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Walt Kneeland
Youth Cultures
Dr. Austin
M 6pm-9pm
[Spring Semester 2003 | BGSU]


PROMPT -- The commitment to subcultural identity is very powerful for many subcultural members. What role, if any, do OTHER social identities (race, ethnicity, gender, social class, sexuality) play within subcultures?

     There are many aspects of social identity that play certain roles of varying importance in one's participation in a subculture; These include race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Each of these play a role in one's identity and participation, though these are not set in stone, depending on the subculture and the individual's views. Using what we have discussed this semester, as well as several other sources including personal knowledge, I will discuss these in context of comic book readers/fans.

     The comic book fan subculture is found on varying levels, from the individual who occasionally purchases a comic to those who make weekly trips to comic stores, purchasing all sorts of comics in various genres from an assortment of publishers. Subcultural capital is found in the specific comics owned and read, as well as how knowledgeable one is and how well-read they are. Participation tends to be measured by activity in discussion forums (Internet), conventions, and so on; with some of the most dedicated fans organizing and distributing (print and electronic) 'zines related to comics in general or specific characters/titles.

RACE

     Race often plays a large factor in the comics one chooses to read, and one's willingness to participate heavily in comic culture (Brown, Pustz). When one reads comics, they will want to read about characters that they identify with. For whites, there is a vast abundance of white heroes, beginning with the original--Superman. Others include Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Daredevil, and more. There are very few black comic heroes, though some of the more notable ones include Blade and Spawn, as well as Black Panther and Storm (X-Men). This small minority of black characters (as a primary example) reflects the society that doesn't recognize many minorities and caters to the larger white audience.

     Despite this factor, race does not generally prevent individuals from participating in the subculture, particularly via discussion forums/message boards on the Internet or through fan letters sent to the publications themselves. Due to the comic subculture being rather small itself even for a subculture, and often ostracized as a "low art," with few participants, the simple fact that one enjoys comics and is willing to "talk comics" is enough to "initiate" them, with little question beyond that, concerning race.

     In the early 1990s (c. 1993) Milestone Media launched a line of comics set in the Dakota universe, featuring black characters in the roles of the Superheroes and supporting casts. These comics were overseen by black editors and writers, and made an attempt at displaying issues that were really affecting blacks (children and otherwise) rather than merely the occasional stereotypical black depicted in comics intended for whites.

ETHNICITY

     One's ethnicity tends to have less effect than race on one's comic participation. Particularly with superhero comics, characters' ethnicities have generally not had a lot of impact or place in a particular title. As characters' ethnicities are not generally a focus, there is less for anyone (save the general WASP male) to look for or see in characters. Much of this is from those that actually participate to any extent. There is the factor that individuals who can find no characters with a shared race or ethnicity will simply not involve themselves in the subculture, in which case it does exclude them.

GENDER

     Comic culture is a primarily male-dominated grouping. In relation to the larger whole, most comic readers are male, with occasional female readers. Comics are generally aimed at males, particularly younger to mid teens, and many female characters reflect this. As the subculture is male dominated, there is more noticeable masculinity/hyper-masculinity found in comics (Brown). Most title characters in comics are males, with large muscles, and female characters merely offer support, and though less now than in the past, would serve as a plot device, being captured and the hero would have to rescue them. This degradation of women often may discourage female readers, who would want stronger female characters/leads. In recent years, this has become more apparent, and is found in characters/series such as DC's Supergirl and Batgirl, and Marvel's Spider-Girl. However, these characters are all spin-offs of their male counterparts, and particularly in older comics drew from the established male. More recently, as the issue of equality and gender recognition has grown more important, more original female characters have been created. This occasionally will draw in female readers, who are interested in the female characters/series.

     However, comic stores, which are a major site of participation in comic culture often are not intended for women, and display posters and comics/etc. depicting females as sexualized objects of attention/commentary, and would tend to offend many women, make them uncomfortable, and in general discourage female participation.

