Black Goth Girls (Mini Research Paper)
Written by Maya Kotomori
Goth, more than a look aspired to by tweens reading vampire novels, is a lifestyle - one based in darkness both in aesthetic, and attitude. Beyond the black eyeshadow and neo-Victorian clothing left for “normies'' to ponder, the Goth lifestyle raises questions about darkness as a concept; what it means to be “dark,” and how the word’s associations - dark, black, sinister - define a subculture. What do these words mean culturally, how can darkness, subculturally, relate to Blackness, from a raced perspective? Goth, more than a look aspired to by tweens reading vampire novels, is a lifestyle - one based in darkness both in aesthetic and attitude, meant to be celebrated on the margins of mainstream society. Beyond the black eyeshadow, neo-Victorian clothing and other aesthetic performance for “normies' ' to ponder, the Goth lifestyle raises questions about darkness as a concept. What does it mean to be “dark,” how does the word’s associations - dark, black, sinister - define a subculture defined by the norm of its white participants?
Though within a separate category of culture, subcultures exist within cultures rather than being opposed to them. They are communities based on shared aspects within a culture that are not considered visually hegemonic. Because of this relationship, subcultures visually manifest themselves into beauty standards similarly to the way cultural hegemonies exist within interpretations of beauty. Subcultural hegemonies cannot exist, because a hegemony implies that a standard, such as the cultural domain of whiteness and heterosexuality, are so dominant that they are considered the natural state of being. Because the definition of a subculture requires that it exists on the fringes of culture, its existence alludes to a reductive visual aesthetic that is alternative to that of the mainstream yet affected by larger hegemonies within beauty such as whiteness and heterosexuality. In analyzing the Black peoples’ interactions within the Goth subculture, hegemonic structures of whiteness and femininity support the visual Goth aesthetic and can be seen in the existence of online communities specifically dedicated to the assertion that Black people have a place in the community despite reductive beauty standards.
1.1 – Subcultures as a Microcosm of Culture
Subcultures are a subcategory of larger dominant cultures versus a structure posed against dominant culture. Pierre Bordieu chocks this up to be that “Taste classifies and classifies the classifier.” In this context, personal preferences place people in different categories based on visual performance. These tastes fit into ideas of culture insofar as they are visual performances categorized as differences within different cultures. Tastes create an economy-based cultural capital, which maintains that visual performances hold and exchange value in the same way money does, where more money = more power, and where that power reflects hegemonic structures. Subcultures relate to the relationship between culture and taste in a similar way as subheadings relate to headings in an outline. Both structures serve the same purpose, which is to pose a theme for the bulleted information that is to follow; however, the larger heading dictates the theme of the subheading, which then dictates the theme of the bulleted information. Culture and subculture operate like an outline, as seen in the following diagram.
1.2– Cultural Ideas of Whiteness: The role of Taste in Subculture
Subculture exists within culture- and according to Bordieu, culture equals taste. Though there are many different cultures with their own tastes, they are all affected by a larger cultural influence that is so dominant it is perceived as natural for all people, called a hegemony. Hegemony is essentially where collective knowledge manifests; the destination of colloquial generalizations. So, even though cultures dominate over subcultures, hegemonic ideals are so dominant over everything that they are perceived as natural. Using the case study of Black people in the Goth subculture, let’s consider whiteness and hegemony. Richard Dyer references whiteness as a constant process towards a state of being which treats race as a verb rather than a noun. Here, whiteness holds the same relationship to taste as culture does. Unlike Reaganomics, the pervasiveness of whiteness does, in fact, trickle down into all facets of culture, including subculture and what visual performances are associated with subcultural tastes. Again referencing Bordieu, culture is synonymous with taste, yet there is no subcategory of taste; there is taste, and there is lack thereof. Subcultures possess their own visual cultures, however, that become synonymous to the subculture itself. I explain this as tackiness, because, in the case study of the Goth subculture, the visual culture is clearly posed against dominant visual culture and, literally, the color aspect of whiteness through the prominence of the color black in their wardrobes. However, it can be argued that this tackiness, though existing in opposition to dominant ideas of taste, still exists within taste because of both the pervasiveness of hegemonic whiteness and the fact that without the existence of taste, tackiness wouldn’t have any visual culture to oppose and wouldn’t exist as well. Effectively, cultural tackiness is subcultural taste, in the case of Goth. Adding onto Figure 1’s relationship of culture and subculture, Figure 2 connects culture and subculture to taste, and additionally tackiness. Hegemonies are placed axiomatically above all cultures and because of this, the idea of a subcultural hegemony cannot exist as it is an oxymoron. This does not mean that cultural hegemonies cannot be expressed through subcultural interpretations of taste.
