Why "Hipster Sexism" Fails

[Content note: sexual harassment & domestic violence]

My new post at the Daily Dot is about “hipster sexism/racism” in fashion.

It doesn’t surprise me at all when CEOs of major clothing retailers or famous celebrity photographers turn out to be harassing, intimidating, assaulting, or abusing women, because the same thing happens everywhere else: politicstech companies, sports, evenscience journalism. It happens everywhere a few select people are given excessive power and social capital, and those people are usually (but not always) men.

What the fashion industry does have, however, is a trend of “hipster sexism,” which can be defined roughly as people who hold nominally liberal views on things “pretending” to be sexist “ironically,” because sexism is totally over and so now it’s funny. The New Republic‘s Eleanor Margolis writes of Charney and Richardson:

The two men are emblematic of a hipster veneer that’s so often used to cover up the mistreatment of women… With their 1970s porn star aesthetic seems to come this notion that they’re only subjugating women ironically: we’ll carry on buying clothes from people who look like the result of Ron Jeremy humping a copy of Vice. Misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation; as long as it’s retro. These bizarre double standards are only serving to blur the lines…between sexism and chicness.

Margolis doesn’t note the fact that the hipster sexism in fashion also has a racist corollary, which Racialicious Thea Kim discusses at length. If you’ve stepped inside an Urban Outfitters or attended a music festival lately, you’re probably familiar with the trappings of hipster racism—that unmistakable “look at me I’m so over racism” chic that affluent young white folks are presumably going for when they wear blackface to a Halloween party or don a Native headdress to a concert.

Why do “ironic”/”hipster” sexism and racism hold such appeal for slightly left-leaning, “fashionable” young people? There’s an optimistic possibility and a cynical one. The optimistic one is that it allows people to perpetuate the comforting idea that inequality is now so passe that pretending at it is hilariously ludicrous. The cynical one is that it allows people to safely express the actual sexist and racist beliefs that they still hold while maintaining plausible deniability: ”No, you don’t understand, I was wearing that blackface ironically!”

Regardless, sexism and racism aren’t over; it’s only some of their most visible and iconic components that have mostly disappeared from our society. When a dude jokes “ironically” about hitting women, he might think that nowadays domestic violence is Very Rare and taken Very Seriously and the police will immediately come and arrest the offending man (perhaps even on a false accusation, which are now “common”). I, on the other hand, might think that many of my female friends are survivors of domestic violence, psychological abuse, or sexual assault, and few of them were taken very seriously at all when they tried to do something about it. So I won’t see anything “ironically” sexist about the joke. To me, it’ll just be plain ol’ boring sexism.

Much of hipster bigotry rests on the assumption that the person wearing the shirt or making the joke is a Really Good Person who would never actually believe such horrible things, so isn’t it hilarious that they’d pretend they do, ha-ha? But making this assumption requires knowing the person quite well, and given how pervasive sexism and racism still are, assuming that a random dude (or a random CEO of a fashion company, per se) is Totally Not Sexist Or Racist isn’t really a reasonable assumption to make.

Read the rest here.

Why "Hipster Sexism" Fails

10 thoughts on “Why "Hipster Sexism" Fails

  1. 1

    My first encounter with this idea was when I heard (generally odious*) comedian Jimmy Carr describe his act as “post-modern misogyny, funny because it’s steeped in irony” a few years ago. I was actually briefly grateful to him for summarising everything wrong with it so neatly (and even more grateful when the show moved on to the next set ten minutes later). Sadly, he continues to be popular here in the UK, even with a fair number of people I would normally expect to know better.

    *as a performer; the only thing I know about his personal life is that when he was done for tax evasion his excuse was that he didn’t know it was illegal. But he did at least stump up the cash, in full, and admit that he’d been in the wrong. So, you know, could be worse.

    1. 2.2

      True. There is also another angle in the (often nausea-inducing) statements that people like Richardson and Charney have made, they seem to think they are acting out in a way that promotes some sort of sexual libertarianism that would be good for everyone. The old “I’m helping the world” dodge to rationalize assault/coercion.

  2. 3

    rests on the assumption that the person wearing the shirt or making the joke is a Really Good Person who would never actually believe such horrible things, so isn’t it hilarious that they’d pretend they do, ha-ha?