     Additionally, aside from the mainstream series, many other series depict women with stereotypes and anatomically impossible bodies and costumes. Some of these characters include Lady Death, Vampirella, and Elektra.

SOCIAL CLASS

     One's social class is generally a very important aspect of participation in comic culture, as it is a very material culture, with much social/subcultural capital placed on the quantity of comics one owns. If one is of a lower-income class and cannot afford to purchase many comics, they may have a harder time gaining in that subcultural capital. Additionally, with a large part of the culture is participation through comic conventions and other events, if one is unable to travel to such events, they are denied that part of participation, an immediate effect of their social class.

SEXUALITY

     As with race, one's sexuality may play a defining role in participation, as an individual may wish to read of characters they can identify with. Most comics feature heterosexual characters, and transmit a message of heterosexuality as being "proper," and few homosexual characters. However, a few comics (Such as The Authority or before it, Gaiman's The Sandman) would have characters that were not heterosexual. Beyond interest or disinterest in certain characters or titles, one's sexuality generally has a minor role in their participation, as they can and will still read comics, talk about comics, etc. Regarding sexuality, one particular subject that often comes up is the relationship between Batman and sidekick Robin. Much of this comes from selective reading as one's sexuality can affect the way in which they read a certain comic/situation. Such as Batman and Robin--one can read in between the lines and find a sexual relationship between the two, and identify more through that with the characters.

HOW THESE ARE SHOWN IN OTHER SUBCULTURES

     GOTH - As Hodkins shows us in GOTH, these factors all play to different levels in one's participation in the Goth scene. The Goth scene is generally made up of whites, with very few minorities taking part, whether through exclusion or choice is not known completely. Ethnicity, as with race, factors in. With Goth being a primarily white subculture, it can be argued that whites turn to the subculture in a search for identity denied them through the "dominant" nature of white society as a whole, with nothing specific that can be defined or considered "white culture." One's gender is not overly defining in Goth, nor is sexuality or social class. One aspect of Goth is its blurring of the gender lines, with similar dress regardless of male or female, as well as little questioning if individuals diverge from the "normal” that is defined as heterosexual.

     GANGS - Many aspects of gang subculture is dependent upon race and ethnicity. The basis for many gangs can be race, ethnicity, or gender individually, or a combination. This is explored as Susan Phillips looks at Latino gangs/members. In addition to race/ethnicity, social class is an important part of the subculture, as those who are much better off tend to not be the ones who participate in gangs. It is one's social class that leads them to see a gang as a necessity, to get by and to simply survive. One's sexuality may be called into play, as certain acts involve sexuality or "proving" one's self as being characterized by it.

     HIP HOP - Hip hop can be seen as a culture unto itself or as a subculture--the distinction lying primarily in the individual, and whether they feel it is a culture in and of itself and claiming it, or seeing it as merely something to participate in and therefore a subculture branching off some parent culture. Particularly originally, race was a large part of hip hop--hip hop was "black," and founded in the Bronx. Since its opening days, hop hop has branched out and become far more mainstream, and thus reduced the role of race/ethnicity in general, while those remain important in specific sub-parts of hip hop. While hip hop was originally something involving lower-class blacks, it has since grown beyond that and is no longer restricted to lower-class blacks, as popularity has climbed with higher-class whites. [Rap] has become very mainstream and accepted, regardless of the race, ethnicity, or gender of a performer; though there may be some question as to level of respect and coverage granted to whites (such as Eminem and his movie 8 Mile).

CONCLUSION

Aside from commitment to the subculture, many subcultural members deal with other identities they carry, relating to race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Each of these plays varying roles, partially dependent upon the individual and how the individual lets them affect participation. Other times these aspects are the very basis on which a subculture is constructed. Subculture surrounding comic/fandom is not overly defined by any one aspect, whereas some parts of hip hop and gangs have strong ties to an aspect such as race or ethnicity or gender.