Five Ways to Kill a Hipster? A Critique of Anti-Hipsterism

Claire Martine

When men and/or white people, with gender and racial power over their counterparts, ridicule 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.

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.

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