Many subcultures have gained a bad reputation in contemporary culture, often being associated with stereotypes and expectations that undermine either their legitimacy or their complexity. This perception has led to the subcultures being met with fear, condescension and sometimes even hate due to misunderstandings surrounding what they are.
Because the mainstream media’s representation of subcultures is often surface-level and relies on stereotypes and easily-reproduced images in order to produce understandings, these representations often miss out on what makes subcultures what they are on a more nuanced level. It is often the more visible and superficial parts of a subculture that become disseminated through mainstream media, and the deeper aspects are ignored.
“It’s the external elements that are often misread and focused on” said Dr. Scott Henderson, chair of Brock’s Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film. “People read it externally and misread it on a surface level. We live in a visual culture where we read things immediately. Some cultures begin to exist solely as images, and people who actually live as these cultures get misread as simply the image.”
Henderson also suggested that one of the reasons why subcultures are so frequently misread in contemporary culture is because they have less of a cultural presence than they have had in the past. This isn’t to say that subcultures are disappearing or going away; Henderson instead suggests that they are simply moving to areas (such as the internet) where they are interacting less with mainstream culture and are therefore less prominent.
“There is a flattening of culture. You used to be able to easily tell who belonged to what subculture, but it’s become flattened,” said Henderson. “I think a lot of it has moved online… it was a big part of youth identity, and it has now shifted from public spaces to private spaces and online.”
In response to the common cultural misreading of subcultures, this article will focus specifically on three cultures that are often misunderstood or misrepresented in mainstream media. Exploring Goth, Metal and Punk subcultures, I intend to break down some of the cultural misunderstandings and dispel some of the myths that surround these complex subcultures.
Goth is a subculture that is often misunderstood as one of two very different things. One cultural understanding brings up images of mopey, privileged, middle-class teenagers writing angsty poetry in their parents’ attics about how unfair life is. On the other side, is a frightful image of a vampiric group of cultists who bite the heads off of bats and drink the blood. Either way, both of these images draw up a relatively simplistic image of the subculture that paints it as either insignificant and overdramatic, or frightening and unsafe. Both of these images stigmatize Goths in a way that can be dangerous for members of the subculture, and neither of them adequately capture what Goth is really about.
“The mainstream views goth through a distorted mirror that sees only dreary music coupled with Morticia Addams fashions” says Nancy Kilpatrick’s Goth Bible. “Most goths and kindred souls dispute that shallow reflection. Romance is at the heart of what it means to be goth… in the modern gothic world, as in few other realms, the outward trappings of similarity belie fierce individuality. Every goth is an individual… yet lurking with in such independence is the intense need for community.”
Kilpartick’s book, which delves past surface images of goth in order to explore this complex culture that embraces the “other,” admires the things that mainstream culture often reviles or discards, privileges emotions that are often suppressed in contemporary culture, and exists in a place of tension between adamant individualism and an intense investment in community.
“I think there is a much greater shared sensitivity,” said Henderson. “I think it gets misunderstood. It’s about these bonds of affinity, often based around music and literature, that really run deeper. It’s a very conscious, clear rejection of social norms… it’s a very accepting culture, particularly in the U.K.”
In discussing Goth, both Henderson and Dr. Laura Wiebe (also a faculty member in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film) pointed towards the violent crime against Sophie Lancaster, and the resulting Sophie Lancaster Foundation, as an example of both the precariousness of people in contemporary subcultures, and of the strong communal bonds that these subcultures can create.
In 2007, member of the U.K. Goth community Sophie Lancaster and her partner Robert Maltby were attacked in Stubbeylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire, for no reason other than because they were Goth. The Guardian quotes the judge of the case stating “this was a hate crime against completely harmless people who were targeted because their appearance was different.”
The crime against Lancaster demonstrates the danger faced by members of subcultures when people misunderstand or misrepresent them. These misunderstandings can lead to marginalization, hate, and even violence being perpetrated against people who identify with a subculture.
It therefore becomes important to remember that people involved in a subculture are still people, and that they do not deserve discrimination or hate based on their cultural affiliations. Working to better understand these cultures is one of the first steps towards breaking down stigma and helping to create better cultural safety and acceptance for people who are part of them.
The response to Lancaster’s death, however, also demonstrates the strong communal bonds and support that subcultures can produce. Shortly after the attack, there were tributes established in the park where she was murdered, and there have been songs, concerts, awards, and charities established in her name. The Bloodstock Open Air festival officially renamed one of their stages the Sophie Lancaster Stage.
The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, the official charity created in memory of Lancaster, focuses its efforts around education, challenging prejudice and intolerance and preventing hate crimes by improving legislation and law enforcement surrounding hate crimes. They created the acronym S.O.P.H.I.E., or “stamp out prejudice, hatred and intolerance everywhere”. The slogan has been printed on bracelets that the charity uses as part of its efforts to improve awareness.
The attack on Sophie Lancaster and its aftermath shows the danger that comes when people misunderstand, stereotype, or harbor prejudice against people from certain subcultures. Furthermore, it also demonstrates the sincere care, commitment and community that these subcultures provide for members.
