Posts Tagged ‘Western modernism’

This is my Sociology paper for my Sociology Senior Capstone class. I put a lot of effort into it, and I figured it would be blog appropriate (even though I have never posted anything this academic before). If you feel inclined, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques!

How would one describe the hipster culture? It is a post-modern counter-culture that obsesses on ironic individuality, indie and folk music, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, 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 counter-culture predecessors: the beats, hippies, punks, and grunge.[ii] What is odd is that most people who ascribe to these cultural symptoms won’t even admit to being a “hipster”.[iii] That is because the very essence of hipsterdom resolves 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. Even the name- hipster- implies some sort of derogatory tone. Yet in the midst of outward denial by the masses, there is a growing trend in hipsterdom that cannot be denied or ignored.[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 a critique through a sociological lens.

The gender lines previously defined by Western modernism are increasingly being bent to suit the social agenda of post-modern practitioners. As I mentioned earlier, the hipster culture is a sub-culture wave of an increasingly post-modern 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 her avatar by dawning large flower headbands, sandals or Toms, vintage sun dressers, tattoos, un-shampooed hairstyles, assorted scarves, large glasses, v-neck t-shirts, vests, leggings, and even skinnier jeans. Hipsters cross recent modernism (1990s-200s) gender roles in a few distinct ways. For males, the tight fitted clothing and presumptively feminine accessories (earrings, scarves, hand bags, etc.) become much less uncommon. In a lot of ways, the hipster flavor of male fashion looks similar to the stereotypical image of a homosexual or metrosexual male. For females, stereotypically masculine things like large tattoos and un-shampooed hair 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 post-modernity 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.

One thing that is painfully obvious is the lack of ethnic diversity within the hipster demographic. iii Though most hipsters will claim to be anti-racist and accepting of all racial ethnicities, it is relatively peculiar how the population is mostly made up of Caucasian folk. However I think this trend extends beyond race, and also into the realm of class. Not only are most hipsters Caucasian, but most also come from a middle class background. Why is hipsterdom so appealing to the middle class white youth? I think it is a similar reasoning Wilkins[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 un-cool, 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 cooperate-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 party their societal sorrows away. 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 want to be separate from the 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 post-modernists 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 authentic is entirely false. Authenticity implies a budding level of originality. It is not stealing 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.

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 American Postmodernism. Hipsters are moving into more postmodern ideas and social movement, but they still embody, by way of being separatists, some modernism 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.

Advertisements