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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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3.6 Thinking about Subcultures

In Moby-Dick: Then and Now, Rudy's comparison of regional differences in swagger offers a way of thinking about the concept of subculture. When they write about culture as a "total way of life" or as a "shared set of meanings," cultural scholars tend to oversimplify the lived experience of culture. No two individuals relate in exactly the same way to the traditions and materials of their culture; a society as diverse as the United States is shaped by the interactions of many small cultural communities. For many outsiders, hip hop might be understood as a subculture while within hip hop, there are distinctive local subcultures. Keep in mind the term, sub, doesn't suggest something that is subordinate (less valuable or powerful) or subterranean (below other aspects of the culture). It is better to think of a subculture as a subset, a specialized set of practices drawn from the totality of the culture, given specific meanings for a local community.

Writers on subcultures have discovered that youth are particularly innovative borrowers from their parent culture, ascribing new meanings and uses to pre-existing symbols, words, and fashions. The British punks, for example, took the swastika not as a sign of Aryan superiority but as a rejection of their parents' values and lifestyles. They chose this symbol because they were children of the generation that had defended Great Britain against the Nazis. The Goths constructed their subculture through borrowings from Victorian horror literature. Within a subculture, symbols, gestures, words, or fashions serve a double purpose. On the one hand, they signal the connections between those inside the community, allowing them a way to recognize each other and to express their shared values and meanings. On the other hand, they distinguish the members of a subculture from the general population..

Consider another classic example of a youth subculture. This group of Rockabilly fans gathers regularly on the outer edges of Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, Japan. They have chosen an identity for themselves that harkens back to iconography associated with America in the 1950s, reclaiming the greased back hair, the leather jacket and motorcycle pants, and the Rockabilly music as signs they use to claim affiliation with each other and to signal their distance from the culture around them.  

As you consider this segment, talk about the classic characteristics of a sub-culture, including:
  • Shared identify through rituals, gestures, clothing, language
  • Hierarchy (power differentials within a group)
  • Shared (sometimes alternative) values, including status symbols established within the group
  • Posturing (identity performance, swagger)
  • Naming (titles, nicknames)
  • Membership rules and requirements (physical, social)
  • Identity tied to place (You can layer the Identity Map activity on to this activity.)
At first glance, it is easy to see their passionate response to American popular culture. If you look closely, you will see the ways those influences have been reabsorbed into distinctly Japanese cultural practices. The Japanese live in a highly hierarchical culture with many rituals designed to ensure discipline and respect for esteemed members. In this subculture, the leader is the only one to wear a red jacket, an insignia of rank based on the red jacket James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause

You will also identify gender segregation in the group. The participants are overwhelmingly male. In a society like Japan, which has a strong tradition of gender segregation, women dress in Elvis drag and dance with their male counterparts. How might the fantasies provided by American popular culture allow teens to escape constraints on gender performance in our country?

What distinguishes the Rockabilly group in Japan as a subculture (their dance style, clothing, rituals, and swagger) is visible in the video. But what links them together is less clear as it is reflected in language they use, the identities they construct, the rituals they perform, and the values they express through their performances. Why, for example, do they return regularly to this same location where, by some accounts, members of the subculture have gathered for several decades? 
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