Hipster bashing and the problems with particular forms of hipsterism are distinct along gender and racial lines. Being anti-hipster is now a competitive sport that is sometimes very funny. Examples include Trap a Hipster, Kill a Hipster, and this Australian song, “Northcote (So Hungover)“. Yet there is something specifically anti-feminine in some hipster bashing. Similarly when it comes to blackness and the critique of white hipsters the critique should be anti-racist instead of uncritically anti-hipster. For when another group, i.e. men and/or white people, with respective gender and racial power over their counterparts satirise, ridicule or take on these cultural acts with disregard for what they mean to the originators, then an anti-hipster response has the capacity to be racist and sexist.
What is a hipster?
There are a few intertwining and opposing definitions of the hipster. One definition is that hipsters are people who discover what will become more mainstream years or months before everyone else. Thus, a hipster is a kind of futurologist of cultural trends. This type of hipster is relatively harmless, like a hippie. More specifically a hipster is part of a counter culture so they partake in activities that the mainstream does not embrace.
Rob Horning at PopMatters has a different take:
“One must start with the premise that the hipster is defined by a lack of authenticity, by a sense of lateness to the scene, or by the fact that his arrival fashions the scene — transforms people who are doing their thing into a self-conscious scene, something others can scrutinize and exploit. The hipster is that person who shows up and seems to ruin things — then you can begin to ask why this person exists, whether he is inevitable, whether he can be stopped, and what it will take. The hipster’s presence specifically forms the illusion of inside and outside, and the idea that others will pay for the privilege of being shown through the gate.”
In this definition, a hipster is the insincere gatekeeper to what was once an event or an act or action where people simply got together, to what is now a cultural ‘scene’. This hipster is less a trendsetter but more a vampire of what already exists in less formalised places and creates a hierarchy of who is in and who is out.
The absence of authenticity is also fundamental to defining a hipster. In a Fairfax article on anti-hipsterism, Samantha Selinger-Morris interviewed Alex Vitlin. Vitlin opined: “It’s sort of maybe intimidating that if someone takes one of your interests that you care about passionately and doesn’t apply the same sort of sincerity [to it], maybe that’s something to be offended about…”
Sincerity and its close cousin of authenticity are also difficult concepts with which to grapple, yet are often key to thinking around identity and the self. Our interests draw us to sub-cultures and also partially make up identity and the self. Sincerity is the expression of one’s true feelings and thoughts. Authenticity is the capacity of the conscious self to withstand significant pressures to be or become what is different from the self.
Sub-cultures can involve the group’s own language, shared fashion sense, theories, art and craft endeavours, excursions, food, and so on. Sincerity can be measured in one’s commitment and when it comes to sub-cultures bound by an active interest, partaking in the activity and sometimes organising it instead of just passively hanging out with your mates. More specifically sincerity may be measured in a wilful engagement, through mutuality and reciprocity, and a switching off from a superficial coolness or detached irony.
Hipsters are often described as apathetic and non-conformist. Both of these seemingly contradict sincerity/authenticity and being the self-appointed gatekeeper of a culture respectively. For example, those who sincerely engage in a sub-culture do not seem to be apathetic. It takes effort to engage. And a hipster who becomes a gatekeeper could be said to be non-conformist and deviating away from the mainstream culture. However both points can be contradicted with historical and more recent writing on hipsterdom.
Hipsters then and now
Selinger-Morris directs us to Norman Mailer’s writing on the hipster. Apathy and hipsterdom is said to originate in Norman Mailer’s The White Negro (which referenced Caroline Bird’s 1957 definition of a hipster). Hipsters i.e. disaffected white people, were argued to latch on to black American culture because they felt antipathy towards their own culture. Black American culture provided a way out from the reality of how in the aftermath of World War II, individualism and dissent were suppressed. This suppression was dangerous for the white person and for those who did not want to conform thus white life was mundane. As a response, white hipsters engaged in black culture and adopted black language in attempts to be Hip and develop an identity. However while white Hipsters considered black American culture as worthy of appropriation, Mailer still characterised black American culture as ‘primitive’.
Hipsters are now perceived as white, individualistic and apathetic with the history of whites appropriating black American culture being largely forgotten. Fifty years later after Mailer, Tabula Rasae notes that besides whiteness being synonymous with hipsterdom, hipsters themselves are usually politically progressive. However as Tabula Rasae also observes:
“The majority of indie-music songs, too, are white-centric, and focus on issues that lay outside the realm of societal disadvantages; where the majority of indie music focuses on issues of relationships, emotions, and rebellion, rap and hip-hop music focus on issues of oppression, race, socio-economics, and urban lifestyles. These, again, are not qualities intrinsic to any given race, but products of the society in which we live, one in which whites have power and certain luxuries that the majority of people of color don’t have.”
