Elder Goths and the Temporalities of Aging in the Mainstream Culture

Leah Bush

Leah Bush

There is a distinct binary present in the popular imaginary on Goth in North American mainstream culture. From an outsider perspective, Goth is portrayed as a subject of antagonism, terror, and fear.

The first results in a cursory Google search for “Goth in American culture” are conservative religious websites capitalizing on the eternal moral panic of parents raising teenagers.

From “Goth Culture Will Destroy Your Teen – Jesus is Savior,” a site chock full of erroneous information prominently displaying 1990s shock rocker Marilyn Manson, the Columbine massacre, and the non-Goth rap group Insane Clown Posse as poster children for murderous teenage Goths; to the Christian Research Journal article ‘The World According to Goth,’ an extremely detailed summary of Goth culture concluding with the most effective ways to evangelize to youth, Goth is an enemy of culture.

Interspersed with these sites are homegrown web pages produced by Goths to dispel the negative perception of their subculture. If one is not a Goth, the cultural goal is eradication (or, at best, a type of morbid curiosity); if one is a Goth, the eternal role becomes to defend the subculture against incorrect and bizarre accusations.

Goth is most often associated in mainstream popular culture with Marilyn Manson, a heavy metal musician and artist who burst on the music scene in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1993, fronting the band Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids.

Born Brian Warner, in Canton, Ohio, Manson’s cult following exploded into the mainstream with the release of the album ‘Antichrist Superstar’ in 1995. The legitimacy of Manson as a Goth in musical sound and appearance is a topic of intense debate within the subculture, with Goths who belonged to the subculture before the late 1980s viewing him as a poseur.

Much to the horror of parents, Manson, together with industrial musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, portrayed a Gothic aesthetic which was less vampire and Victorian and more bondage, violence, and anger, accompanied by licentious “rock star” behavior such as copious amounts of drug use and destruction of property while on tour.

As the most visible face of what was perceived to be Goth by the mainstream, Manson’s musical career was adversely affected by the Columbine massacre despite the fact that gunmen Harris and Klebold were not fans of his music.

In response to the shootings, Manson wrote a piece for Rolling Stone describing himself as a scapegoat for the tragedy while distinguishing himself from Goth: “Those two idiots weren’t wearing makeup and they weren’t dressed like me or like Goths. Since middle America has not heard of the music they do listen to (KMFDM and Rammstein among others), the media picked something they thought was similar.”

Moving into the 2000s, Gothic images variously flourished and faded in the mainstream, with a flurry of scholarship published in the mid to late 2000s primarily focusing on Gothic and horror literature and British culture; the interdisciplinary academic journal Gothic Studies was established in Manchester, England in 1999.

Gothic themes most recently appeared in North American culture in the early 2010s with the merchandising juggernaut surrounding Stephanie Meyer’s young adult vampire-human romance ‘Twilight’ and consumer products such as the Monster High children’s dolls.

According to Naomi Richards et al., visual representations of aging are important because they “capture and constrain our imagination, giving a forecast of what we can expect as well as a prescription for how we want to live later in life.”

Without these images, we are left unmoored, and images of the Elder Goth in North American popular culture are conspicuously absent.

Portrayals of the Goth subculture in American media are youth-oriented by nature. From Fairuza Balk’s Wiccan character Nancy in the 1996 horror film ‘The Craft,’ to the Goth and vampire-themed television show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ the ‘Twilight’ novel and film series, and the annual Goth-themed episode of ‘South Park,’ Goth is associated with stereotypical tropes of darkness, witchcraft, vampirism, or in the case of South Park, gentle satirizing and mockery — but above all, affiliation with Goth is associated with youth and marketed towards youth.

When compared with Goths, rockers are allowed to age, and age successfully, in the cultural imaginary. Bennett argues that rock musicians such as Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones are held up as role models and style icons for aging adults, and television has become a tool for aging rock stars to revitalize their careers.

The prime example is the Emmy-winning MTV reality show ‘The Osbournes’ (2002-2005), which captured the expletive-filled but loving domestic life of Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne, then in his late 50s.

The show’s comedic value centered around the bumbling Osbourne’s challenges of maintaining the rock and roll lifestyle and his corresponding reputation as the “Prince of Darkness” with fulfilling his familial responsibilities to his manager-wife and teenaged children.

Rather than portraying an image of the aging rock star life as a form of non-normativity, ‘The Osbournes’ is grounded in the nuclear family unit as a social institution, ultimately showing that aging rockers — or at least aging male rockers — can “have it all”: the fame, the successful career, the mansion, and the happy family life.

