People around me often question me about my appearance. “Why do you like to wear so much black?” or “Why are you wearing those leather boots again?” or even “Why do you have so many metal arm-bands on?”
Usually I don’t mind, because I realise that in most South African contexts, counter culture is not popular, familiar or much known about. That said, I am also very much aware that when I stroll down a street in Camden, London, or perhaps Loop Street in Cape Town, I look as if I fit right in. A studded black leather jacket with some silver chains dangling off of it, a spiked mo-hawk hair-do and some generously applied dark mascara are staple bodily signifiers in the surrounds of London’s Horse-stables market. But in places like, oh say, the eastern suburbs of Pretoria, where the most “radical” fashion garment is limited to a pair of blue jeans and Soviet sneakers, I stick out a little. To many, I look like a weirdo. It will not occur to most people who see me in this context that what I am really doing is adhering to my cultural dress code.
Not long ago, I met a small group of women at a social event, most of whom I had never met before. Conversation turned to the topic of husbands, and so I mentioned mine. The number of surprised raised eyebrows did not escape my attention, and one of the women couldn’t stop herself before saying, “You’re married?”
I said, “Yes. And don’t worry. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that people who look like me would never find a husband, right?”
The young woman was honest in her reply. “Yes”, she said. “That, and I just assumed that you were a lesbian.” (I did not point out that lesbians, too, could marry.)
Now, it’s not that I mind being mistaken for a lesbian. But this woman’s response is telling: it highlights the immaturity of our country’s popular understanding of anything that falls on the margins, or outside of the boundaries of the mainstream. This kind of thinking automatically translates a woman’s tomboyish appearance into a reading of homosexuality. An aversion for wearing heels and short skirts and a preference for boots and leathers not only semiotizes me as a lesbian, but also as a freak.
This kind of identity reduction is frustrating because it ignores the nuances of real people’s lived experiences of the world. Many lesbian women, for instance, enjoy wearing heels and mini-skirts and often look as if they have stepped off of the front cover of a Cosmopolitan magazine. I will never look like that, not because I cannot, but because I choose not to. Instead I continue to don the items that have most people wondering whether I am a Goth or a Hell’s Angel. I am neither, but I do belong to a very particular world-wide community of people who can collectively be referred to as counter-culture.
Stereotypes are amazing little things. So often they describe groups of people in the most negative and insulting ways possible. But what they also do is act as short-hand descriptors or basic summaries for entire peoples which, in such a culturally diverse world, is necessary if we are to make an even limited attempt to understand things around us. So, who am I talking about when I say “counter-culture”? The quickest introduction to these people is to recall the various stereotypes which are often attached to them. Counter-culture types will most often refer to themselves by the label ascribed to their particular sub-culture: Grunge, Indie, fringe, alternative, Goth, Punk and so on.
Over time, the mainstream types, the worshippers of pop-culture and the cultural conservatives, have stereotyped the counter-cultures using various negative and insulting terms of reference: freaks, weirdos, outcasts, losers, bums, and even Satanists (for the record, I’ve never met anyone within counter-culture who worships Satan).
Steig Larsson’s best-selling Millennium trilogy of novels and subsequent filmic adaptations popularised the counter-culture Goth character Lisbeth Salander. This character is significant, because it is rare for a counter-culture protagonist, let alone a woman “freak”, to assume such a central position within a mainstream popular culture artefact of any medium.
Some of my colleagues in the media studies section at UNISA reasoned that Salander’s weirdness was a large part of her appeal because it was such a novelty within the mainstream, and her freakish nature and physical appearance contributed to a large part of the popularity of the Millennium series. I thought: that is just typical! Goths have been around for years. People who look just like Lisbeth have been tramping around our cities in their big boots for decades. But put a Goth in a mainstream film, and the collective gaze of pop culture ogles over this weird girl as if she is a never-before-seen anomaly.