Here there is a distinct difference between the themes of white indie music and of hip-hop music; hip-hop is more likely to cover political issues which affect the everyday lives of non-whites in certain spaces. In addition to Rasae’s observations, Dr. Katina Rae Stapleton has written about the political action-orientated nature of hip-hop whereby hip-hop artists have created influential political movements partially through their music. Now, one could argue that as part of Tabula Rasae’s and Mailer’s observations, hipsterism is now more likely to be perceived as part of a distinctly white music culture — i.e. ‘indie music’ — INSTEAD of what white people appropriated from black folks in the face of the latter’s oppression in Mailer’s time. If this is true, then racist hipsterism in music is not possible in 2011. However with the strong critique and praise of hipster hop star Kreayshawn, this argument about the impossibility of hipster racism in 2011 proves to be false.
Race and anti-hipsterism / Hipster bashing and femininity
Race and anti-hipsterism
Kreayshawn is a white female rapper from Oakland, U.S.A who raps with the White Girl Mob, also consisting of V-Nasty and Lil’ Debbie. Although Kreayshawn has predecessors, such as Icy Blu, her white femininity is still subject to intense commentary. Her newfound fame also focuses on her use of the word ‘nigga’ (along with V-Nasty), her anti-designer fashion song “Gucci, Gucci”, which attracted over 9,000,000 YouTube hits (and which some music critics mistake for working-class politics), and for the support of black, male artists who also appear in her videos. Moreover Kreayshawn is a hipster who brings the more mainstream hip-hop to hipster culture.
Kreayshawn also attracts attention because of the anomaly of a white woman rapping to hip-hop beats. She, like other white rappers such as Die Antwoord, is able to gain an amount of success and attention because of her whiteness, unlike black folks whose hip-hop talent is supposedly ‘natural’. There is also a sex and race dimension which impacts on black female rappers. As Crunk Feminist’s moyazb pointed out:
“Her appropriative swag is yet another reminder… of how little black women are valued in our society, even in genres we co-create. In a moment where cool is synonymous with swag, a particular manifestation of black masculinity, Kreayshawn’s dismissiveness and denigration of black women animate her success…. Replete with Indian medallion, black girl hair cut and color, black men flank her on all sides, lending their cool and legitimacy as she talks stealing bitches, smoking blunts, and realness. Catchy with no substance and ample “I’m so different from them other
Kreayshawn is a hipster because of her ironic posing, her look, and her appropriation of black masculinity with her swag. moyazb’s critique and Horning’s definition of a hipster complement each other. Kreayshaw’s appropriation of black masculinity comes from being a latecomer to the already thriving Oakland hip-hop scene. Her appearance creates a standard through her young, white femininity, which is marketable yet draws attention from more authentic and much more talented MCs. Moreover she has black male artists supporting her and appearing in her videos, which gives her enough street cred.
Kreayshawn uses her white feminine difference in particular ways. She is different to all the other girls in their designer gear; she shops at second hand stores, even though she and her White Girl Mob are distinctly stylised. This also makes her different to black male mainstream hip-hop stars like Kanye, who love their designer gear and supposedly walk around flashing money. I am also reminded of bell hooks’ 1992 article, “Eating the Other”:
“Masses of young people dissatisﬁed by U.S. imperialism, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, afﬂicted by the postmodern malaise of alienation, no sense of grounding, no redemptive identity, can be manipulated by cultural strategies that offer Otherness as appeasement, particularly through commodiﬁcation. The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive” is recouped.”
Many young folks feel ruptured, alienation and lack of choices so the culture of the Other — in this case black folks — becomes a site for pleasure and identity, built through commodifying this Other’s cultures. Although she is not a gatekeeper, Kreayshawn’s act is one of a cultural vampire. Cultural appropriation matters because non-white people who practise their own cultures are often disparaged, which Bene Viera from Clutch wrote about in relation to Kreayshawn. Viera observed that Kreayshawn’s look is stolen from some black women yet black women would not be praised for the same look.