1.3– Hegemonies in Subcultures: Dominant Goth Visual Culture (as reflection of cultural ideas of whiteness)
As cultural hegemony influences both culture and subculture, the interaction of Black people within the Goth subculture points out the effects of hegemonic whiteness as an aesthetic ironically based around the color black. Dyer once said that “white is both a colour and, at once, not a colour and the sign of that which is colourless because it cannot be seen: the soul, the mind, and also emptiness, non-existence and death, all of which form a part of what makes white people socially white.” Goth subculture is predicated on the macabre, both dark symbolically and in practice. With this understanding paired with the context of whiteness, Goths embody the omnipresence of whiteness through their love of darkness. There is even an aspect to the Goth subculture that mimics the naturalness associated with hegemony. Cultural anthropologist Agnes Jasper tells how Gothness is irresistible, natural, and authentic because of that – there is a cult of normalcy within those subcultural people not considered “normal” in a cultural sense. Goth visual culture can be described as autonomous, distinguished by the roles of cultural and subcultural systems in the sense that Goth visual culture has created its own independent network of media and commerce outside that of the dominant culture, though mimicking the framework of the dominant culture.
1.4– GAGNÉ Gothic/Lolita Negative Identity Practices (as enforcement of whiteness)
Like there are cultural tastes whose antitheses are subcultural tackiness, there is a “right way” to be Goth. Jasper describes this as a search for authenticity within the Goth subculture, what is considered “authentic” to be perceived as ‘naturally Goth.’ The Gothic insiders in Jasper’s ethnography describe Goth as an attitude –even if you don’t perform Goth visually you can be naturally Gothic in embodying the dark attitude associated with the dark look. These Goths are essentially so authentically Goth that they don’t even have to perform their Gothness in dress; it just exudes from them. In an ethnography of Gothic Lolita subculture in Japan, Isaac Gagné observed how Gothic Lolita’s desire to achieve the perfect look led to violence within the online community when it came down to who was the closest to said “perfect look.” The main distinction is made between Gothic Lolitas and those who practice kosupure, or Japanese costume play. Gagné points to this distinction as the difference between cultural emergence or performance – Gothic Lolita culture and dress allows your authentic self to show itself, kosupure conceals it with a costume, an affect. Within the Gothic Lolita subculture, performing in line to the visual culture is seen as crucial to the aspect of forming a subcultural identity through a look. On a larger scale, however, subcultural taste is considered tacky in comparison to the comparison to the cultural norm, so distinguishing between these forms of tacky is futile.
1.5- Black Goth Visual Culture (as a Subculture within a Subculture)
Black people are racialized within the Goth subculture as a mode of viewing the ways in which the Gothic subculture enforces hegemonic ideals of whiteness through its lack of representation in the community. In analyzing three different Facebook pages dedicated to Black Goth girls; Chocolate Lolita, Black Goth Girls Rock, and the professional celebrity page of a famous Black Gothic Lolita named Ariyana Carr, an overwhelming number of the posts are of white Goth bodies. Perhaps the most interesting is that in the 4 years since originally surveying these pages, they have since become practically inactive, or have even been deactivated, in the case of Black Goth Girls Rock. The standard for the whole of the Gothic Lolita community is described as finding solace in the way they can construct a youthful, white, pure self through their makeup. Moving back toward hegemonic ideals of whiteness, Dyer’s understanding of racism as being constructed outwardly on the body as a process can be located as hiding within cultural tastes, and thus these “authentic” norms within subcultural tackiness. Black Goth girls are consistently put in places to prove their Gothness, because their culturally raced bodies have to perform a sub-culturally Gothed body to be considered authentic. Authentically “what,” is the question. Does the inactivity/deactivation of these pages represent a normalization of subculture tackiness, to the point where it has been culturally ‘seen’ enough to not warrant Facebook groups for those Black Goth girls to share their experiences? Black Goth girls are not represented in Goth subculture because Black girls are not represented outside of stereotypes of Black womanhood in dominant culture. Even in justifying a placement for Black girls within the Goth subculture, the issue of how hegemony’s omnipresence penetrates all aspects of culture and visual performance is not addressed, it is excused.
More than hegemony defines the natural, it classifies the unnatural. In the case of Goth, the visual culture is so opposed to what is considered dominant that it can be easily seen at complete odds to it. Though the visual cultures exist on opposite sides of the spectrum, the system of valuing an ability to perform authenticity works the same way as it does for a culture. Subcultures are not isolated spatio-temporal voids protected by cultural understandings of race, because subcultures are a microcosm of culture, not an alternate version. Within Goth, this subculture is seen as most apparent in examining blackness, and how Goth visual culture is able to instill the metaphor of a white body through a visual culture based on the color black, that additionally omits race as a process. With the Goth subculture, the search is for authenticity, which is either defined by a performance of Gothness so well that your authenticity, or purity, cannot be questioned. The role of Black girls in the Goth subculture specifically points out the deeply ingrained perception of whiteness as naturalness, and authenticity as purity.