Posts Tagged ‘race’

This was my Sociology paper for my Sociology Senior Capstone class during my undergraduate years at the University of Central Missouri. If you feel inclined, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques!

How would one describe the hipster culture? Many have described this post-modern counter-culture by its attributes; its obsessions with ironic individuality, indie and folk music, sleek and minimalistic fashion, trendy electronics, coffee shops, fair-trade merchandise, and a hodgepodge of vintage fashion trends. Wallace-Wells of the New York Sun writes: “there are the unlikely beards, sure, but there’s also the unusual fusion of earnestness and irony, the religious zeal about creativity and cool, and the bourgeois experiment in slumming”[i]. In a lot of ways this culture adopts the trends of its post-war counterculture predecessors- the beats, hippies, punks, and grunge [ii]. One trend in this rising counterculture is the desire to not be labeled. This manifests into someone who looks and behaves like a hipster to refrain from admitting to it [iii]. That is because the very essence of hipsterdom revolves around denying any sort of umbrella label by the mainstream (Western modernism). At the same time hipsters try to pull off expressions of individuality while embracing obvious ironic inauthenticities, mixing things that traditionally are not associated with each other. Even the name, hipster, implies some sort of derogatory, jaded tone. Despite this trend of outward denial, there is a growing trend of hipster-like behavior and personal expression spreading throughout the Western world [iv]. This essay is an attempt to untangle this complex culture’s fashion, music and lifestyle preferences from the angles of race, class and gender; and offer critical dialogue through a sociological lens.

With each passing day, the gender lines previously defined by Western modernism are being bent and blurred to suit the social agenda of post-modern practitioners. As I mentioned earlier, the hipster culture is a subculture wave of an increasingly postmodern society. A large part of gender differentiation within the hipster culture is expressed aesthetically. A typical male hipster can be seen displaying some of the following physical appearance: tight-fitted jeans (i.e. “skinny jeans”) of assorted saturated colors, Toms or moccasins, tattoos, a plain v-neck t-shirt, flannel shirts, a large or messy beard, fixed-gear bikes, wool cardigans, suspenders, second-hand t-shirts, and large glasses. A typical female hipster may express herself by dawning large flower headbands, sandals or Toms, vintage sun dressers, tattoos, unshampooed hairstyles, assorted scarves, large glasses, v-neck t-shirts, vests, leggings, and even skinnier jeans. Hipsters cross recent modernism (1990s-2000s) gender roles in a few distinct ways. For males, the tight-fitted clothing and traditionally feminine accessories (earrings, scarves, handbags, etc.) become much more commonplace. The hipster flavor of male fashion seems to borrow a few ideas from the stereotypical image of a fashion-forward gay or metrosexual male. For females, stereotypically masculine things like large tattoos and a less-polished look become widely accepted (and even encouraged). This entanglement of modernism’s gender expectations is a reflection on postmodernism’s rejection of expected gender behavior. Hipster culture, and postmodernity as a whole, suggests that genders should be free to express themselves by picking and choosing that with which they most identify. Ironically by doing so, hipsters conform to generating new gender norms relative to their own culture. Though feminist and existential[v] undertones root deep within the hipster culture, they still can’t seem to fully escape the modernist patriarchal behaviors it seeks to move away from.

Despite it’s open and accepting nature, the hipster demographic does have a noticeable lack of ethnic diversity. iii Though most hipsters will claim to be non-discriminatory and accepting of all racial ethnicities, one may find it peculiar how the population is mostly made up of light-skinned people. However, this trend extends beyond race, and also into class. Not only are most hipsters predominately white, but they also primarily come from middle class backgrounds. Why is hipsterdom so appealing to the middle class white youth? Perhaps it is similar to Wilkins’  reasoning[vi] pointed out. Being middle-class white pigeon-holes one to being boring (“vanilla”). In a subconscious attempt to escape from the possibility of being inherently uncool, middle-class white youth are clinging to cultures that portray them in an edgier light. Though not as extreme as the goths, hipsters pose a reaction that looks like a contemporary mix between 1950s beat poets[vii] and fashion-forward bohemians. One of their biggest aims is to separate themselves from the institutional corporate-world. John Mayer (who I’m fairly certain is ironically not a hipster) pretty accurately describes the general attitude of a hipster’s view on society and politics:

“Me and all my friends
We’re all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There’s no way we ever could
Now we see everything that’s going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don’t have the means
To rise above and beat it

So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change.”[viii]

By reading these lyrics, one might get the sense that being a hipster means there is an uncomfortable paradox of apathy and hope. This is very true of hipsters. One is likely to find them a lot in coffee shops, at parks, and in art galleries discussing political and social frustrations, and how they need to change. However, much like its existential roots[ix], these ideas and opinions rarely translate into action. Instead, hipsters would rather play a passive role; one which allows them to focus on personal happiness over societal sorrows. iii These nonchalant, detached reactions to life’s issues are a self-inflicting attempt to keep an exotic (and likable) reputation and do away with the stereotypical boring middle-class whiteness.

