Updated: Oct 29, 2020
With reference to two examples, explore how subcultures reflect hegemonic beauty ideals.
Though within a separate category of culture, subcultures exist within cultures versus opposed to them; they are communities based upon shared aspects within a culture that are not considered hegemonic in their visual culture. However, because of the aforementioned placement of subcultures in relation to cultures themselves, the visual nature of subcultures manifest themselves into beauty standards similarly to the way cultural hegemonies exist within interpretations of beauty. The idea of a subcultural hegemony cannot exist because a hegemony implies that a standard, such as the cultural domain of whiteness and heterosexuality, are so dominant that they are considered a natural default setting for all people at birth. Because the definition of a subculture is a community existing in the space of a subcategory within a culture, its existence still as a form of culture alludes to a reductive visual aesthetic, albeit alternative to that of the mainstream, that is not unaffected by larger hegemonies within beauty such as whiteness and heterosexuality. In analyzing the Black body’s interactions within the Goth subculture, hegemonic structures of whiteness and femininity support the visual Goth aesthetic and can be seen in the existence of online communities specifically dedicated to the assertion that Black girls have a place in the community despite reductive beauty standards.
1.1 – Subcultures as a Microcosm of Culture
Subcultures, as connoted in the structure of the compound word, are a subcategory of larger dominant cultures versus a structure posed against dominant culture. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has his own understanding of this through the idea that “Taste classifies and classifies the classifier.” In this context, considering one’s personal preferences in how they present themselves visually as the definition of taste, personal preferences place people in different categories based on this visual performance. These tastes fit into ideas of culture in that they are visual performances categorized as differences within different cultures. Within this referenced work by Bordieu, he discusses the concept of cultural capital, or the idea that being able to possess the knowledge of which visual performances connote which culture is a form of capital, and thus power within Foucauldian discourse about cultures themselves. Subcultures fit inside of the aforementioned relationship of culture and taste in a similar way to how a subheading relates to a heading in an outline; both structures serve the same purpose, which is to pose a theme for the bulleted information that is to follow, however the larger heading dictates the theme of the subheading, which dictates the theme of, again, the bulleted information. In an outline, there are large headings representative of topics, then subheadings of different themes presented that relate to those topics, then subheading of those subheadings categorizing the points that are to be made for each argument using different sources, and so on and so forth; this pattern can go on forever. Culture and subculture operate in a similar way, which can be seen in the following diagram.
– Cultural Ideas of Whiteness: The role of Taste in Subculture
Subculture exists within culture, and according to Bordieu, culture equals taste. Though there are many different cultures, each with their own tastes, they are all affected by a larger type of culture that is so dominant it is perceived as natural for all people, called a hegemony. Essentially, this is where collective knowledge manifests; it’s the destination of colloquial generalizations. So, even though cultures are dominant over subcultures, hegemonic ideals are so dominant over everything that they are perceived as natural. Using the case study of Blacks in the Goth subculture, White by Richard Dyer, a professor of Film Studies at King’s College in London, makes a well-researched case of whiteness, or the raced metaphorical idea of purity, as functioning as a hegemony. Dyer references whiteness as this constant process towards a state of being which treats race as a verb rather than a noun. Thusly, as a functioning part of hegemony, which operates as a sort of omniculture due to its influence as being so prominent it is considered natural, whiteness holds the same relationship to taste as culture does. Unlike Reaganomics, the pervasiveness of whiteness does, in fact trickle down into all facets of culture, including subculture and what visual performances are associated with subcultural tastes. In reference to Bordieu’s idea of cultural capital, there is culture as synonymous with taste, yet there is no subcategory of taste; there is taste, and there is lack thereof. Subcultures possess their own visual cultures, however, that become synonymous to the subculture itself. I explain this as tackiness, because, in the case study of the Goth subculture, the visual culture is clearly posed against dominant visual culture and, literally, the color aspect of whiteness through the prominence of the color black in wardrobe. However, it can be argued that this tackiness, though existing in opposition to dominant ideas of taste, still exists within taste because of both the pervasiveness of hegemonic whiteness and the fact that without the existence of taste, tackiness wouldn’t have any visual culture to oppose and wouldn’t exist as well. Adding onto Figure 1’s relationship of culture and subculture, Figure 2 connects culture and subculture to taste, and additionally tackiness. Hegemonies are placed axiomatically above all cultures and because of this, the idea of a subcultural hegemony cannot exist as it is an oxymoron. However, this does not mean that cultural hegemonies cannot be expressed through subcultural interpretations of taste. Subculture’s brand of taste as tackiness, for clarification, is considered as taste for those within the subculture though, in comparison to dominant cultures and hegemony, subcultural taste would be considered tackiness.
