My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture, and things in the broader realm of the Gothic and darkly Romantic. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

Goth is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, the expression of that in Goth rock. It looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, et al) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. The Gothic should not be limited by what is already within it; inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Cultural Appropriation, Eclecticism and Subcultures

Today I have been reading about cultural appropriation. It started out with reading ::this post:: at This Is Corp Goth, about how mainstream fashion appropriates outward signifiers of Goth sub-culture, stripping it of the meaning it has to market it to masses, especially to those who are looking to be "edgy" and distinguish themselves slightly from the mainstream in pursuit of a bought "individuality", not because it reflects their inner aesthetic preferences (if they have developed a core set of aesthetic preferences), but because it is the current trendy way of seeming interesting; they want to be seen as "different" and "interesting" and "individual", but dare not do anything that endangers them to being thought of as "freaky" and "weird" or "not normal", distancing themselves from the originating subculture and the roots of what they have adopted.

This is an issue that has been much talked about in the Goth community, but there is another issue that is not talked about, or at least that I have not seen talked about: do members of the Goth community appropriate things from other subcultures, cultures and traditions, and are our inspirations being used in a way that is cultural and subcultural hybridisation, or in a way that is simply adopting something because it looks nice or is popular amongst other goths, without thinking of the origins of these things.

I routinely see things aimed at Goths that are marketed as "Celtic", "Gypsy" and "Japanese" which are either based off stereotypes or have nothing to do with those people, or even worse are based off hugely erroneous romanticisations of those people with vast historical and anthropological inaccuracies. There is, for example, a difference between the interlace animal designs of the Vikings and Pictish crescent designs and ancient Bronze Age spiral designs, and the interlace designs of Irish monasteries, but all get marketed as 'Celtic knotwork', despite not all of them actually including knots, or being from a group called 'Celts'. This is taking a broad an inaccurate view of what the word 'Celtic' means, and ignoring a lot of history to market something to people who have only a vague knowledge of the term. Often this is pandering to those seeking something exotic, and conflating something being exotic with it somehow being better with what is usual simply because it is different. 

It is not wrong to appreciate the artistic styles of another race or nationality or culture, but to genuinely appreciate something you have to understand that more than just words and obvious symbols are signifiers of meaning, and that some things that we think are merely art or decoration have long and deep traditions as something deeply personal and meaningful to many people in their originating culture, and to them it as vexing to see us appropriate those signifiers and unintentionally strip them of meaning as it is for us to see non-Goth people wear obviously Goth-inspired fashion and then denigrate Goth and Goths.

That said, I do not think it is wrong to wear or have or make things inspired by other cultures and traditions, as long as the inspiring items/traditions are understood, and as long as it is not too direct a copy, more a new creation with artistic ties, because one is not directly copying a symbol or item, but appreciating the aesthetics and then combining them with whatever else lurks in the designers brain and producing something new and appreciative and therefore not taking a specific symbol or item and re-using it stripped of its meaning.  A lot of it comes down to understanding what a specific symbol or item means, and the context in which it is used in its originating culture, something that can easily be learnt with a bit of research, and avoiding using that symbol or item in a way that would be disrespectful to that culture, and if you do wish to use something outside of its proper context, changing it enough so it is clear that you mean no accidental insult or sacrilege, and are merely being aesthetically inspired. 

For example, walking down the street wearing a feather in a band in the same way a Native North American people would do in the context of a feather earned by a warrior would be a bit like walking down the street wearing a medal that would normally be earned by a soldier when you haven't earned it yourself, compounded by being from the people who fought against those who would have earned it, but wearing a different type of feather in a different way altogether would just show an appreciation for that feather. 

It is also important to remember that just because something happened a long time ago, it does not mean that the event or culture is no longer relevant to people today.  A lot of people are very proud of their ancestors, and very connected to their roots, and historical events that caused harm to large swathes of certain cultures have not been forgotten or relegated to the history books, so be careful when using symbols from times past.  A red ribbon around someone's neck meant something specific in the French Revolution, and there are definitely people around who still know what that means, and whose ancestors did end up killed on the guillotine. Even more pressing, there are cultures who still feel the repercussions of historic events, and if you happen to come from the culture they feel has injured them, wearing their symbols could be seen as a grave insult. 

I think this is an important issue for us to bear in mind as creative people and people interested in fashion, especially as people whose tastes are likely to be more eclectic and to draw on things outside of western culture, or from different historical periods. It is basically a case of being aware of what symbols and items mean before using them, and of doing the research. We are a magpie people, who spot something and want it, but sometimes we have to acknowledge that, no, we can't have that exact thing, and then use it as an opportunity to be creative and create our own thing, which will mean so much more as something made by oneself. 


  1. Totally strongly agree with you on this post.

    It's something I've been saying for a while, and because I'm pretty heavy into the tattoo culture, all of these young kids walking around with old nautical symbols inked on their chests and shoulders bothers me. Most of them have no clue about the original meaning. The same goes for people who get Mexican Day of the Dead pinups tattooed on them...have some respect and do a little research before you get something because it looks cool.

    1. I see a lot of people who wear tattoos and don't understand that certain symbols and designs have meanings. I see people blithely wearing everything from Maori tribal designs to people who aren't criminals wearing gang and prison tattoos. It amazes me what things people will do without research, especially when it is as permanent as a tattoo.

  2. (Note: in line 2, you forgot to code the hyperlink to Trystan's blog post)

    Yes, Siouxsie regretted the swastika incident when the attempt to shock mainstream society was lost among the distress caused through wearing the emblem associated with a genocide. Religion is the most vehement critic of the misappropriation of symbols. I once knew someone who was refused service when trying to buy a Rosary in a Cathedral gift shop presumably from the suspicion that it might be used just as jewellery. (If interested, I once told the full story in detail at Darklinks).

