Thousand Planets simply have an antique clothing kink and quietly and politely decline from judging. But that won’t stop me raising more than an eyebrow at the dismal and tired state of scifi costuming.

[1] A full critique of the film is deserving though, as it is a film with so much potential and so many problems.
[2] You notice I don't even mention the body armour here. I don't want this post getting too long and that's a topic better covered by BikiniArmourBattleDamage on tumblr.
[3] There were additional problems with the aliens, beautiful as they were, regarding racial coding and the trope of “the noble savage” that I do not feel suitably qualified to talk about

No comments: