During our most recent lecture, we looked at the subject of subculture, covering what constitutes a subculture, how we can identify and know them, and how subcultures can be created through things like class, race, gender, fashion, and textual readings. The work of Hebdige and McRobbie were both cited as being good sources on the discussion of subculture, as is Cohen’s work on moral panic around subcultures.
We were shown the film SLC Punk! (Dir. James Merendino, 1998) and given a set of questions to consider both during the film and after on the subcultures shown within the film (mainly punks and mods).
1. What is the dominant message of the film in relation to notions of resistance?
Resistance throughout the film, primarily seen through the punk Stevo, is seen as something which you constantly have to work at to maintain – even though they do very little to actually resist the system aside from their substance habits, fashion style, and living in an old factory. Resisting the dominant ideological system of White Middle-Class American (as seen through his parents) is something he is constantly fighting to achieve. However, at the end of the film, he realises that to work with the dominant discourses around him will make his life easier, more comfortable, happier, and with direction. Interestingly, Stevo seems to know on some level throughout the film that resistance does have a time limit, as he grapples with relationships around him, friends growing up and changing, and punk itself changing as a genre and culture. Overall, the dominant message comes across as that resistance itself isn’t a bad thing, especially when you are still trying to work out your place in the world. But the film highlights that resistance will come to an end in the form like punk, and instead we find new ways to work on resisting dominant discourses (for example, Stevo decided to go to Harvard and become a lawyer so he can fight the system on the inside).
2. How are ‘Others’ positioned? Who are the ‘Posers’? How is commodification discussed and what are the repercussions?
‘Others’ within the film are those who are working within the system – such as Stevo’s parents, who fall into the category of White middle-class Americans. They become othered by Stevo and the characters in the film because they are seen to have ‘given in’ to the system, and no longer fight for what they believe in. However, there is an interesting example of another ‘Other’ in the film, which comes in the form of their friend Sean. Sean, after a bad drug trip which ends with him trying to kill his mother and being taken into an institution, ends up on the streets begging. When Stevo and his girlfriend run into him on the street, Stevo is clearly uncomfortable at facing what happens when resisting goes wrong. They help him, but leave as soon as possible, clearly uncomfortable at his outsider position. This seems to spark off a train of thought in Stevo about who is really on the outside of culture.
‘Posers’ are seen to be the lowest of the low – people who hang on to a subculture because they cannot find their own. They’re also seen to be people who don’t know how to really live a life of resistance and anarchy, instead they just bumble along with the ‘real’ crowd hoping to fit in. Except that by the end of the film, Stevo realises that he was a poser all along, someone just looking for a reason to disobey his parents and not live the life he felt he was being told to. He believed in anarchy, yet did very little to actually live that way or support it. He realises that he only became a punk because his friend Bob was into it – making him a poser from the very beginning.
Commodification in the film is only hinted at until the end, when a new female character Brandy, points out to him that he spends a lot of time buying blue hair dye, drugs, booze, and expensive leather studded clothes in order to be a punk. Stevo’s huge blue mohawk is cited as a point of commodification, as characters in the film point out that he looks like an ‘Indian’ and wonder why he chose that style. Punk itself becomes a commodity that comes to be realised through the fashion which is bought and worn. To resist behaviourally, such as through substance abuse, you still have to buy this.
3. Is subculture trivialised by the film?
I don’t feel that subculture is trivialised by the film. The film tries to address the difficulties of living within a subculture, trying to maintain a sense of solid, worthwhile identity while all those in positions that you respect around you are telling you no. The commodification of punk is addressed, but this issue is not raised to trivialise it, merely to highlight the flaws within the culture. Even Stevo’s parents, the epitome of middle class White American, don’t look to trivialise or belittle him for his punk-ness. They seem more interesting in setting him on the path for a future and supporting him. Subculture is more celebrated for its diversity and unity of different peoples in the film, even if ultimately the characters seem to realise that true punk, which is to say anarchy, is nearly impossible.