    Any less emotive examples of cultural appropriation don't bother me very much anymore.

    Before 1984, Bruce Springsteen was not so very widely known in the UK. If you met another fan you were pleased to have someone with whom you could discuss The Boss's cinematic story-telling lyrics. And then Born in the U.S.A. was released and this special thing that was the-knowing-of-the-Springsteen was gone, he was now a household name. Completely irrational of course - I just hated the idea that a special personal thing was now common currency.

    This isn't the only time My Things have been ripped-off by the masses so I suppose I've just got used to the idea that society, consumerism, marketing, whatever will eat up, chew and spit out anything its Magpie taste finds fleetingly attractive. I don't care - to me Goth is a state of mind more than it is a group of musical genres, style of fashion or set of symbols.

    Thanks for the great blog post, most thought provoking and enlightened as ever.

    1. I wonder if Siouxsie wearing the Star of David t-shirt so frequently was a reaction to the controversy caused by her wearing a Swastika to shock, even if she did wear it with an oversized cross (might have been a Crucifix, I need to check out some more photos).

      I get irritated when people wear Pentagrams and Pentacles to shock, implying that those symbols ought to be shocking and with little or no knowledge of Wicca, Witchcraft or modern Paganism, especially when they then tell people it's a sign of being a Satanist (with even less knowledge of what Satanism is like). It adds to the misinformation about our faiths amongst those who genuinely fear the occult and among those who think it nonsense it perpetuates the belief that it is something taken up in order to be oh so spooooky.

      I think at some point I am going to write a specific post about using religious symbols as fashion statements and my feelings on the matter, with a guide to what a few common symbols mean. I am really surprised when I spot people who don't actually know the difference between a Star of David and a Pentagram, or who go around wearing a Tripple Moon or Baphomet without knowing what either means. No, it's not a pretty moon necklace and a "creepy goat"...

      I don't think mainstream commercialism is a magpie - magpies only take shiny things. Mainstream commercialism is like a goat, you might just find it chewing up straw hats and underwear off the clothes line (not necessarily eating said underwear, but chewing it up just in case it is edible.)

  3. This is exactly why I want to know the history of a symbol before I wear it. There are certain things I do like that I do want, but I at least want to be able to explain why I have it or wear it.

    1. On a related note, your post on wearing symbols was really interesting :)

      I'm like that too, especially as some of the symbols I wear have different meanings in different context, for example a triquetra to me is a Pagan symbol of land, sea and sky (and to a lesser extent the Triple Goddess archetype, but I'm not a strict polytheist or even a duotheist), but a triquetra to an Irish Catholic is a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I am fascinated by the different approaches to cultural appropriation, form the opposite extremist beliefs from "Omg, It's just clothes." and those who take protecting their own cultures from being misappropriated to the point of stepping on others.
    I think it's fascinating to think about gothic fashion as cultural appropriation because in some levels it can be related, but at the same time I know a lot of people that think the amount of oppression received by those peoples should relational to how well represented and stepped around that culture should be. (i.e. "It's not offensive to dress as a catholic nun because they were never oppressed!")
    Which at firsts seems really silly, but is still something to ponder over anyway. I also think a lot of people would find relating alternative (or even occult) fashion and symbols (respectively) not even comparable to the misapplication of something like Native American war bonnets because they’re not racial or religious minorities. It makes you wonder, what can’t be misappropriated?
    I could read about this for ages. Loved the post.

    1. I think it is always cultural appropriation if it is taking a symbol or item and divorcing it from its proper context, over-writing its use as a cultural signifier, and treating it with a sense of disrespect. I do not think that it is uniformly harmful, and that yes, misapplication of such things Dream Catchers, War Bonnets, and Sweat Lodge Ceremonies are far more harmful than dressing up as a nun; especially as it promotes a glossed-over and romanticised version of Native Americans as a unified culture and even worse as an extinct culture, especially when they are still a people and are still facing hardship from what amounts to a historical invasion of their land. The Catholic church is oft seen as a domineering and corrupt institution worth lampooning, but I think a lot of nuns would be offended by the "naught nun" costumes and the connotations of deliberate blasphemy. Also, what is acceptable in countries where Catholicism is in decline may not be acceptable in certain countries, especially in Europe and South America, where Catholicism is still strongly believed in, also in some countries nuns, and other Christians, are at risk from other religious groups that are dominant in that part of the world.

      In the end, they are just clothes, but clothes and accessories and symbols and suchlike can have a lot of attachment for some people and a lot of cultural significance, and it is ultimately about being polite and respectful. Which makes all the people who argue over it rudely into people really missing the point.

      As a Pagan, I feel very upset when I see people who mis-use pentagrams and pentacles, and tie them to things such as animal sacrifice, sexual depravity, and other things very alien from actual Paganism. I also feel very upset when I see people wear them to try and be "spooky" and "edgy". I also dislike it when clueless people wear them and claim to be Pagan, yet spout cliches based on negative stereotypes of our religion. Paganism and Witchcraft are not well-accepted religions/spiritualities, and we face real discrimination, mostly from people who really believe we are fringe-crazies who worship evil, sacrifice things, are sexually depraved and altogether immoral - think of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. People have lost their jobs, their children, even their lives because of a misunderstanding of, and prejudice against our faith, and misappropriating our symbols and using them in ways that reinforce the misunderstanding are very harmful. So it is appropriative, and it is harmful, but not on the same level as when entire peoples have been subjected to acts of genocide. (The witch-hunts were not about us as Witches, they were about unfortunate people labeled by the same evil stereotypes as we are attacked with, but those unfortunate people were rarely actually witches, cunning folk or the like).

  5. I have just downloaded iStripper, so I can have the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.


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