“Goths have seen a lot of abuse. It was never nice for a lot of goths” said Henderson. “It’s hard to be a goth… it’s a big commitment.”
Before writing about metal, I must situate myself in the discussion and disclose my own personal involvement as a fan of metal music and someone with an interest in metal culture. Part of the inspiration for this article comes from the discord I have experienced between my first-hand observations of metal communities and the perception I have seen other people express towards these communities.
One of the most common stereotypes of “metalheads” is that they are violent, aggressive, hypermasculine and intimidating. Images of church-burning, devil worship and unbridled aggression have come to define much of the mainstream understanding of the culture, and these images have distorted a lot of what metal music and community is often about.
While there is no denying that metal music can be aggressive and express a great deal of anger and frustration, this is only one aspect of a very complex culture that uses music in order to produce a community that works through a variety of different concepts and emotions.
“At festivals, you tend to see a lot of community based around music appreciation, with metalheads being pretty laid back” said Wiebe. “You might have assumptions about metalheads being angry and depressed, but when you actually start talking to them, they’re actually really well-adjusted people.”
Wiebe said that one of the problems that creates a lot of the stereotypes stems from the way that mainstream representations tend to gravitate towards the most visible or spectacular articulations of social groups. Similar to Henderson’s discussion of visual culture and the transformation of cultures into images, Wiebe suggested that mainstream representations tend to gravitate towards the most spectacular articulations of a culture, and focus on these spectacles as a way of understanding the culture as a whole.
“The subcultures that people know the most about tend to be those that get media coverage, and those that get the media coverage tend to be the most spectacular,” said Wiebe. “[The violence] has been amplified because it is so extreme, and it has come to overshadow everything else that is going on in metal.”
In discussing the areas outside of violence and aggression that metal can address, Wiebe pointed to some incredibly political moments in recent metal culture. She referenced the Israeli metal band Orphaned Land, to whom she referred to as being “almost love metal.”
“They’re all about solidarity,” said Wiebe. “They’re about writing across religious differences.”
Wiebe also made reference to Joko Widodo, the current president of Indonesia, who is an outspoken metal fan, and who interacted with the metal community during his presidential campaign. During the campaign, Widodo emphasized the respect, love and care that he had seen in the metal community.
In addition to community and political implications, Wiebe also mentioned that something people often forget about metalheads is that they can have quite an underappreciated sense of humour. She said that metal concerts and mosh pits are often quite celebratory and express a sense of community and celebration, and that this celebratory environment often produces levity and humour.
Wiebe mentioned the example of Devin Townsend as someone who is generally a very serious and sophisticated artist, but also someone who is not afraid to be “totally ridiculous” and have fun when needed. Another example of this is German metal band Blind Guardian, who has balanced more serious or complex songs with tracks like a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.”
Overall, Wiebe stressed the importance of looking past still images and spectacularized stereotypes and trying to understand the rich and varied subculture within.
“Even in some of the gory, graphic lyrics and videos, you’ll find levels of social critique,” said Wiebe. “Often times, what looks from the outside like nihilistic violence often has more specific political targets and works in a more complicated way. There’s so much thought that goes into it, and it speaks from and back to the society from which it is produced”
Punk is one of the most complicated subcultures to discuss. It has probably had one of the longest struggles against commercialization and absorption by mainstream culture. Initially a DIY (Do it Yourself), counter-normative subculture, the popular emergence of “pop-punk” acts like Blink 182 and Avril Lavigne resulted in elements of punk aesthetic and mentality to be gradually assimilated and absorbed into mainstream culture. It gradually became cool and trendy within the dominant culture to dress in punk styles, despite punk’s initial existence as a counter-dominant group.
“Punk was very politicized, related to high youth unemployment, and youth struggling” said Henderson. “However, it was so visual and iconic that punk can now be sold. It had a political overtone, but now that imagery remains so it can be sold to any youth who want to rebel. A subculture that once had so much meaning, punk can now be purchased off the rack and has been divorced from political sentiment.”
However, rather than taking the nihilistic approach that “punk is dead” or that “punk has become mainstream,” as many have, Henderson suggested that punk has instead simply changed and adapted to contemporary culture. He said that this change has resulted in a detachment between conventional punk aesthetic and the punk ethos, which has been disseminated in different ways throughout subcultural identities.
“Punk as an image becomes iconic. Punk as an ethos becomes disseminated into other areas of youth culture,” said Henderson. “As a political sentiment, punk morphed into rave and EDM culture, which are very DIY, and other areas of youth culture. A lot of it has also moved online.”
Therefore, as with other subcultures, it becomes important to look beyond the image of Punk as a commercialized or absorbed subculture, and understand the deeper complexities that make up the ethos, community and political understanding of the culture.
Both Wiebe and Henderson are faculty members of Brock’s Department of Communications, Popular Culture and Film. Their emails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively. More information about the Sophie Lancaster Foundation can be found at sophielancasterfoundation.com