Semiotics, Fashion, and ‘The 99%’

21 10 2011

“70% of what people react to [is] how you look; and 20% is about how you sound; and only 10% is what you say.” — Eddie Izzard, Dress to Kill, 1999

As a transvestite stand-up comedian, Eddie Izzard should know a thing or two about the importance of appearance. As humans, our primary method of perception is through sight. We are also a species that seeks meaning in the things we experience. Our ancestors turned to religion to explain the mysteries of the world, and we continue to seek the meanings of our everyday experiences. For us, what we see tells us something because it means something. The signs we see tell us just as much as the words we read or the speech we hear, and in many cases, even more.

Semiotics is the study of signs. Ferdinand de Saussure defines a sign as consisting of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the part of the sign we see (or read, or hear). The letters “m-a-r-m-o-t,” put together, are the signifier “marmot.” The signified is what we understand that signifier to mean. The signifier is “marmot,” and the signified is “medium-sized, furry rodent.” A red octagon on the side of the road is the signifier, its meaning is that cars should stop at that point on the road.

Words and road signs are not the only methods of signification. Everything we see is a sign, we attach meaning to parts of existence we might not even be aware of as we are doing it. Our appearances are ready and apparent signs that others use to evaluate who we are. From our dress to our hairstyles to our posture, we make choices that align us with certain groups of society, which I will refer to as “tribes.”

The tribe in 'Hair' is readily identifiable.

In contemporary American culture, it is perhaps easiest to associate the term “tribe” with fans of specific sports teams. They will paint themselves the team’s colors, they will wear jerseys and other team-license clothing, laden with logos. Each tribe is distinct from other tribes—one wears red, another wears black; one wears foam blocks of cheese on their heads, another holds their hands up with the index and pinky fingers extended to imitate longhorns.

Of course, tribes exist in other venues as well. In the 1960s, men with long hair, flowing clothing and sandals were easily identified as hippies. In the 1990s, men with long, dyed-black hair, flowing black jackets and high leather boots with multiple buckles were easily identified as “Goths.” In assigning those identifications to these individuals, a multitude of other assumptions can be made. As a hippie, we assume that the man from the 1960s listens to The Grateful Dead, smokes marijuana, and enjoys casual sex. As a Goth, we assume that the man from the 1990s listens to The Cure and Nine Inch Nails, drinks red drinks with frilly names like “The Vampire’s Kiss,” and is obsessed with the occult. We attach connotations to these men that go along with our classifications of them: the hippie is lazy, the Goth is apathetic.

While outsiders make generalizations based on appearance, those who choose the appearance are identifying with many of those generalizations already.

The assumptions and connotations we make from our primary sensory intake—sight—dictate how we then understand any other signs we find in the person. Anything they say is colored by our attitude of them as a hippie or Goth or yuppie or hipster or “outdoorsy person” or jock or whatever. Our attitude about any action they might make is seen through the lens of our own classification of them. We might dismiss a political point of the hippie as being to simplistic, idealistic, or liberal. We might presume that the Goth works at Burger King because he’s too lazy or dumb to go to college. Maybe the person we’ve classified as a hippie is making a political point in support of the policies of Richard Nixon. Maybe the Goth has a master’s degree. While our opinions of people can and do change as we get to know them as individuals, the initial impression made by our visual assessment is long-lasting.

When Eddie Izzard first introduces the idea that ”70% of what people react to [is] how you look; and 20% is about how you sound; and only 10% is what you say,” he is talking about the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. If you look like you’re into it, and you sound booming or impressive, it won’t matter if you forget the words. He brings back the idea when pointing out that John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner,” statement would technically be translated to him saying he was a pastry, not a citizen of Berlin. But the audience was supportive. He looked presidential, he was standing at a podium, he sounded passionate and confident—the actual words were of little consequence in the understanding of the meaning.

70% how you look, 20% how you sound, 10% what you say

In order for a person to be a truly successful in getting across their desired point—in transmitting the meaning that they mean to communicate—they must take into account more than just their speaking points. Everything about their appearance is taken into account by their audience in evaluation. In the world of Slam Poetry, the scores are supposedly given for the individual performance. However, the understanding of that poem is colored as much—more—by the poet’s dress, posture, gestures, hairstyle, and cleanliness as it is the spoken words of the poem. When the dress and behavior line up with the purpose of the words, the poet can accurately communicate what she had originally intended.

The protesters involved in Occupy Wall Street come from a large cross-section of society—from many different tribes. Their demographic, like their message, is passionate but not necessarily unified. The very first story from a major news outlet that I heard was a radio interview on NPR. The interviewer was asking questions about the meaning behind the protests of one man who was part of a small band of people dressed as “corporate zombies.” The zombies were described in detail, and the man answered all questions in-character, as a zombie. He made statements like, “Must… get… more… money… Never enough!”

The end result was that the story came across less as hard news or even an informational interview, but as a personal interest piece. “What are these crazy kids up to? Dressing like zombies? How fun!” It seemed like something you’d see at the end of the local news telecast—a waterskiing squirrel or an old lady who taught her dog to bark John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Some see this as deliberate omission or censorship by the “mainstream media” (a term I don’t like to use). The interviewer seems to have deliberately picked one of the more campy groups involved in the protests in order to dismiss them overall as frivolous or without any real substance—it’s just costume games and play-acting.

But I think there’s more to this episode than that. The interviewer, even though the format was radio, wanted something that was a strong visual image. It’s 70% how you look. The zombies caught her eye, the descriptions of the zombies provide a visual to create in the mind of the listener. The zombies had her attention, and subsequently she had mine. Perhaps the person who was interviewed made a mistake in continuing the satire. Once he had our attention, he could have dropped the act and given a more plainspoken explanation. The 70% was completed, and the remaining 30%, the sound and the statement, could have been less theatrical. Of course, I can make this statement from 2,500 miles away and in hindsight. Chances are, I would have approached the interview like the zombie did—wanting my look to line up with my speech and my words.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are operating, arguably successfully, within the 70-20-10 ratio of appearance to sound to speech. The groups are relatively large, peaceful and spreading to towns all across the country. Perhaps the most unified of the visuals for these protests are the photos of people holding hand-made signs explaining why they are part of “The 99%.” In these photos, there is no sound: they are images and words. They are purely visual, capitalizing on the primacy of role of sight communication. While the action that goes with understanding is still to come, they certainly have my attention.




One response

26 10 2011

have not read this yet; so happy to see Eddie Izzard

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