In [Partial] Defense of the Hipster Generation

Hipster-y looking young man poses in front of picture of lion

All this talk about youth in the pro-choice movement and the legacy of baby boomer activists, including civil rights leaders, has got me thinking about what my own generation’s legacy will be. And, surprisingly, scarily, tellingly, I’ve come up with this one word, a word that inspires fear, disgust, and admiration simultaneously; a ubiquitous word, an over-used and under-examined word, a foul word, depending on what circles you run in: HIPSTER.

Ah, yes, the “hipster generation.” How I both love and despise thee. No other movement can do what you do- you make me laugh, you make me cringe, and then you make me laugh again. You entertain me and shame me. You occupy my weekends, but not so much my consciousness. You’re pretentious and ironic, without always necessarily knowing why, or to what end. And, despite the tons of amazing activist efforts happening right now in my generation, you threaten to outshine them all. And I’m not just talking about your neon leg warmers. Because right now there are a lot of social and cultural movements that I believe will come to define these times. And one of the major ones, for better or worse, is hipsterdom.

Here on Feministing, we’ve spent a lot of time criticizing some of the egregiously offensive and/or anti-feminist practices of our hipster brethren (or, as Gawker has renamed them, fauxhemians). Jessica has mused on whether Andy Samberg is actually pro-feminist or just an ironic hipster douchebag. Ann has called out sexist hipster bullshit of the “it’s not hip, it’s racist/sexist” variety, and Samhita has posted extensively on the subject, tackling the racist use of “Afrika” prints by American Apparel, the phenomenon of “kill whitey” parties thrown by white people, and hipsters’ role in gentrification of her neighborhood.

So it’s pretty clear that there are problematic elements of hipster culture. I don’t deny these at all. But I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to hipster culture lately, and I’ve started to believe that it’s possible that time will be kinder to the hipster movement than we feminists have been so far. I’ve come up with a few reasons that most hipsters aren’t as bad as you’d think, and some might be actively contributing to the same social change that we feminists are working towards. Plus, at the highest rungs of hipsterdom, they’ve got something figured out that we’re still struggling with. Check it.

It’s hard to define the word hipster because it’s come to represent so many things. But for my purposes, when I use the phrase, I’m loosely talking about members of a subculture of relatively young, urban, mostly middle class adults and older teenagers with interests in non-mainstream (aka “alternative”) fashion and culture, particularly music (independent rock), and a general tendency towards ironic and postmodern worldviews. Another good indicator is how often they use “quotes” around words and primarily judge people and things based on how “meaningful” and “culturally relevant” they seem (via hipsterrunoff).

Young hipster man

While not exactly a card-carrying member of the hipster community, I do occasionally engage in activities and events that could be described as hipsterish, and sometimes like music or fashion that could be similarly classified. Why? You might ask. No self-respecting socially conscious feminist anti-racist activist would stoop so low! Not so, I’d say. Here are some things this feminist digs about hipster culture (note: I recognize that all of these qualities are rather subjective and certainly could be debated, but these are just my personal impressions, and quite generalized ones at that):

-creative fashion
-freedom to not care/be dominated by what others think
-good music (indie rock in particular)
-some level of self awareness
-general thoughtfulness to reexamine mainstream norms (also key component of social activism)
-more accepting of different body types than mainstream pop culture
-hot, hot abundant androgyny (that is hot)

I think these characteristics play an important social role. They are not just silly empty youthful trends for older people to make fun of and “not get.” Within my definition of hipsterdom, they are deliberately posited social signifiers intended to indicate rebellion against a zombified and played out dominant mainstream narrative. They are redefining “cool” to be something other than conventional beauty norms and sugary pop culture narratives. This is actual social work that I think is important, and basically parallel to the work I’m interested in doing, on this site and as an activist in general.

Young hipster woman

So I guess the main point I want to make is that positing oneself as being “above” the racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other ‘isms commonly found in mainstream culture, as many hipsters do, may not be the tactic that people who identify as social activists think is the most effective, or meaningful, way to engage with fucked up mainstream norms. But it is just that- a tactic. It’s a tactic for coping with a world that we are all in agreement does not feel particularly just, and being angered and confused by that as a young person, and existing in that space the best and most fully realized way you know how.

So although hipsters as a movement may not be as self aware as they claim, or separate from the social ills they profess to be above, and they may not be contributing to structural social change as much as they could be, I respect that they’re actively choosing to live in rebellion against some of the same harmful and dangerous mainstream narratives that feminists like me have been trying to counter for years.

In conclusion, carry on, young hipsters, carry on. I’ll see you in Williamsburg.

All pics via LATFH.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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