Goth Subculture Victimisation and the Hate Crime Framework

Goth Subculture Victimisation and the Hate Crime Framework
© Photograph by Ian Ross Pettigrew

The use of the term “hate crime” to describe the bias-motivated victimisation of minority groups has a more established history in the United States than it has in the United Kingdom.

Its roots in the United States are traceable to the civil rights struggles of various minority groups of four decades ago when it was used as a way of drawing out commonalities in the prejudice and victimisation faced by different marginalised communities (Grattet and Jenness, 2003).

It gave such groups a banner to campaign under and also one that unified them in the common cause of challenging the types of ideologies that influenced hate-related harassment.

However, in the United Kingdom the concept of “hate crime” has only gained widespread currency amongst academics and criminal justice practitioners in the last ten years or so, precipitated in part by the bombing campaign of neo-Nazi David Copeland in London in 1999 that targeted the capital’s minority ethnic and gay communities.

Over successive weekends in April 1999, Copeland’s nail bombs exploded in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, killing three people and injuring 129 (Hopkins and Hall, 2000). Copeland confessed that he had planted his bombs partly because he wanted them to act as a catalyst for a race war between Britain’s white and minority ethnic communities, and partly because he simply hated gay people (McLagan and Lowles, 2000).

His actions brought issues of prejudice and hatred against all minority groups very sharply into focus in a political and social climate that was already dominated by debates surrounding racism, diversity and discrimination following the publication of the Macpherson Report earlier that year (Rowe, 2007).

However, despite this growth in the employment of the hate crime concept it still remains both controversial and yet vague, as there is little agreement amongst academics or practitioners regarding what actually constitutes a “hate crime” and which victim groups are actually hate crime victim groups.

There is also much debate as to whether there are enough commonalities between the experiences of different hate crime victim groups for them all to be grouped together under the same “hate crime” banner (Bennett, Nolan and Conti, 2009).

For authors like Gerstenfeld, the key aspect of a hate crime is not that it is necessarily motivated by hatred towards the victim, but that the victim is targeted because of their actual or perceived membership of a social grouping that the perpetrator despises (Gerstenfeld, 2004). It is therefore who they are, rather than what level of bias, prejudice or hatred that was directed against them, that Gerstenfeld feels is most important in understanding the nature of hate crime.

Following on from this, another key aspect of the concept of hate crime is that different victims from the same background are, in theory, interchangeable with each other as it is not the individual characteristics of the victim that caused them to be singled out for harassment, but rather that they were a member of a despised and marginalised outgroup.

Hate crimes are thus “stranger danger” occurrences in which the perpetrator does not know the victim personally at all (Perry, 2001). Their purpose is to convey a powerful symbolic message to the victim and other members of their minority group that their presence is not welcome, with the underlying threat that further violence will be meted out upon any member of that group if they do not comply with the perpetrator’s wishes (Saucier et al., 2006).

Hate crimes, therefore, damage the self-worth, confidence and feelings of security of the victim more than “ordinary” crimes as it is their intrinsic identity that is targeted: something which is central to their sense of being and which they cannot alter (Iganski, 2008).

For Perry (2009), the cultural, social and political processes that underline the perpetration of hate crime are important for understanding its broader structural elements. She views hate crime as being a symptom of society’s inter-group conflicts in which the powerful commit acts of violence and intimidation upon the less powerful in order to maintain their privileged position.

Such harassment reflects prevalent social attitudes and values that reproduce and maintain this inequality, as Perry (2009: 72) asserts: “[…] hate crime provides a context in which the perpetrator can reassert his or her hegemonic identity and, at the same time, punish the victim for the individual or collective performance of his or her identity. In other words, hate-motivated violence is used to sustain the privilege of the dominant group and to police the boundaries of the group by reminding the Other of his or her place. Perpetrators thus recreate their own masculinity, or whiteness, for example, while punishing the victims for their deviant identity performance.”

Victims are thus members of socially and economically deprived minority groups who have historically been the subject of marginalisation and oppression. They lack access to political power and are subject to negative stereotyping which demeans their group.

For Perry (2009: 60), this combination of “structural exclusions and cultural imaging leave minority members vulnerable to systemic violence […]. The former makes them vulnerable targets; the latter makes them ‘legitimate’ targets.” This has important implications for the discussions of violence directed against goths as there is some debate as to whether a subcultural “community” can fit Perry’s ideas of a hate crime victim group. This issue shall be returned to below.

Perry, therefore, offers a structural imagining of hate crime that suggests that offenders perpetrate such crimes to strengthen their own dominant social position while reinforcing the subordinate position of “othered” groups.

Her ideas of the punishment of identity performance and the “policing” of boundaries are particularly instructive, and thus her notion of hate crime will be adopted and then debated within the context of the victimisation of goths, and it is to a discussion of the facets of this subculture that the article now turns.