Recently at the Highway Africa conference at Rhodes University, I arrived at the Highway Africa Awards ceremony wearing black clothes, a bit of metal, a black leather jacket and boots. It wasn’t over the top, but probably borderline freakish in most people’s terms. It was a terribly suave event, and many of the award winners stemmed from African countries north of our borders – most were wearing outfits which were inspired by the traditional cultural dress codes of their respective countries. They looked wonderful, and a colleague expressed her admiration for their dress. Another colleague, Prof Viola Milton, then turned to me and said, “You’re also wearing your traditional cultural dress!” She was joking, but I appreciated the comment nonetheless, because for the first time in my life, someone in my country happily acknowledged that my culture (counter-culture) is indeed a culture.
Counter-culture is a culture in its own right. It has its own literature, its own art forms and codes of visuality, it has a variety of distinctive cultural dress codes, and above all, its own music. Counter-culture has produced some of the most progressive and genial images, art works and music in either the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Among them is the politically acute graffiti artist Bansky, potentially the most prolific graffitista of all time, whose images continue to not prick but stab the Western world’s political conscience. Indie Rock music, one of the music genres which has become the soundtrack to counter culture, has succeeded where other rock music genres have failed dismally. Pop rock has long abandoned the original rebellious and oppositional essence of Rock ‘n Roll music, and sold out to fluffy themes of sentimentalism with the sole aim of selling more and more records. The best of Indie Rock, although also commercially successful, has been dominated by musicians who populate their work with heavy intellectual content as well as a good tune. Reading the lyrics on the inside cover of a Tori Amos album are akin to reading a short volume of some of the best poetry in the world. Indie Rock recognises that it’s not enough to get the crowd jumping and air-punching, but it is important to get them thinking too.
It is not always possible for someone like me to show up in my cultural gear, as much as I may want to. I’m an academic, and have to appear at conferences, workshops or debates regularly: I often do so in disguise as a “normal” person. I have found that it is often difficult to engage with people meaningfully if they struggle to cross, mentally, the boundary of your appearance. A friend once told me, “Has it ever occurred to you that the way you look just plain scares people?”
Yes, it has. But as far as I am concerned, it is not the counter-culture weirdos and freaks that anyone needs to be afraid of. Ironically, it is the weirdos and freaks who have the most to teach us about how to transcend the scary and destructive forces of social hatred.
Why do I say this?
Counter-culture is the only culture which I have ever experienced, the world over, which does not take as any of its distinctive cultural descriptors markers such as race, ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Counter-culture will embrace you no matter where you were born, how dark or light your skin is, who you like to sleep with, who you choose to worship or what you have between your legs. Counter-culture places little value on mainstream Western ideals of beauty, so whether you’re gorgeous or ugly, fat or thin, it’s okay.
Counter-culture in general, and its people, are often ridiculed from the centre of the mainstream. But so often articulations of hate speech and racism, the continuation of patriarchy and sexism, and the damaging tensions between different ethnicities, emanate directly from centre mainstream political and popular discourse. The ultimate hypocrisy comes in the mainstream’s (particularly in the West) continuous fronting of its supposed values of democracy and tolerance – a mythology which is repeated so often in pop culture and discourse that many are duped into believing that the “West is best”. But where the Western mainstream, for all its spin-doctored preaching of the democratic principles of racial and cultural tolerance and equality, has failed, the counter-culture environment, which is so often spurned by the mainstream, has managed to produce a snippet of the utopian democracy that the mainstream could only tell us about but never deliver. In counter-culture, we don’t talk about race, because we don’t need to. It is such an irrelevant piece of who and what someone is that it does not really even warrant talking about.
Part of the reason I admire counter-culture so deeply is because I am a South African, and 18 years into this democracy the discourse of race and race politics still persists and burns us repeatedly. Counter-culture offers an escape, whereas mainstream South African popular discourse is often pre-occupied with discussions about race, and the continuing tensions between various race groups are consistently and acutely prevalent in the public sphere as well as, let’s admit it, in our day-to-day interactions with one another. But while the mainstream has often been so quick to dismiss the weirdos, the weirdos manufactured their own little world of cultural tolerance that the mainstream can only salivate over. So yes, I am weird. Bite me. DM
Dr Julie Reid is a media academic, analyst and media freedom activist at the Department of Communication Science at UNISA, and the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM). She is an active member of the Right2Know Campaign and tweets about media matters @jbjreid.
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