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The colour of bad

May 1, 2013

Let me take you on a brief journey through time. Let me take you to the early and mid-eighties, to the time when I was a child. To the time when I received, very gratefully, between 50p and £2 a week pocket money. Money that I would either save – putting it in a piggy bank until I had enough for a Star Wars figure, or spend in Easterns, my local, most wonderful toy shop. What would I buy? Typically one of four things. Either marbles to play with and swap, plastic green soldiers, cowboys and Indians on green metal plinths made by Britains, or plastic knights on said plinths. Why the preamble? Bare with me, I promise it’s relevant.

On getting home and adding my new knights to my collection I would create mighty battles. I would employ cushions for geographical features and pitch one against the other in single combat or raise whole armies to charge, clattering against the other in a mass of chaotic clamour. Sometimes I would construct Lego buildings for my brave warriors, or even take them into the garden to the real field of war and trauma.

One thing was always consistent in my games, the black knights were always bad and the silver knights were always good.

Fast forward to last year when I witnessed my daughter (step) playing with similar knights. She enthusiastically got stuck in, her mounted men moving at dazzling speeds to crash against their foes, her mace-wielding warriors fearlessly and effortlessly toppling whole city walls and ramparts!

When I asked her which were the goodies and which were the baddies she said, “The black ones are good, the silver are bad.” When I pressed her further she said, “Well, they just are – the black are good, the silver are bad.” This little exchanged interested me enough to want to explore the relationship between moral righteousness and colour a little further.

Let me simply outline my ideas so you can make your own mind as to your conclusion.

In 16th century England only the rich wore black garments. Black was a very expensive colour and the amount of dye to successfully make cloth properly black was prohibitive to most people. Beige, taupe, than and other slightly non-descript shades of brown and beige were far more affordable. So, it can be hypothesised that the rich, in a time where the gap between peasant and lord were so vast, may have been disliked and distrusted. Likewise, during the same time frame, the Puritans wore black – figures to fear. So, it is reasonable to suggest that people who ware black were either rich and/or in positions of power and authority.

Let’s go back fleetingly to the 14th century and consider Edward of Woodstockk, Prince of Wales – better known as the Black Prince. The words “Black Prince” conjure up all sorts of images. To the uninitiated he sounds like a figure of fear, a scheming assassin, a mighty warrior with a dark, evil heart. But he was an exceptional leader and warrior and certainly knew how to beat the French. He wore black armour, or at least a black cloak, and cut a dashing figure on the battlefield. So, culturally it seems that in the 14th century, black didn’t seem to have the same negative connotations.

Now, for reasons of taste and decency I shall not mention the obvious, the racist over tones the colour black seems to imbue. Of course, one could put forward a strong argument for the Zulu wars, when black, or at least dark skin was really feared. And of course during the times of slavery when people were taught to fear men of black skin, in order that a runaway slave would be instantly recognised and caught or killed.

So, so far we have black clothes and black skin. What about the popular Western movies of the 50s and 60s. How come it always seems that the outlaw, the renegade, the baddy always has a black cowboy hat? By this stage in our culture are we using the colour black purely as a signifier whose roots have been lost?

“He’s wearing black, I know what he is, he’s the baddy!” this level of simplicity allows the reader or watcher to instantly identify, recognise and react to a character, thereby quickly knowing where he belongs within the plot. But does this reliance on black not stem partly from the trauma of history? Nazi storm troopers and officers of the Reich wore black uniforms. In reality, in footage they were depicted thus, making them, the enemy of freedom instantly recognised as “bad.” Maybe this sense of German imperialism has bled into our folk consciousness and made us fear the colour black.

So, why did I, a boy who was born in 1975 have such a strong sense of black and white when it came to knowing who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? I didn’t have baggage from World War II, or Westerns, or Puritans, or Zulus or even slaves. In fact, the best baddies were in Star Wars and they, the storm troopers wore white for crying out loud! So maybe for me it sprang from the iconic, most baddest baddy I was exposed to as a youngster. Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. A man who strode into shot for the first time, wreathed in smoke and larger than life. He even wore a Saxon style helmet – he was to all intense of purpose a dark knight, a black-clad warrior.

One last thought. Chess the ultimate game of black and white; white always goes first, in essence, white is attacking. Does that make white bad or good the aggressor or the defender? I have no idea!

I am sure if I did some serious research I could come up with some more compelling evidence and ideas, but, when it comes to the six year-olds of today they really don’t have any colour-based baggage, it is simply down to taste. “The blue one is bad, the pink one is good. I know this because pink is my best colour!”

Four final thoughts:

1. As a child, when playing with Lego, Space Lego to be exact. The red Lego astronauts were always the baddies because I thought red was an aggressive colour.
2. When I saw Return Of The Jedi for the first time and noticed that Luke was a Jedi knight and therefore wore black, I was confused because I thought it made him look bad.
3. Ninjas wore black. I thought Ninjas were pretty amazing, I read all those Livingston choose your own adventure books, the ones that started with “Avenger” set on the island of Tranquil Dreams or somewhere like that.
4. My guide dog Oliver is a black Labrador, and I don’t think he means to be evil!

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From → Culture, Society

One Comment
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