A common complaint about hipsters is that they are too argumentative; and come off as self-absorbent elitists. One of the biggest reasons hipsters come off as defensive and argumentative in conversation, is because they don’t want to be associated with the negative norms of Western modernity.  Haddow describes it well by saying:

“We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.” iii

This generation of youth has grown up in an American society that is becoming increasingly dependant on electronic-communication (texting, e-mail, online chat, etc.). In reaction to modernism’s tendency to compartmentalize and label ideas and cultures, hipsters are separating themselves from a more pragmatic way of life. Ironically this effort towards authenticity via individual freedom portrays them as separatists—which is the very thing they are striving to not be.

This brings up the biggest criticism of hipsters and at-large, postmodernism: authenticity. One of the most notable characteristics of hipsters is their embrace of paradoxes and ironic inauthenticities. For example, one might find a hipster wearing a $30 ‘vintage’ t-shirt from Urban Outfitters, sitting on an eco-friendly fixed-gear bicycle, while thumbing through new applications on their iPhone. Aims at authenticity— extremely over-priced vintage t-shirts (average t-shirt cost at Urban Outfitters is about $25), an extremely mainstream cell phone product, and eco-friendly transportation—seem to miss the target by a long shot. By the same token, hipsters and postmodernists claim to be okay with inconsistent ironies. They recognize these paradoxes as social facts of contemporary life[x]. However, this is also why postmodernism has yet to be accepted beyond the current younger generation (under 30). Modernism and postmodernism have opposing definitions of authenticity. Modernists can’t seem to accept these hypocrisies as authentically valid. Whereas postmodernists want to borrow an assortment of entities to collage together a new entities[xi]. Take for example, the music scene. The current popular choice of music for hipsters is indie folk, which is the blend of ambient electronica beats and bluegrass folk music. If one recognizes these odd mixtures as an art form, that is one thing. But to call them original might be a stretch. Originality implies a budding level of authenticity, rather than repurposing a mixture of things and calling it something new. In that regard, there is very little that is truly authentic in this world. Hipsters and postmodernists have accepted that nothing is completely authentic, and so then move forward with creating from the wide array of existing entities available. It’s a “new” spin on creativity and innovation.

So is this post-war counter-culture, hipsters, a sign of the decline of Western Modernity or the rise of a postmodern revolution?[xii] I think neither and, at the same time, both. Rather I think it is a transformational stage from Western Modernism to Western Postmodernism. Hipsters are moving into more postmodern ideas and social movement, but they still embody, by way of being separatists, some modernist tendencies. Since postmodernism in essence is the rejection of modernism, hipsters are not completely postmodern. Instead hipsters are part of a greater outcry for social change away from Western modernity.


[i] Wallace-Wells, Benjamin. “Pulp Sociology.” The New York Sun, March 14, 2008.

[ii] Lorentzen, Christian. “Why the Hipster Must Die.” Time Out New York, May 30,       2007.

[iii] Haddow, Douglass. “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Adbusters, July 28, 2008.

[iv] O’Connor, Maureen. “Sociology Proves That Hipsters Hate Hipsters Most.” http://gawker.com/5633219/sociology-proves-that-hipsters-hate-hipsters-most

[v] Nietzsche. Friedrich. On The Genealogy of Morals. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House Inc., 1967.

[vi] Wilkins, Amy C. . Wannabes, Goths, and Christians: The Boundaries of Sex, Style, and Status. 1 ed. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[vii] van Elteren, Mel. “The Subculture of the Beats: A Sociological Revisit.” Journal of American Culture 22, no. 3 (1999): 71-99.

[viii] John Mayer, “Waiting on the World to Change,” Continuum, 2006, Columbia Records.

[ix] Cox, Gary. How to Be an Existentialist: or How to Get Real, Get a Grip, and Stop Making Excuses. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

[x] Allan,Kenneth. Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2006.

[xi] Rose, William D.. “Postmodern American Sociology: A Response to the Aesthetic Challenge.” Contemporary Sociology 35, no. 2 (2006): 187-189.

[xii] McLaughlin, Linden D.. “Transforming worldviews: An anthropological understanding of how people change.” Christian Education Journal 7, no. 2 (2010): 493-500.

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