Authenticity and sincerity also matter. Kreyshawn was chosen to start up a music career by her producer and hasn’t written any music. Authenticity and the capacity to record should not be reduced to race (hip-hop artists comes from all racial backgrounds), but Kreayshawn’s sincerity can come under question when she really has nothing to say and lacks skill. Instead the authenticity of Kreayshawn and the other women from the White Girl Mob is questioned on the basis of racial stereotypes like blackness=violence. An example being Rachel Swan who wrote that because V-Nasty was involved in armed robbery then she is the real, raw deal. Despite the clearly racist and white supremacist notion that blackness = violence and the fact that Kreayshawn rides on black, masculine swag, neither herself nor V-Nasty do anything to dispel the link; instead both choose to ride this white supremacist thinking to gain more credibility without having to really suffer the racist consequences.
While white hipster hop stars like Kreayshawn and Die Antwoord should come under censure for their cultural appropriation, hipster racism and a lack of discernable talent, an anti-hipster critique of them should avoid racism. As already discussed, anti-‘white hipster’ writer Norman Mailer belittled black culture and jazz, and called black culture ‘primitive’. Masses of people today think the same of hip-hop and rap. Mailer’s ‘White Negro’ became the term ‘wigger’ which was used to insult white people who ‘acted black’ and took on aspects of black culture. Two racist assumptions are contained in the insult and the description. One assumption is that black people embody the racial slur nigger thus a change of the w from the n is suffice to describe how white people want to be like ‘niggers’. The second one is that there is actually a way to ‘act black’; this assumption dehumanises black people and reinforces the illogical idea that black identity is one-dimensional.
Instead of Mailer’s White Negro racist analysis, anti-hipster critique of the white folks who appropriate black culture should highlight how this negatively affects black folks and how mainstream whiteness still ridicules black culture, including hip-hop. But what is actually more productive than an ironic or satirical anti-hipster stance, is the anti-racist analyses of black folks, like those featured in the linked video. The group in the video from specifically address Kreayshawn and V-Nasty’s use of the word ‘nigga’ in a blistering antiracist critique.
Hipster bashing and femininity
Hipster bashing also has a distinctly anti-feminine take. A lot of activities associated with a women’s or a feminine culture are perceived as hipster acts. Examples are crafts such as knitting and embroidery (with the tagline of ‘This ain’t your gramma’s embroidery’), fossicking for vintage fashion, cooking and even the humanities and social sciences, the majority of students whom are women.
Melbourne comic band, Rage Against the Sewing Machine created a video for the aforementioned song, “Northcote (So Hungover)”. According to a friend, Northcote is an upcoming hipster suburb of Melbourne. A line from the song goes: “We like changed our name too, we’re like Rage Against the Sewing Machine, we’re all about anger and fashion.” This line and the band’s name indicate that the feminine pursuits of fashion and sewing are up for anti-hipster grabs. Besides it all being a bit of fun, why is it also a problem?
Historically, crafts have a much lower status than the ‘fine arts’. Crafts are associated with femininity, lesser skill and repetitive action (sometimes aided by technology) fit for ‘docile’ women with nimble fingers. On the flip side women were subject to a mainstream pressure where to be ‘real’ women, i.e. feminine, she had to take up crafts and be good at them. Now of course some women ignored this and sustained an interest in crafts for myriad reasons including necessity. But during late ‘90s feminism, Stitch ‘n Bitch took off, groups of women got together, and there was a ripple effect. Stitch ‘n Bitch elevated the status of knitting, sewing and other crafts; femininity was reclaimed — as a source of pleasure, creativity, skill and love.
Rage Against the Sewing Machine’s anti-hipster take is problematic in its making fun of feminine activities. When an activity has to be reclaimed and enjoyed on its own terms by the group to which it belongs, the satirical anti-hipster should forget the pretence that for example, knitting and sewing can be innocently ridiculed. As mentioned, crafts are looked down upon already. Moreover women did not reclaim it to be part of a hipster culture and even if people did, the hipster choice has nothing to do with the importance of femininity whereby feminine, artistic pursuits should be valued. Put simply: Whether it comes to race or gender, what can be declared as hipster has its own cultural history, which should be honoured.
Blackness and femininity have their own cultural histories which hipster culture incorporates. While hipster bashing and anti-hipster critique have their place and even when these acts non-maliciously target feminine acts and cultural appropriation — a more thoughtful, critical and rigorous approach is warranted. Neither hipster bashing nor anti-hipster critique is innocent or created in a vacuum. They are developed within an ever-changing culture thus both should be sensitive to black and feminine cultures which are integral to life — despite attempts at their marginalisation.
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Thanks to MckSwift for alerting me to the JumpOffTVVideo.