Kristen Cochrane examines the vaporwave aesthetics of new film, The Neon Demon, and makes an argument for why the color pink can be transgressive.
~!~Major spoilers ahead~!~
With great anticipation among art cinema worshippers, Nicolas Winding Refn’s (totally psycho) logical horror film The Neon Demon has finally hit the regular people cinemas. The cautionary tale brings us into the cutthroat world of modelling in Los Angeles, where hitting age twenty-one means that you’re ancient and irrelevant. So what do the models in The Neon Demon do to salvage their own delicate careers? They literally eat you, and they look beautiful doing it. While you may find the film exploitative in its representation of, well, gendered exploitation, the film’s visual accessories are worth unpacking. By visual accessories, I mean its heavy use of what would be called vaporwave, an aesthetic and visual spirit that emerged in the early 2010s, simultaneously winking at and celebrating the technological sublime ushered in by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates’ operating systems, synthesizers, and classic 80s TV series Miami Vice, among other iconography.
Purists will say that vaporwave and the renaissance of 80s deco is over, but it’s arguably reached a more familiar level. We’re seeing it more and more outside of Tumblr and marginal social media accounts, and its non-ironic visual formations are still around, making it a complicated aesthetic to use ironically or as a visual design strategy that is “retro.” Basically, how can it be ironic retro if it’s still sincerely being used in your local laundromat? MTV even tried to co-opt the vaporwave aesthetic during the historic 2015 VMAs that Miley Cyrus hosted. However, MTV was roasted for it—tbh they came across like parents trying to do the Whip and the Nae Nae.
The predatory models of The Neon Demon gaze upon each other through mirrors and cameras.
I was recently reminded of the sudden pervasiveness of 80s and 90s design, even in its micro manifestations, by the rave bracelets my sister collected on her wrist from her weekend at EDC, the Vegas-based holy grail of EDM festivals right now. Or what about the walking art project known as Canadian musician Grimes, who has been on a serious come up since her 2010 debut? This iconography is what informs The Neon Demon’s visual oeuvre, with its illuminati-like multi-triangle formation that re-appears throughout the film, its 80s synthesizer-laden musical score, its pink, satin bedsheets, and palm plants in a garishly wallpapered motel room in Pasadena, California.
“Beautiful Laundromat” by American cyberfeminist reality artist Signe Pierce, a photograph that captures one of the many incarnations of the vaporwave aesthetic.
The pacing of The Neon Demon is slow, but purposely so. Cinema has regrettably become one of those practices where it is expected that the film will do the thinking for us. If you take someone who only goes to movies to recognize a certain narrative logic (where the plot is “clear” and follows its genre’s traditional structure) to an art house film with what has been called the “durational strategy,” they often think the movie they’re watching is pure garbage. The durational strategy is meant to have the viewer digest the sequences and give them space to reflect upon the film (if you have seen the art film Wavelength, that is the prototypical example of the durational strategy taken to a torturous degree). For many, films are just collaged paintings—the set design (a.k.a. mise-en-scène) and the colors are meant to evoke the same feelings you would get at a museum, looking at a masterwork. But remember I’m talking about art films, not 21 Jump Street (an excellent film, though not of the art film variety). And that is what Nicolas Winding Refn is doing in The Neon Demon—he’s giving us space to think—but with a strategically feminist twist. He wants us to think about the film’s colors and hues, and how they represent movements of women working in a world that sometimes feels like it’s trying to eat us alive (like the cannibalistic models of The Neon Demon). Here’s what I mean by that:
Jesse (Elle Fanning) poses in a classically vaporwavy mise-en-scène in The Neon Demon.
Cyberfeminist reality artist Signe Pierce has claimed that art, design, colors, and architecture with pastel-hued pinks and other “feminine” colors are thus “female” objects. Pierce even refers to pink buildings, cars, and boats as “she.” And if we are to look at inanimate objects and design this way, The Neon Demon is full of femininity. Of course, this claim of femininity falls under the belief and practice of strategic essentialism, a term coined by postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, where ethnic or minority groups identify as a particular identity in order to create solidarity. When we re-claim “feminine” colors, like pink or soft pastels, it is a way of engaging in strategic essentialism, by claiming colors and hues that have been viewed as inferior, weak, or even embarrassing.
Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde (2001) is a quintessential example of using strategic essentialism to address notions of power in aesthetics and design. When Elle moves to Boston to chase the Ultimate Dbag Warner, her Harvard peers doubt her, mocking her uptalk and making fun of her Barbie pink aesthetics (which I would call Barbie Feminism). It’s Barbie Feminism because Elle embodies agency and autonomy without eschewing her love of the color pink. She uses pink in a transgressive way—she’s engaging in semantic reclamation, where minoritarian or marginalized identities take back something that has been deemed inferior.
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) looking nervous but ultimately wins her first case—a murder trial!—in Legally Blonde (2001)
But to some, it’s totally understandable that The Neon Demon could be seen as Laura Mulvey’s nightmare, its (recurring) male gaze peering the lithe bodies of the (thin) models who adorn the neon decor… or is the decor adorning them?
This is why I’m skeptical when people say we are victims of the male gaze. Because aren’t we going to take that victimhood back and reclaim our bodies and subjectivites? That’s what The Neon Demon is commenting on in various ways. For one, the film passes the Bechdel Test (i.e. the feminist film measure—to pass the Bechdel Test, two female characters in a film must talk to each other about something other than men… and a surprising amount of films fail). Also, the film is fundamentally mocking the extreme measures that the modelling industry imposes, and we still aren’t sure what the neon demon is. Is it the Sisyphean task of never being good enough for the arbitrarily chosen standards of beauty that change through time and space? Hard to say, but that’s the modus operandi of a film like this, one that has obvious nods to the mysterious symbolism that turned Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and David Lynch into icons
Sarah, played by real-life Australian model Abbey Lee Kershaw, aggressively takes Jesse’s (Elle Fanning) injured hand and tries to drink Elle’s blood in The Neon Demon.
Petra Collins and her contemporaries have used pink hues and “feminine” objects as strategic essentialism. Now, Petra Collins is one of the most in-demand photographers in the world. This matters because she has a significantly female, teenage audience. With her sister Anna, Petra talks about periods, mental health, and body issues like pimples, which she takes pictures of and posts on Instagram. People like the Collins sisters, Signe Pierce, and artists like Molly Soda (among many others in our current cultural moment), are using these colors to reclaim aesthetics that were deemed, well, girly. And we all know what girly has meant.
So is The Neon Demon a culturally significant film, despite its privileging of white, skinny bodies? I would venture yes. Should it have had more people of color and nodels? Also yes. But the film is making fun of the problems we are encountering right now, by highlighting aesthetics and design through its mise-en-scène that has previously been relegated to “female” films like Legally Blonde or Romy and Michelle’s High School reunion, and it’s about time a straight white man like Nicolas Winding Refn joins the winning team.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, about feminist memes, HERE :)