Dressing up is a crucial element of the Purim celebration—as well as a powerful piece of the Hunger Games trilogy of young-adult novels
The stylists are recurring characters in the televised Games, and the opening ceremonies, which include a parade, televised training, and finally beauty pageant-esque interviews with these children who are about to have to kill each other, are part of the cruel entertainment. So, our first instinct, shared with Katniss, about Cinna and the makeover, is that it’s a vapid sugarcoating of the violence of the Games. Yet Cinna quickly emerges as a rare character: a loving, caring, respectful, competent adult in a dystopic YA novel. The costumes he devises are startling in their beauty and innovation—they often feature fire in one form or another—and are carefully designed to elicit certain strategic reactions from the audience. In the second and third books, these costumes become overtly political, but even in the first book, we are starting to see that these costumes are not just a sort of disguise or passing, in which a poor girl looks like a princess, but the seeds of opposition. At these moments in which the Capitol seems to be in total control of the images it broadcasts and the lives it cuts short, Cinna’s costumes actually give Katniss a measure of power, turning her fear into confidence and transforming her in the eyes of the nation into a dignified figure to be reckoned with.
When fashion blogger Michael von Braithwaite writes, “You probably won’t want to dress like a dystopian hero every day, but if you’re feeling down and out, slip on your Katniss look and stare down every person you pass on the sidewalk,” he is being cheeky, but also at some level recapitulating what seems to me to be Cinna’s lesson: that clothes can work on us from the outside in, giving us confidence and letting us feel what it is like to be the character we’re dressed up as. And the series of extraordinary costumes in the Hunger Games trilogy seems to me to give the lie to two assumptions about femininity and power. The first is that the power of feminine beauty is predicated on male attention and desirability. The second is that a girl’s political power is as a symbol of vulnerability and innocence. That is, when girls lie down in front of tanks in the West Bank, or when this country is galvanized watching the NYPD pepper-spray girls at Occupy Wall Street, we see the barbarism of the state in stark contrast. These assumptions that the Hunger Games books upend are the very ones that underpin the story of Esther: Esther is powerful only insofar as she finds favor in the king’s sight (“If I have found favor in thy sight, O king,” she beseeches him, “let my life be given me at my petition”). And, to make her plea to stop the massacre of Persia’s Jews, she does present herself as a personal, feminine symbol of her people’s victimization (“we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed”). Thankfully, some 2,400 years later, and given an additional 1,100 pages or so, a somewhat more nuanced heroine is possible. The Hunger Games books suggest that beauty can, in itself, be a form of resistance and self-possession, and, especially as the trilogy’s ideology becomes more complex in the third book, Katniss is a heroic public figure not because she is blameless, but because she is tough, brave, and well-dressed.
Regardless of the exact nature of the roles of their respective heroines, though, what Purim and the Hunger Games share is an understanding of the value of dressing up. If the Hunger Games trilogy teaches us about the power of costume, Purim teaches us to push at the lines between utopia, dystopia, and reality. When we listen to this story of Esther becoming queen, of the fate of the Jews catapulting from demise and triumph, and when we dress up as kings and queens, we are tracing out the extremes of power in a society, mocking authority, and, for a moment, feeling what it might be like to be the kings and queens we’ll never be. Purim makes me want to believe that our fantasy lives and our outfits matter, that inner transformation is both part of and preparation for larger struggles, that political work can start with the heart and the sewing machine.
The Book of Esther, which chronicles the story of Purim, has special resonance for Jewish communities thriving in Diaspora