The Rise of Hipster Sexism by Meghan Murphy
Describing the hipster is something you aren’t supposed to do. The mere mention of the fact that there are hipsters outs you as not being one. The point of being a hipster, after all, is to be over everything already—including yourself.
Luckily, having already outed myself as someone who cares about things beyond the rescue of sufficiently derelict but re-popularized bars, I am free to discuss the hipster and hipster culture with wild abandon.
Notoriously apathetic, one of the issues hipster culture doesn’t concern itself with is sexism. In a comedic video, “You’re Probably a Hipster,” PBS Idea host Mike Rugnetta describes the hipster as a person who enjoys things “ironically” instead of with genuine enthusiasm and has an air of “smugness or arrogance.”
But the cultural backlash against hipsters, evidenced by a number of blogs and sites that started popping up around the mid-2000s, like Look at This Fucking Hipster (later a book), grew out of much more than smugness. The backlash against hipster culture also developed as accusations of cultural appropriation arose.
Hipsters have been criticized for appropriating workingclass culture from a place of privilege. Douglas Haddow talked about this in an article in Adbusters back in 2008 and described how symbols and icons of working-class culture “have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.”
Co-opting culture isn’t limited to class. A website called Native Appropriations called out the trend of young white people donning native headdresses and war paint as fashion.
The native-culture-as-fashion trend was first documented at music festivals like Coachella in California in 2010. Adrienne Keene, the face behind Native Appropriations, described how the trend reinforces stereotypes about native culture, co-opts culturally and spiritually significant symbols, and ignores the deeply oppressive and exploitative colonial history of Aboriginal people in North America. She concludes that the trend, while not limited to hipsters, is no different than wearing blackface
When you critique this behaviour, expect to be told that you just don’t get it. Irony functions as a disguise that protects hipsters from critique. It’s the “Don’t you get the joke?” defence against offensiveness.
Hip-hop music critic and radio deejay Jay Smooth argued in his video blog that cultural appropriation is a weak form of humour, writing that “irony is now the last refuge of a coward.
A singularly dishonest and deluded sort of coward who imagines his behaviour a mark of courage, as he fearlessly refuses to take anything seriously. Cowardice is the root of all hipster irony. And this is never more obvious or more ugly than when issues of race are involved.”
When it comes to race, class and gender oppression, Andrea Plaid, a contributor to the website Racialicious, questions whether racism and sexism need to be funny.
“The reality is that the many, many people who have to deal with racist and/or sexist oppression daily don’t find it funny at all…. That person who needs to use racism and/or sexism to be so funny may be the same person who will, say, be making hiring decisions, which can affect a person’s survival.”
Anita Sarkeesian takes on “retro sexism” or “ironic sexism” in her video series Feminist Frequency. She defines retro sexism as “modern attitudes and behaviours that mimic or glorify sexist aspects of the past, often in an ironic way.”
It’s the idea that, because we all know that what we are seeing is sexism, we are in on the joke—which supposedly negates the sexism. Sarkeesian sees this as “the normalization of sexism through irony.”
The neo-burlesque trend is an example of a “sexism is fun for everyone” ethos that pushes us to get in on the joke. I am just as uncomfortable watching a woman strip on a stage under the burlesque banner for a mixed audience as I am watching straight male audiences ogle exotic dancers at strip clubs. To me, burlesque often replicates those same images, and the women on a burlesque stage are still performing for a male gaze.
When I wrote a blog post recently about the normalization of pornographic imagery in hipster culture, some people were livid. As an example, I pointed to some party photos taken at a local bar in which women posed with their legs spread and breasts jutting out. Among the responses that came back were, “We’re just having fun and being sexy” and
“We love sex, and this is how we party.” The refusal to engage in a critique of why these women would mimic porn poses for a camera shouldn’t have surprised me. In hipster culture, there is a stubborn refusal to look at the larger context of a society that values women based on their desirability and over-sexualized bodies.
The kind of soft-core pornographic imagery depicted in the party photos was strikingly similar to the style of photography popularized by Vice, a magazine that helped fashion hipster culture. It’s the same overly sexualized style used by fashion photographer Terry Richardson and in advertisements for clothing company American Apparel. In fact, a number of American Apparel’s ads have been banned by the U.K.
Advertising Standards Authority after being deemed “gratuitous … pornographic and exploitative.”
Part of the phenomenon stems from the idea that pornography has become retro and is therefore chic, or hip. What’s old is new again, and feminists who are critical of this behaviour or imagery are behind the times. We are humourless curmudgeons. We are expected to be unfazed by strip shows and porn. We are supposed to be having fun—like the boys. The hippest way to fake empowerment is not only to be okay with sexism, but to make it your own.
Connected to the idea of hipster sexism is hipster racism. In fact, the two often play together. This happened recently during the Oscars, when someone tweeting for The Onion “jokingly” called nine-year-old actor Quevenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) a cunt. The Onion has since apologized and deleted the tweet. In response, Falguni
A. Sheth wrote on Salon that this kind of racist misogyny “gain[s] an easy acceptability, precisely because it plays into the ironic hipster self-aware racism of ‘being so cool that we know it’s racist that it’s okay to participate in it. We’re above it.’”
The term “hipster racism” was coined in 2005 by Carmen Van Kerckhove, founder of the site Racialiscious, who, in an article called “Dude Where’s my White Privilege,” critiqued “Kill Whitey” parties being held in Brooklyn, New York. The parties provided an opportunity for white hipsters to dance to raunchy hip-hop and, according to Kill Whitey creator Tha Pumpsta, to “kill the whiteness inside.”
At the time, Van Kerckhove wrote, “Essentially, these parties are creating a safe space where white people who are scared of black people can get together and enjoy/mock black culture without worrying about retribution from black people.”
Michelle Garcia, who covered the emergence of these parties for the Washington Post, wrote that they had “something to do with young, white hipsters believing they can shed white privilege by parodying the black hip-hop life.”
Andrea Plaid defines hipster racism as “ideas, speech, and action meant to denigrate another person’s race or ethnicity under the guise of being urbane, witty (meaning ‘ironic’ nowadays), educated, liberal, and/or trendy.” Similarly, she says, hipster sexism is “ideas, speech and action meant to denigrate female-bodied people under the guise of being urbane, witty
(meaning ‘ironic’ nowadays), educated, liberal, and/or trendy.”
An example Plaid points to is a drag performance by Texasbased comedian Chuck Knipp called Welfare Queen, an act that employs race, class and gender stereotyping under the guise of humour. Knipp performs character Shirley Q. Liquor in blackface, and has described her as an “inarticulate black welfare mother with 19 children.” After complaints flooded a Portland, Oregon gay men’s bar following performances of Welfare Queen last year, the remainder of Knipp’s Portland shows were cancelled.
With hipster racism and hipster sexism, humour side steps critical points about inequity or oppression, serving as a kind of get-out-jail-free card. This brand of humour suggests that we live in a post-sexist and post-racist society now and that these issues are safe to joke about.
Comedy can, in fact, be an effective way to critique racism and sexism. Eddie Murphy once performed a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he dressed up to go undercover as a white man. The skit served, says Plaid, to “expose the everyday privileges of simply existing as a white person, specifically a white man.”
In a similar vein, feminist writer and rape survivor Kate
Harding compiled an online list of “Rape Jokes that Work” (mainly comedy skits). They work because, rather than making the victim the butt of the joke, they include some form of social commentary or make it clear that rape is something women are made to fear daily.
Using humour isn’t the problem, in other words.
The problem comes when sexism and racism are billed as “ironic” by those whose very privilege makes them largely immune from racism or sexism themselves. When this happens humour is used to silence dissent and dodge accountability, and it starts to look like the same old problems wrapped up in hipster clothing.
© Published in Herizons magazine Summer 2013
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