Goth may conjure up images of pale-faced, corset laced, long haired sirens under the moonlight, and in that aspect, I’m going to disappoint you. Despite what you might have heard about Goths being eternal children of the night rebelling against their straight laced peers, the reality is far simpler, less angry and comes with its own set of semi-democratic rules. There’s a beautiful relationship between an individual and goth culture, the art of choosing and claiming the marker of our identity that falls outside what kind of car we drive or what zip code we live in. Perhaps that’s why, despite the hype of being a “refuge for troubled youth”, goth does more for mainstream than the other way around.
Simple Kids are “Good Kids”
From an American perspective, we, as a culture, have a dismal history with anything regarded as too “different”. But when you can’t adhere to the social conventions (whether unable or refusing to do so) where do you go? What is a misfit to do?
The “good kids”, the poster children for the all American life, were not so great in my opinion. They would never dare question authority figures (a little bit of questioning is good for any leadership), cared a lot about appearances (I’ll never forget how one high school girl bragged about her $200 jeans) and the obsession with having the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. The problem is not what they liked, but rather, how much you could be ostracized for actively deviating from those markers of success. After all, what’s a little claiming of identity compared to the success of aligning yourself with the supposed social elite?
I couldn’t take it in our conservative, Republican, agricultural small town. I withdrew more and more, spending most of my free time reading and writing. While for some, the gateway into goth culture is music, mine was books.
From Dracula to Interview with a Vampire, knowledge was the highest of social currency. Philosophy and debate, creativity and cleverness, that was something I could get into. After all, why not? Money and material wealth wasn’t of any real significance to the immortal and physical beauty just came with the territory. The only thing that could really hurt you in that world was not be smart enough.
Most goths around my age (mid-twenties) and above are readers. No matter what variation you encounter (Victorian, Cyber, Lolita…the list is long) they probably have a small collection of books. So now in clubs and parties, sure, you can be beautiful but if you can’t hold a conversation on a basic level then you lose value. (The degree of this aspect’s significance varies. To some it matters a great deal and to others you have to be demonstratively awful before it’s worth noting.) However, the game is changing these days.
Look the part> Be the part.
Clothing used to be a big marker, back when a simple goth skirt could cost $300. It meant either you were creative or wealthy (which meant you were knowledgeable enough about something to get paid for it). Now, as goth falls under the mainstream gaze, alternative clothing is more accessible, more affordable. Social media is becoming more and more visually focused, which isn’t bad right off the bat, but as long as you “look” the part, you’re “credible”. With this change comes another and it’s where we place the value of expression.
Clothing is what goths argue about the most these days, the most recent target being #MadeWellGoth, but no one argues about music or the legitimacy of other goth influences as heavily. No one seeks to communicate on the same level about any of Goth’s previous interests. The social value of knowledge lies in other subjects now. This “clash” of social conventions and value of expression is not a bad thing, but by constantly getting stuck in the loop of disagreement about appearances, we legitimize appearance being so much more significant than what is being expressed. We can internalize these public crucifixions and develop fears being ostracized or ignored for the very same thing that led us to goth in the first place.
Just look at the books…
With the rise of young adult fiction and mythical, fantastic adventures we saw a shift in where value was placed in a social context. Vampires, for example, were expected to assimilate into non-vampire worlds, play by a different set of rules than their predecessors. Blending in, once again, key to survival and this went mostly unquestioned. Gone were the heavy cerebral conversations of identity and shaping it, the note-worthy outbursts of finding it among all the supposed walls and the blue prints for intrapersonal examination of morals and elitism. The bare bones of baser urges were introduce en masse, leaving an entire generation of “weirdos” wondering “Am I attractive even though I am different?”
This generation’s predecessors used to ask “I am different, but I can’t be alone, so where is everyone like me?”
It is here we see that goth never sought to serve as a platform for angst and rebellion for rebellion’s sake. Instead, it fought for space for its members to express themselves outside a short list of superficial markers they no longer had to feign allegiance to.
While I use vampires to highlight the change in what goths drew from, it’s evident in other forms as well. It’s in music and what we’re brooding about these days and in fashion, where anything that contrasts with the now fictional, All American icon, is thrown into goth.
Goth culture is volatile, defined by the people who use the label, but it has been and always will be about the claiming of identity. It’s probably the reason it’s escaped being pinned down in an observable and inclusive way for decades. While I do not believe that it will ever die, its newest incarnation deviates heavily from its previous forms, fighting to be recognized and accepted without being completely absorbed. We are all once again being asked to decide where we place the value of expression, to personally define meaningful expression and where we want to fall in line.