– Hegemonies in Subcultures: Dominant Goth Visual Culture (as reflection of cultural ideas of whiteness)
As cultural hegemony influences both culture and subculture, the interaction of Black people within the Goth subculture points out the effects of hegemonic whiteness as an aesthetic ironically based around the color black. Again referencing Dyer, “white is both a colour and, at once, not a colour and the sign of that which is colourless because it cannot be seen: the soul, the mind, and also emptiness, non-existence and death, all of which form a part of what makes white people socially white.”5 Goth subculture is predicated on the macabre, explained by Agnes Jasper, a cultural anthropologist, in how “Gothic culture has always been dark in music, symbolism, fashion and attributes like sculls, dead flowers, macabre paintings, et cetera.” With this understanding paired with the context of whiteness, Goths oxymoronically embody the omnipresence of whiteness through their love of darkness. There is even an aspect to the Goth subculture that mimics the naturalness associated with hegemony. Jasper tells how “Being a goth is something one simply cannot resist. It is just there, natural, even genetic (!), and authentic…gothic insiders do what traditional ethnographers have done when they describes non-western cultures as ‘natural’, homogenous, and timeless, authentic. In this sense, it is only understandable that they find themselves normal, or ‘ordinary’.”7 Effectively, Goth as a holistic subculture functions the same way a culture through the limits of a visual culture. Goth visual culture can be described as autonomous by author Paul Hodkinson, who distinguishes the roles of cultural and subcultural systems in the sense that Goth visual culture has created its own independent network of media and commerce outside that of the dominant culture, though mimicking the framework of the dominant culture.
– GAGNÉ Gothic/Lolita Negative Identity Practices (as enforcement of whiteness)
This feeds into the idea of subcultural tastes, formerly labeled tackiness, as distinguishing the authentic Goths from the “normies.” Like there are cultural tastes whose antitheses are subcultural tackiness, there is a “right way” to be Goth. Jasper describes this as a search for authenticity within the Goth subculture, what is considered “authentic” to be perceived as ‘naturally Goth.’ The Gothic insiders in Jasper’s ethnography describe Goth as an attitude –even if you don’t perform Goth visually you can be naturally Gothic in embodying the dark attitude associated with the dark look.7 These Goths are essentially so authentically Goth that they don’t even have to perform their Gothness in dress; it just exudes from them. This mundane search for authenticity is described by Isaac Gagné, an anthropologist specialized in Japanese subculture, as a form of “negative identity practices.” In an ethnography of Gothic/Lolita subculture in Japan, Gagné observed how Gothic/Lolita’s desire to achieve the perfect look led to violence within the online community when it came down to who was the closest to said “perfect look.” The main distinction is made between Gothic/Lolitas and those who practice kosupure, or Japanese costume play. Gagné explains how “Gothic/Lolita’s fashion, language, and entire mode of being is thus viewed by themselves as a ‘figure of identity,’ whereas the entire practice of kosupure is essentially a superficial, transparent, and vulgar mimicry of appearances. Unlike Gothic/Lolitas who strive to perfect an embodiment of a princess-like self, kosupure fans could be seen as having no ‘unique’ self but being merely an undifferentiated individual on which a costume clumsily hangs.”10 Within the Gothic/Lolita subculture, performing in line to the visual culture is seen as crucial to the aspect of forming a subcultural identity through a look. On a larger scale, however, subcultural taste is considered tacky in understanding the cultural norms of taste, so distinguishing between these forms of tacky is futile.
