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Slackers, hipsters

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Thursday, Mar 1, 2007

Last week Marisa Meltzer had an essay at Slate about the recent slacker-film renaissance in which she points out the suspicious gender politics:


Slackers are always childlike men, and the objects of their affection always women with their acts together, as if slacking is a uniquely male vocation. Women in these movies are never equals; they may be able to parse the finer points of Josie and the Pussycats, but the issues that really occupy them aren’t pop culture ephemera, but marriage, money, and babies. If male slackers are stuck in a permanent state of adolescence, all deep thoughts and long talks and sleeping in, then women are agents of growing up and getting a grip, two things that could harsh any slacker’s mellow.


This seems indisputable, and it’s not limited to movies about slackers; it applies to most romantic comedies as well. Men need to stop being adult children and assume the mantle of family guy; women are emblems of adult responsiblity and objective correlatives of established success, sort of McMansions with boobs (to adapt Laura Sessions Stapp’s metaphor). Whatever interests a man before he falls in love is shown as having are redefined as provisional surrogates for what he really wants, which is to be a dad and a provider. His passions—the slacker tropes Meltzer lists (conspiracy theories, used bookstores, amateur musicianship)—are revealed to be juvenile hobbies, only compelling enough to seem like a meaningful sacrifice on the altar of wedded bliss. And many men probably enjoy this theme; it celebrates a decision that men actually make—they can see marriage as a sweet surrender, a good-bye to ambitious striving and personal betterment. They want an excuse to give up on the challenges presented by their youthful dreams, and a devoted woman is there to be the scapegoat. Because the man is sacrificing his former pleasures, the woman must compensate by doing all the emotional work in the relationship. He’s done his part just for consenting to be in the relationship at all. Here’s how Meltzer sums up the message of these films: “The new slate of slacker movies is retro not just because they imply that women can’t properly hang with the guys; it’s something far more nefarious and old-fashioned than that. Essentially, they’re saying that women have to be there to care for and motivate a man—and in that responsibility, there’s no room to slack off.” If she does enough of that relationship labor, he might still be able to pursue some of his hobbies and remain an adult child.


Reading this piece reminded me also of how the slacker manqué figure was essentially for the evolution of the hipster as a cultural type—the hipster takes the slacker’s idiosyncratic hobbies, their “different standard of achievement,” Meltzer refers to,  empties them of their specificity and transforms them all into signalling mechanisms, into the currency of cool, and a pseudoachivement of self-importance. Slacker indifference to what the outside world thinks becomes a kind of desperate quest for recognition of how important one is by the measure of the “alternative” value system of youth culture. The slacker ideal of a kind of authentic solipsism and overinvestment in the useless becomes in hipsterdom all too useful as a means of establishing your personal brand, of self-marketing. Thus slacker movies had devoured themselves.


Bonus hipster-hating: Here’s what I wrote before about adult children and the etiology of hipsterdom:


The instinctive revulsion kids feel towards suburbia—its materialism, its intellectual poverty, its cabin-fever cloisteredness, its reactionary politics, its complacency and xenophobia—is inevitably coopted by the same capitalist value system that produced these dreary phenomena to produce hipsterism, a homogenized and codified form of superficial reaction to a stultifying life of empty entitlement. This entitlement derives not merely from economic privilege but from the insistent right to be entertained that suburban kids instictively feel, a product of having watched too much flattering media that announces constantly that it is made just for them and sycophantically pleads for their appproval. They will usually develop apolitical aesthetics (politics is “beneath them” because it will ultimately come around to the source of their entitlement, and their ultimate guilt) preoccupied with surface charms and “universal” themes of self-realization, as though that can occur in a socio-political vacuum. When it does, the hipster is what is produced.


Hipsterism is a quaint, neutered form of rebellion that allows post-teens to fret endlessly about how they come across, worry constantly about their indviduality quotient, preparing them for a successful life as a middle manager or a functionary in one of the glamor industries, where such self-involvement is de rigeur. Hipsters are a plague of locusts on any scene in which young people are trying to figure out new approaches to life; they swarm in when word gets out and obliterate those new approaches, turning neighborhood sidewalks into catwalk preening contests, ushering in trendy bars and restaurants, encouraging the sense that one is perpetually a tourist within the hallowed aura of one’s own lifestyle. They imagine themselves fellow travelers but they are more like a bomb squad, defusing revolutionary potential and reestablishing the status quo motives of the pursuit of fashionable positional goods, status in the form of cultural knowledge, and a vaunted sense of one’s uniqueness that always needs blostering from serially acquired identity goods, the T-shirts and DVDs and such that remind you who you are. Hipsters, though frequently sneered at as ironic, are never actually ironic. Ironic is not synonymous with hyper self-awareness. Irony requires a detatchment, a negative capability, a lofty persepctive. The Wall Street Journal exhibits far more irony than does The Village Voice.


Hipsters are typically nostalgic for childhood, which is thee idyllic time when total self-involvement is not marred by the more pernicious aspects of intense self-consciousness, when no critical consciousness yet exists to question or resist the way the media flatters and seduces. So they pursue the tchotchkes and retro junk of their youth, from the time when they were already consumers against their will but not savvy enough to have an opinion about it. The trauma of discovering you’re already a consumer, that your consciousness was limned by consumerism, is such that it muust be obsessively repeated, and the hipsters bray for those same things they cried for when they were six.


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