Design by Grace Fiblin

A wig of unknown origin still sits at my apartment’s kitchen table. Face paint bottles sprawl across the counter where two of my housemate’s habitually make coffee. Just moments ago, a hairbrush belonging to a friend of a friend from MSU was thrown in the trash. She left for East Lansing yesterday morning. A sea of maize and blue with splotches of green had settled in over the city for the weekend. I witnessed a fight break out between the aesthetically complimentary colors on Maynard street. Halloweekend has come and gone. Another school year ritual checked off the list.

Many of the drunk classmates I encountered this weekend were quick to call MSU students dumb, though the school ranks 77 across nearly 4000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Perception is slippery.

Take MSU’s mascot. On a historical level, common associations with these “Spartans” are of fierce, disciplined and “brutish” warriors that inspired fear in other Greek states, coming into ideological conflict with the “civilized” and democratic Athens. They supposedly never surrendered. But the reality of these perceptions are much more complicated than movies “300” or “Spartacus” might suggest.

Neither history’s nor Hollywood’s spartans resemble the Michigan State Spartan. For starters, none of these Spartans donned green armor. Rather, the ancient Spartans often wore crimson tunics, perceived to be the most hypermasculine cloak color; it held least resemblance to women’s tunics and reminded enemies of the blood they’d soon shed. It’s a reminder that the associations a society assigns a color can be powerful in shaping narrative.

I’m particularly interested in Sparty, our rival’s mascot’s forest green armor, and how the color affects our relationship to his character. And perhaps how the color green can cast out members of our fictional worlds as well as how this exclusion might root from evolving human relationships with the natural world.

When considering characters and the color green, I initially thought of Mother Earth, in all of her varied cultural iterations. But surprisingly, this connection is not quite so universal. Phrae Mae Thorani, the nature deity of Buddhist mythology, ties much more closely to the blues of water than any shade of green. The Pachamama Festival’s Sunday Parade for Andean nature god Panchamama can be found in a wide array of colors patterned in spirals.

Instead, one of the first nature beings to adopt green consistently into their narrative arc was the Green Man, a character or deity who has dually represented the rebirth that arrives in spring and the perils of nature, bringing about death.

Of European or Southwest Asian pre-Christian origins, interrupted in folktales and carved into buildings, it should be noted that the Green Man wasn’t actually given a known name until 1939, by writer Lady Raglan in “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture.” For centuries, he coasted through much of post-Medieval history unnoticed. Raglan’s intervention and reframing of his historical prominence gave him new life, perhaps more than he ever had, as a countercultural icon.

Much of Raglan’s writing sought to establish the Green Man’s connection with Christian ideology and presented an opportunity to return to a relationship with nature that humans might have lost through industrialization, bemoaning how nature has been outcast from society rather than incorporated as part of it.

A few decades after Raglan’s essay, Dr. Seuss drew The Grinch in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” in black and white. Not until The Grinch was animated would he turn green. He lived alone (with his dog Max) away from town. He grumbled about the joy produced from love and Christmas lights down below him through the darkest days of winter. He frightened the townspeople without ever posing legitimate danger.

From the Green Man’s strong ties with the dangers of nature sprouts green characters that we fear, specifically those envious of “the civilized.” By one perspective, The Grinch is a manifestation of how, during the process of building civilization, society has left nature behind. Mother Earth, the Green Man, Panchamama or Phrae Mae Thorani would also hate manufactured lights and the fossil-fuel burning commodification of a celebration like Christmas. But unlike these deities, the fetishism of modernity manipulates The Grinch to be envious of these comforts rather than genuinely resistant to them.

In similar vein, in 1976, two grumpy green icons, The Wicked Witch of the West and Oscar the Grouch, appeared on “Sesame Street” together. The episode aired only once before being locked away following adverse reactions from parents of the intended audience. Like The Grinch, these characters are misanthropes. They are outcasted from society just as society outcasts nature. Through them, the green of nature consequently associates itself with danger and witchcraft, uncleanliness and disease.

It’s hard to be different or even frightening. It’s not easy being green.

Time and progress march on while we meet Shrek — yet another misunderstood outcast, but this time much more endearing. Any sense of danger about him dissipates as soon as he meets Donkey in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Unlike The Grinch or The Wicked Witch, the illusion of danger is not even worth the time for the writers to suspend. This narrative choice on its own does a hefty weight of work to set up a hilarious series of movies.

Through these outcasts of nature, from The Wicked Witch to The Grinch to Shrek, we see a transition for green characters from villain to anti-hero to unlikely hero. Nature’s reframed as the underdog, assumed to be conquered and denied its life-altering unpredictability.

The same year “Shrek” reached movie theaters, so did “Monsters, Inc.,” where a corporate work environment seemingly removes any association with nature from the character of Mike Wazowski. In an inversion, the writers separate the green monster from other monsters because of a lack of traits that make monsters in this society well regarded: an ability to scare children. The “uncivilized” monsters of previous childhoods have now been rebranded as capitalistic heroes.

So if these monsters and outcasts defined through their proximity to nature are rebranded, then, by extension, perceptions of the natural world must have also shifted. First the villain and then the underdog.

As we attempt to popularize and commodify nature, we make an effort to constrict it to a singular image. To represent such a multifaceted concept as nature through solely the color green or narrative trope is a means for simplification, which can be means for control.

What’s behind these labels that media assigns to something as unwieldy as nature?

I believe the music video for the Outkast song “Hey Ya!” can aid us in unraveling a few answers to this question. Per theme, in the video, André 3000 and a backing band, clad in green and on a stage that’s almost entirely green, sing for a crowd of screaming young women in London. A black and white television show of the performance subtitled with the most 1960s-esque font I’ve seen cuts between shots in color. The Beatles nostalgia shines through. The song details a failing relationship, but the upbeat production and lively performance attempt to mask the pain of this message.

On a second level, the song can be interpreted as André 3000’s frustration over how consumers tend to ignore the content of his music, favoring its catchiness instead. After a brief moment where the music completely cuts out, Andre says, “Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just want to dance.”

For the first and only time, the heartbreak deeply embedded into the track shines through. Nature may be commodified as represented in movies like “Monsters, Inc.,” but in our real life, our broader society neglects to hear its message or needs. As André 3000 sings potently about his failed romantic relationship and failing relationship with his fans, I encourage readers to think about their relationship with nature with a similar sincerity.

In the line before the music cuts out midsong, André 3000 bellows, “So why oh, why oh, why oh, why oh, why oh, are we so in denial when we both know we’re not happy here?” I think of the denial of rising global temperatures and the more frequent hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts that contribute to the global instability of relationships between humanity.

I think of Sparty, whose roots from the forest green of nature, agriculture and Spartan culture tumble together violently. ESPN ranked Sparty far and away the best mascot in the Big Ten, and I’ll admit he’s marketed with an undeniably appealing charisma. He’s no monster — he’s a human, outcast only to the elitist “Athenian” University of Michigan students who judge him by the color of his armor.

But most of André’s line can’t be well heard. So we think none of these things. His pain is drowned out by the rest of the band until the music conveniently cuts off for the words “happy here.” It’s ironic and misinterpreted, leaving André likely in greater strife. By the end of the song, encouraging his listeners to “shake it,” he’s thoroughly given up.

But art like which Outkast produced gives me hope in itself. Now only if the members of Outkast, Big Boi and André 3000, could work out their creative disagreements.

Statement Columnist Nate Sheehan can be reached at