- Black Goth Visual Culture (as a Subculture within a Subculture)
The Black raced body within the Goth subculture operates as a mode of viewing the ways in which the Gothic subculture enforces hegemonic ideals of whiteness through its lack of representation in the community. In analyzing three different Facebook pages dedicated to Black Goth girls, Chocolate Lolita, Black Goth Girls Rock, and the professional celebrity page of Ariyana Carr, a famous Black Gothic/Lolita, an overwhelming amount of the posts are of white Goth bodies. Specifically within the Lolita community, cosmetic regimens are based around a white, Western ideal of beauty, using makeup to “…create a more youthful appearance, such as large eyes and blemish-free skin, to the point of recreating the facial texture of a porcelain doll…they contend that the Lolita aesthetic radiates an anachronistic kind of empowerment.” Gothic/Lolitas are describes as finding solace in the way they can construct a youthful, white, pure self through their makeup, which is considered the standard for the whole of the community. Moving back toward hegemonic ideals of whiteness, Dyer’s understanding of racism as being constructed outwardly on the body as a process can be located as hiding within cultural tastes, and thus these “authentic” norms within subcultural tackiness. Black Goth girls are consistently put in places to prove their Gothness, because their culturally raced bodies have to perform a subculturally Gothed body to be considered authentic. Artist and Goth fashion designer Bianca Xunise explains her personal experience within the Goth community by pointing how how “Whiteness and thinness and all these other things are valued in the goth community, and that can make you feel very excluded because I had a black body and skin,” she says. “I’m not a thin, pale white woman. I’m a plus-sized black woman, but I thought, ‘I’m going to create my own space.’” In creating that space, Xunise creates another subsection of the outline of culture; a subsection for, specifically, Black Goth girls which can bee seen in Figure 5. Black Goth girls are not represented in Goth subculture because Black girls are not represented in dominant culture, because of hegemonic standards of whiteness. Even in justifying a placement for Black girls within the Goth subculture, the issue of how hegemony’s omnipresence penetrates all aspects of culture and visual performance is not addressed, it is excused.
Hegemony is defined as something so normalized that it is considered natural, meaning it can be detected easiest when we are able to perceive something as unnatural. In the case of Goth, the visual culture is so opposed to what is considered dominant that it can be easily seen at complete odds to it. Though the visual cultures exist on opposite sides of the spectrum, the system of valuing an ability to perform a certain belonging to a subculture works the same way as it does for a culture. Subcultures are not isolated spatiotemporal spaces protected by cultural understandings of race, because subcultures are a microcosm of culture, not an alternate version. In the way bodies are raced as a process, their visual culture acts as a subculture because of the hegemonic understanding that a natural, and therefore normal body is a white heteronormative body. Within Goth, this subculture is seen as most apparent in a complex relationship of the Black/White binary, and how Goth visual culture is able to instill the metaphor of a white body through a visual culture based on the color black, that additionally omits culturally raced Black bodies. In the case of culture, this can be explained through concepts like Eugenics, which saw the Aryan race as pure, so all people should try and strive for that genetic purity or whiteness. With the Goth subculture, the search is for authenticity, which is either defined by being able to perform an innate Gothness –the idea that one can be so Goth that they don’t conform to Goth visual culture – or being able to perform the Goth visual culture so well that your authenticity, or purity, cannot be questioned. The role of Black girls in the Goth subculture specifically points out the deeply ingrained perception of whiteness as naturalness, and authenticity as purity.
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