A senior journalism major’s research project is sure to spark a dialogue about the true nature of the millennial generation’s lover of all-things-obscure.
Victoria Marchiony, 22, devoted her final semester at the Temple University School of Media and Communication to researching what makes “hipsters” tick. She started by looking at how the hipster, defined by Urban Dictionary as “a subculture of men and women typically in their 20s and 30s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence and witty banter,” is generally portrayed in media.
She found that this character is most frequently described in media as a white male aged between 20 and 35 from an affluent suburb, who now lives in one of the city’s gentrified neighborhoods. He is middle class and college educated, though he looks a little dirty. He surrounds himself with consumer goods that are symbols of his individualism, even items that come from other ethnic cultures. This hipster prototype rejects being called a hipster. But, Marchiony contends, his individualistic behavior is so predictable, it negates his uniqueness.
Through interviews of a dozen millennials in Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore, and combing through previous academic work on the topic, she wanted to discover why the hipster prototype is white.
“What is it about whiteness that is so conducive to the essential spirit of hipsterdom?” she asked.
She contends many white Americans have maintained a sense of connection to their ethnic origins, but also a significant population who haven’t.
“The trend tends to be that several generations removed from the immigrant experience [common in the millennial generation], it’s white kids who don’t end up with the same sense of cultural authenticity as minorities,” she said. It is “partly because, due to their successful assimilation into the mainstream, they are not forced to confront the meaning of their ‘whiteness’ as minorities may be forced to confront their own racial identities.”
The sentiment is supported in prior research.
“Tim Wise points out in his book ‘White Like Me’ that the first thing to be sacrificed on the alter of assimilation to the American mainstream was ethnic identity. To shed the marginalized culture of origin was to become functionally white in society,” she said.
It’s this group that has become the breeding ground for the hipster culture. Hipsters, she said, see their whiteness as lacking in “a cool, oppositional cultural backing.” Instead, she said the hipster fills the void with “sounds, symbols, styles, slang (and) cultural artifacts – powered by the Internet and egged on by consumer culture.”
One of us
Marchiony, who grew up in suburban Ardmore, described herself as falling under the hipster umbrella. “The rhetoric of color blindness in this country is very confusing for white people,” she said. “I say that from a self-reflective place. I grew up yelling at my parents that I had no culture, and then I’m looking around my room and realizing the symbolic consumptive appropriation going on. I’m looking for myself in objects.”
She recalled a moment of self-realization when she took a good look at a Mexican sugar skull in her room. It’s a strong cultural symbol to which she has no genuine connection. She liked it – and, more importantly, purchased it – because it was different. “I started to like it less as I saw it other places,” she explained. “That’s my most hipster object. I got it because I liked it and I thought that the fact that I liked it meant something was cool about it. Once other people got on board, it made it less cool. It was that whole ugly process.”
Marchiony believes it’s important to analyze the actions of the hipster to encourage a change and allow them to discover their true selves.
“One of my interview subjects pointed out that his friends who had stronger ties to their ethnic heritage exhibited less culturally appropriating behavior because they had been instilled with a strong sense of their own intrinsic cultural identity and as such were able to respect that of others,” she said.
Assistant Professor Brooke Duffy, who worked with Marchiony on her research, said her project, “makes a compelling argument about narratives of identity and individualism at a time when many traditional understandings of the self are in flux.”
Through her journalism and poetry, Marchiony hopes to spark a dialogue about the true nature of hipsterdom. “Hopefully, what can come from this is that real subcultures could form, instead of being attached to the self-denial and the defensive irony, and not wanting to commit to a group identity and not knowing how.”