Since its origination around thirty years ago, the goth subculture has evolved, changed and above all endured, to become a “way of life” for many goths that demands a “considerable proportion” of their sense of self (P. Hodkinson, 2002). Yet when it emerged, as spectacular youth culture in the post-punk era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it appeared to be another manifestation of the multiplicity of such styles that have been a feature of the lives of young British people since at least the 1950s (P. Hodkinson and Deicke, 2007).

From its beginning goth was distinctive and different, melding elements of punk and glam rock into a subculture that developed into an “‘aesthetic,’ a particular way of seeing and of being seen” (Wilkins, 2004: 334).

With an emphasis on the dark and the sinister, goths sported “black eye make-up on pale grounding, black clothes with conspicuous cuts and fabrics, elaborate big hairdos, and melodramatic gestures” (Brill, 2007: 113).

The early goth scene revolved around bands such as Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and then the Sisters of Mercy, The Fields of the Nephilim, The Mission and The Cure, whose doom-laden music attracted substantial audiences noted for their “deathly pallor, backcombed or ratted black hair, ruffled Regency shirts, stovepipe hats, leather garments, spiked dog collars, the ensemble accessorised with religious, magical or macabre jewellery” (Reynolds, 2005: 423).

This visually stunning image made goths stand out from the norm, even in an era populated by a number of other “shocking” subcultures.

Since the 1980s goth has developed and diversified, and now studies of the subculture encompass literature, art, films and fashion, as well as music and clothes (see Baddeley, 2006). A fascinating aspect of this evolution has been the prioritising of self-expression and the tolerance, and indeed encouragement, of minority sexual behaviour, whether this is homosexual, bisexual, polyamorous or inclined towards sadomasochism and fetishism (Wilkins, 2004; Brill, 2008).

This open and broad-minded philosophy extends to gender performance, exemplified by its “femininity and ambiguity”, which, for P. Hodkinson (2002), is one of the subculture’s most important features.

Typified by the androgynous appearance of many males and the “hyperfeminine” look of females, goth venerates “a particular, dark and mystical version of femininity for both sexes” which has seen “make-up, jewellery, long hair and traditionally female modes of attire like skirts and tight fishnet tops [become] staples of goth style for males and females” (Brill, 2008: 113).

For many goths, this acceptance of difference, coupled with their non-aggressive outlook, demarcates them from those in the mainstream, the “trendies” or “townies” viewed (perhaps rather stereotypically) as ignorant, intolerant and violent (Barker, 2003). P. Hodkinson (2005) notes that goths will draw these distinct boundaries themselves, deliberately setting themselves apart from those outside the subculture, thereby reinforcing the significant sense of collective affiliation between goths and their distance from “conventional others”.

Although goth subculture enjoyed a peak of popularity in the mid-to-late 1980s it has nevertheless maintained a significant, if more underground, presence within broader popular culture ever since (Brill, 2007). It has demonstrated an ability to absorb other musical and fashion influences, such as punk, nu-metal, industrial, new romantic and indie, to evolve several different stylistic, but still clearly gothic, strands of its own (Barker, 2003).

Its followers, typically middle-class, white and divided evenly between males and females (P. Hodkinson, 2002: 70), have created and sustained a scene that is unique, cohesive, tight-knit and proud of its difference, and one which balances expressions of individuality within a collective sense of shared cultural norms, in a similar fashion to other distinctive and longstanding subcultures such as punk (Worley, 2010).

The contemporary scene includes specialist clothes shops, clubs, pubs and websites, and has, as a twice-yearly highlight, the “Whitby Goth Weekender”, held in the coastal Yorkshire town famously associated with the fictional arrival of the vampire ‘Dracula’ in Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name.

Thus, for P. Hodkinson (2002), being a goth involves high levels of commitment to the subculture to the extent that it can both reflect and dominate participants’ identities and sense of self. Baddeley (2006: 7; 10) develops this point, suggesting that: “[Goth] is more than just a youth subculture, gloomy aesthetic or literary genre. It is a philosophical perspective — a view of the world […]. It is the cosmos in negative, inverted — the strange and eerie are commonplace, while the every day is somehow uncanny […] it is an aesthetic, a viewpoint, even a lifestyle, its tradition a legacy of subversion and shadow.”

This would appear to indicate that goth is more than a mere fashion statement that young people might fleetingly adopt before moving on, and is instead, for many people, something more substantial and meaningful than that.

For long-term adherents, it is their sense of distinctiveness and strong group identification that, arguably, allows them to consider themselves as an identifiable minority community similar to other minority communities that are classified as a hate crime victim groups.

Similarly, it is their sense of separation, and their distinctive and challenging appearance, that makes goths an easily identifiable “outgroup” that, like hate crime victim groups, is prone to harassment.

Interestingly, though, Sophie Lancaster and Robert Maltby, while almost always wearing clothes and make-up clearly identifiable as “goth”, did not like to think of themselves as belonging to a rigid goth subculture (M. Hodkinson, 2008). However, their unexpected appearance caused them to be victimised on more than one occasion before the violent assault upon them in August 2007.