Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thoughts on lesbian hipsters

The Threadbared crew tweeted that I should take a look at this article on Autostraddle, a girl-on-girl culture website, about "lesbian hipsters". Well, I feel rather out of my depth talking about lesbian culture, in which I've hardly been immersed, but let's have a look at what author "Katrina" (is she like Cher or Madonna?) has to say about hipsterism.

Well, first of all I think the article is really confused about what a lesbian hipster is and does. At points Katrina doesn't sound convinced that there even is such a thing. But for the sake of argument, they're gamine girls who are just a little bit too femme to be butch, but who are still recognisably dykey, but also, not quite recognisably enough, since straight dudes still hit on them. They wear the "lesbian three-piece suit" of flannie shirt, bandanna and skinny jeans.

It's such a temptation, but ultimately quite unhelpful and non-illuminating, to create 'definitive' taxonomies ("they wear this; they like this") of a chimerical cultural figure that means a slightly different thing to each different person. It's probably more useful to talk about what hipsterism does than what it definitively is or isn't. What discussions does the term 'hipster' enable about the contemporary uses of culture?

I found Katrina's attempt to ground the lesbian hipster in subculture, and to talk about it in Dick Hebdigean terms of subcultural incorporation, to be pretty misguided, because I feel that hipsterism isn't about incorporating elements of subcultural style, but rather it's a display of aesthetic singularity and cultural capital. The irony of hipsterism is not on its T-shirts; rather, it's that people strive to show their individuality, to reject the category of 'hipster', and end up looking generically 'hip'.

Also, what we often think of as the hipster aesthetic – the ironic sloganeering; the skinny silhouette; the self-consciously whimsical or nostalgic flourishes – has never been an underground one, but rather draws on and requires a mainstream cultural machinery, whether that's textile mills to produce de-branded plain cotton separates; old movies and TV shows to invoke or plastic toys and ephemera to transform into cute jewellery and other objets de craft.

Now let's look at the 'lesbian' part of the lesbian hipster. For me, the most confused part of the article is this:
Hipsterdom may be viewed as somewhere in between genders, but identifying yourself as a lesbian means not only identifying yourself as a woman but also identifying yourself based on sexuality. Therefore, the lesbian hipster has universal appeal. Her style is just new enough to be trendy and sexy, while the items in her wardrobe are familiar enough to be safe.
There are so many nonsequiturs and assumptions here that it's difficult to know where to start teasing them out. How is the "universal appeal" bit related to self-identification? Is her appeal only universal among other hipsters, or does the lesbian hipster appeal to everyone: gay, straight, male, female, hip, unhip…? What's new about her style, and what's familiar about it? Katrina doesn't say.

I want to dispute the claim that hipsters constitute a 'third gender'. It's interesting in fashion terms, considering that perhaps androgyny is a deliberate marketing strategy – aka, the CK One effect. But androgynous dress is really not enough on which to build the foundation of gender identity, which is a wider socialised role, a way of being in the world.

I'd also argue that Katrina's example of straight hipster boys hitting on her even though she's gay says much less about a 'third gender' than it reveals how hipsterism tends to gesture towards transgressive sexuality while ultimately retreating into sexual conservatism (as the various parodies of American Apparel's ads reveal).

Perhaps the in-between-ness of the lesbian hipster inheres in being what Katrina depicts as some kind of subcultural double agent: she can enjoy the coolness of being a hipster as well as the acceptance of the wider lesbian community. But here we have to think about the difference between a pose and an identity. Is being a lesbian an immutable part of who you are, or is it something to be donned and doffed like skinny jeans?

Bah! I feel that I've waded into some identity politics that I'm not really equipped to talk about. But I do have to admit that naming your cat Jane Lynch or Shane Jr. is an unbearably 'hipster' thing to do.


Anonymous said...

Articles like this are what happens when you spend too much time in grad school. everybody grows out of it and learns to write stuff that says something/gets to the point (or like most never write again). Until then, blogs and indymedia are dumping grounds for those with excessive library experience and a lack of time spent in bars forgetting that experience.

Mel said...

Do you mean articles like mine or articles like Katrina's original?

But in general it sounds like thinking has always been a bad experience for you – the sort to blot out with alcohol.