Binary opposites are a pair of related concepts which are opposite in meaning. Obvious examples include the words “up” and “down”, the contrast between youth and old age, the representation of the hero and villain in narratives, our perception of the difference between the colours “black” and “white”, and the traditional binary of masculinity and femininity.
Each pair of ideas can only really be understood by their relationship to each other. The concept of “bravery” does not really make sense on its own because you need to be aware of its opposite, “cowardice”, for the word to gain its full meaning. Try to define “stupidity” without referring to the opposites “smart” and “intelligent” and you will see what we mean.
The anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, believed binary opposites formed the “basic structure of all human cultures” and “all human ways of thought”. In terms of communication studies, he also said binary pairs were essential to “all human signifying structures”.
Masculinity and Femininity
The first binary opposition we are going to consider is the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity. Look at the representation of gender in the following movie poster for the science-fiction classic, “Forbidden Planet” (1956):
The “amazing” plot is full of tension and intrigue: the starship crew of are sent to investigate why communication with colonists on a distant planet has stopped. They discover two survivors, a powerful robot, ancient alien civilisation and a deadly secret. This classic won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and used a ground-breaking electronic music score, but we want to focus on the binary representation of the human characters.
Look at Leslie Nielsen’s portrayal of Commander John Adams. He is the one holding the ray gun which connotates his combative and active role in the narrative. His body language also encodes his role as Altaira’s protector. Anne Francis’ character is reduced to the damsel in distress who relies on the male protagonist. Of course, her clothes are pink.
This fragility can also be seen in the representation of the character in Robby the Robot’s arms: bare legs and arms, a skin-tight costume which emphasises her figure, red lips, and long hair. She needs rescued.
There is a clear binary being established between the two characters. The man is active, powerful and holding a weapon. The woman is passive, vulnerable and, significantly, being held.
In our introduction to structuralism, we outlined how you could uncover a society’s ideology by analysing the codes and conventions of media texts. Lévi-Strauss would certainly interpret the binary representation of gender in the “Forbidden Planet” poster as a reflection of the binary roles of men and women in society.
Wealth and Class
Class refers to the classification of people according to their social and economic status. “The Hunger Games” series is set in a dystopian future in the totalitarian state of Panem. The ruling elite try to maintain their position of power by forcing two teenagers from each of the twelve districts to fight to the death in an annual television game.
We want to focus on the representation of the Capital compared to the other districts, especially the protagonists’ home in District 12. If you haven’t watched any of the films, this trailer for “Catching Fire” (2013) will give you an idea of the binary opposition:
The grey bleakness of over-crowed districts compared to President Snow’s dining room with its dark mahogany furniture, ornate candles and lights, luxurious carpet, curtains, and rugs. The characters in the districts are dressed in their sad-coloured garments in contrast to the elaborate gold outfit worn Effie Trinket or Caesar Flickerman’s glittery jacket and ludicrous teeth. It is quite clear the audience is being positioned to despise their flamboyant and styles and excess.
The antagonistic relationship between the rich and poor is clear from the image of the protestors burning the flag in front of the riot squad and the white-armoured military police moving in to quell the rebellion. President Snow wants Katniss Evergreen to be “eliminated” and threatens to kill “thousands” of her people and loved ones is does not comply with his demands.
As the graffiti on the wall says, “The odds are never in your favour”.
The Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, believed powerful states used cultural institutions to maintain their authority. He called this concept hegemony. Panem’s brutal hunger games is a fictional example of this imbalance of power.
The relationship between the Capital and the Districts also demonstrates one of the key issues with binary opposition – both concepts are rarely equal.
Post-structuralist thinkers raised several concerns about binary oppositions.
Although the way we categorise the world into binary opposites might seem harmless at first, but their definitions are often shaped by a culture’s ideology so one concept is viewed as superior when compared to the other. According to Jacques Derrida, “one of the two terms governs the other”.
If media texts help to normalise certain views and attitudes, we need to critically assess the representation of binary opposites, especially if there is an imbalance of power or we reduce concepts to stereotypes.
Another criticism of binary opposites is that language is much more ambiguous than the theory suggests. Should we really be dividing society into rich and poor? Is gender binary? Is there no grey area between good and evil?
Binary opposition theory provides an effective framework for analysing the media, but we should be more aware of the harm caused by those representations which reduce the world into such basic structures.