    I tend to take people at face value, and believe that they aren’t putting on a false act … so if they are acting like they think sexism or racism is fun, I take them seriously.

  3. 4

    domestic violence is Very Rare and taken Very Seriously and the police will immediately come and arrest the offending man (perhaps even on a false accusation, which are now “common”)

    I thought it was that everyone was supposed to ignore domestic violence and “real sexism” while the FemiStasi™ hordes imprison harmless jokers and people who are Just Being Human in FEMA camps. Especially men, because we hate them and they are all rapists. It’s true because I read it on the internet.

  4. 5

    This reminds me of some advice I heard about doing stand up comedy (I don’t do it but know a few people who do.) Certain jokes only make sense within a context where people clearly know that you don’t believe what you are saying, and most stand-up doesn’t actually provide enough context, so being *ironically racist* is just going to come across (in the maybe 2 minutes you have to crack jokes) as being racist. The only people who will laugh will be laughing at the racism in a way which is clearly not ironic.

    Another issue is – who gets to crack the jokes? A privileged white guy being *ironically sexist* could too easily be reality, and I think that a man who wants to be socially conscious and funny could find better ways to make fun of sexism.

    In a pessimistic way, I think that *ironic bigotry* is really just a cover for people wanting to say outright bigoted things but they want the quick *I was being ironic!* exit from the consequences. It’s not exactly the same as *it’s just a joke* but it’s still about the same thing much of the time.

  5. 7

    Hollywood has the same hipster sexism issue that fashion does and probably for similar reasons. In both cases you have alot of aspiring women trying to make it big in a world that is still very much dominated by men. But unlike other industries, sex appeal, objectification and ironic humor are part of the product thus making it easier to maintain an atmosphere that pressures women to be “chill girls” at the least, or actual casting couch servants at worst. I know several people who work as writers in tv/film and it sounds like it is still very much the boys club, and that any woman who wants to try to progress up from PA to writer to show-runner on up to Producer is expected to roll with a whole lot of sexist jokes because hey-it’s-comedy and we-wanna-be-“edgy” and if they don’t like it there’s a million others who will gladly take their place. The chill-girl mentality extends even to the administrative side as well. My wife works for a studio in IT and has told me that sexism is rampant (even beyond I ever experienced working in construction) and that speaking out against it is unofficially going to land you on next year’s list for layoffs. Models in fashion are obviously subject to much worse. It’s telling that Richardson targets models BEFORE they are powerful enough to say no or even pushback to the point of jeopardizing HIS ability to find work (I imagine if he tried to get Kate Moss to let him jack off on her face, a model of her stature could possibly get him blacklisted.) Unfortunately, aside from lawsuits, raised awareness by articles and blogposts or top-down change from powerful women/feminist-allied men, I don’t see how the terrain is going to change drastically in the near-future. Forming unions (as NFL cheerleaders are attempting to do currently) is also another route to trying to clean up these areas, though obviously unions are having a tough time nowadays in the US.

    On the matter of ironic sexism/racism/homophobia “S/R/H,” I think many people just haven’t thought much about the real damage that jokes can do. I used to be a very “edgy” joker, unafraid of tip-toeing up to the line of propriety in every way. But the more I’ve thought about it I just can’t justify it anymore because: 1.) usually the people laughing at ironic S/R/H are actually S/R/H-ists etc., and why would I want to appeal to them? 2.) even if I’m not S/R/H-ist, there’s a good chance that people will assume that I am if I tell jokes that invite such interpretation, 3.) even if I’m not S/R/H-ist and everyone who hears my jokes can magically tell that I’m not S/R/H, telling such jokes (in addition to offending people) perpetuates an environment that allows actual S/R/H-ists cover for dog-whistle humor by making others less likely to call them out on it. At the end of the day NOT being a party to 1-3 is far more important to me than gaining a couple laughs from the dude-bros.

  6. 8

    The quality of the comments over there is the lowest I’ve seen outside youtube. The only people who seem to understand the point of the article in the top twenty are ESL and not very good at explaining themselves, while the rest are stock femmephobic hipster haters or Slymepit style “feminists are the real sexists” types, or one word responses which could be read as for or against because are they replying to the article or the asshole above them? These people are, as a whole, less articulate and more regressive than the average facebook feed.

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