Once upon a time, a young girl from an oppressed minority was summoned to the capital. The nation watched as she competed against her peers, and won. She could have done the thing that was expected of her and lived happily ever after. But instead she risked everything—not just her newly won riches and standing, but her life—to stand up for her people. And these people, with her as their heroine and figurehead, rose up violently. We would like to say that then they all lived happily ever after, but the text doesn’t quite permit us that luxury. Still, the war was epic, and the story became beloved, the bitterness of the ending often skipped over. Its legend is considered myth, fairy tale, or fantasy, even though the supernatural is notably absent.
Sound familiar? This is the story of the Book of Esther—and of the Hunger Games, a trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins with an eagerly anticipated movie adaptation coming out March 23. The Hunger Games and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay are set in the future totalitarian nation of Panem, in what used to be America, where America’s reality-television obsession and the growing gap between rich and poor have been taken to their dystopian extreme. Every year a boy and a girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts are sent to compete in the Hunger Games, a broadcast reality TV show in which 24 children fight to the death until only one survives. The annual show is both entertainment and commemoration of the crushing defeat by the Capitol—a city for the nation’s rich and powerful—of an uprising of the districts, decades before. The trilogy’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12, a poor coal-mining district, and her background—half-orphaned and impoverished—is both asset and defect in the competition; on the one hand, she lacks the physical size and training of children from the wealthier districts, and on the other, she is tough and resourceful.
In the Book of Esther, the Jews of Persia are to be put to death, a plan devised by the evil Haman, a minister to the king. But Queen Esther foils Haman’s plan, revealing to the king that she is Jewish. The Jews triumph, and the gallows, built by Haman to hang the Jews, are instead used to hang Haman and his sons, among others. Every year on the 14th of Adar, the holiday of Purim celebrates this victory. The Book of Esther is read aloud twice, in a spoof of the king’s proclamations, on which the story hinges, and of the reverence of the usual Torah and Haftorah reading, and the story is reenacted with drunken celebration, masks, costumes, and pageants. Purim isn’t the only holiday in which we remember a story by reenacting—on Passover, we are taught that each of us has been taken out of Egypt—but it is the only one in which costume and disguise are central to the observance.
And at the heart of the story is Esther becoming Queen Esther. She is introduced as a beautiful young woman, but her edge over the other maidens seems to come after she enters the harem “… to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women. And the maiden pleased him, and she obtained kindness of him; and he speedily gave her her ointments.” It’s no small thing; the cosmetic regimen lasts “twelve months—for so were the days of their anointing accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odors, and with other ointments of the women,” before Esther is presented to the king. She wins the king’s favor with her beauty, and she does not reveal that she and her family are Jewish.
I’ve found myself drawn to this part of the story for a while. For the past several years, I’ve been part of making an elaborate annual Purim show in New York, and part of what interests me is the glimpse of spectacle and artifice in the story itself; that the Esther who is sent before the king is a character whom Hegai has been working on for months and months, just as I might work on a costume for the Esther in our show.
But the Hunger Games trilogy has helped me think more about the place of the makeover as a cultural archetype, and especially about the sort of transformation Esther undergoes as part of a power play. The makeover is a staple of entertainment, most obviously today in reality TV shows like What Not To Wear, but with a long and broad history including everything from My Fair Lady to Cinderella. Putting on an outfit and some makeup at home might be private, slow, and subtle, but the makeover of TV and film is visually striking, dramatic, and fun to watch. The showmanship is made visible, and we get to see the power of costume and spectacle at work. The TV-driven world of the Hunger Games features a series of makeovers for Katniss, masterminded by a designer named Cinna—we might think of him as Panem’s Hegai—and a “prep team” of stylists.
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.