Alternatively, reality television allows aging rockers to serve as experts in their field, with 67-year-old musician Steven Tyler judging aspiring young singers on the competition show American Idol in 2011 and 2012 while continuing to perform and tour with Aerosmith. Rather than being relegated to a relic or a victim of ageism in the workplace, Tyler’s age and 45 years of experience in the music industry are viewed as assets.

When juxtaposed against these images of sanctioned aging for real-life rockers, Elder Goth becomes an anomaly, an age-inappropriate aberration which is perhaps partly reflective of the media’s unwillingness to depict fictional middle-aged adults as desirable.

Fictional rockers have not aged in the imaginary, as well as Osbourne and Tyler. Portrayals of aging rock stars in American culture, such as Denis Leary’s 2015 FX television show ‘Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,’ correspond with the dominant decline narrative, with plot lines centering around out-of-control rock musicians trying to recapture their former glory. Because Goths and rock stars are aged by culture, it is unsurprising that the most detailed representations of Elder Goth are in a comedy television show.

The IFC sketch comedy television series ‘Portlandia’ is a prime example of the tensions between middle-class lifeways and subcultural membership. In the series, Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen, 49, and guitarist Carrie Brownstein, 41, of the riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney, portray a variety of middle-aged couples in a fictionalized version of Portland, Oregon.

Long known as a bastion of alternative culture, Portland is marketed by the civic organization “Travel Portland” with the city’s unofficial slogan “Keep Portland Weird,” and the show is used as a marketing tool to attract tourists. Based on Brownstein’s experiences as a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, with characters drawn from her experiences of the insularity of and judgment present in the local punk rock scene, Portlandia’s subtext spoofs the extreme political correctness and obsession with minutiae present in a privileged, primarily white, middle to upper-middle-class demographic which Brownstein describes to Salon as “having the level of privilege and class to have the ability to curate your life.”

Portlandia’s couples run the gamut of middle-class American life. The show explores the dynamics of platonic friendships and romantic relationships between middle-aged (and mostly middle-class) adults in a city well known for — and proud of — its commitment to “independence, creativity, and nonconformity.”

Armisen and Brownstein both play male and female characters, and Brownstein, who is bisexual, describes Portlandia in an interview with Bust as “a very weird, kind of queer feminist show sometimes… Because our show’s a comedy, we can explore duality and contradiction without being too didactic.”

Queer temporalities are particularly present throughout the show when viewed in terms of aging. The characters which Armisen and Brownstein play are a mix of members of distinct style-based subcultures (punks, hippies, feminist bookstore owners) and more societally conforming heterosexual couples dealing with relationship struggles and rites of passage for the middle-aged, such as parenting, lack of sexual relations, commitment issues, and greying hair. Two couples in the show, platonic life mates Fred and Carrie, and the romantic pair of Elder Goths Vince and Jacqulin, express forms of alternative temporalities which provide alternatives to the narrative of age as decline.

Greying hair is an immediate sign of panic for non-subcultural characters Fred and Carrie, who live in a platonic relationship and share a bedroom with two twin beds in a large home. In the episode ‘Going Grey,’ Fred, played by Armisen, is thrown into a state of denial about his age when he’s woken up one morning by Carrie’s screaming — his hair has suddenly turned grey overnight! Fred refuses to accept that he is 49 years old, and is adamant that he is in his early thirties, embarking on a mid-life crisis series of events: returning to his grade school teacher for guidance and continually relocating to other cities in a futile search for validation before returning to Portland.

Carrie’s simultaneous mid-life crisis hinges around the decision whether or not to have children. After an unsuccessful attempt at sex with Fred, being repeatedly insulted by a male gynecologist for being without a sexual partner in her 40s, and her brief experience as a foster parent to the Mayor’s children, the episode culminates with Carrie staging a wedding ceremony in the following episode celebrating getting her tubes tied, signifying an acceptance that she is content to be an “old spinster” living with Fred.

When Fred arrives at the ceremony, he details his acceptance of being 49, and suggests that the two get married on the spot, which they both laughingly decline, and he gets a vasectomy instead. Fred chooses to dye his hair black and accept that he is aging by living in denial.

Although Fred and Carrie conform to a stylistic norm and are not part of a style-based subculture, their living situation represents one form of an alternative temporality of middle age, rejecting romantic entanglements and childrearing in favor of a loving but nonsexual relationship.

Fred and Carrie have both dated other characters on the show but always become disillusioned and continue to return to their platonic relationship as their true love. Their alternative imaginary includes an acceptance of their aging selves and happiness with their life choices, which extends to Armisen and Brownstein’s lived experience outside of Portlandia.

Despite endless media speculation, Armisen and Brownstein, who has primarily been in romantic relationships with women, are not a romantic couple. They describe each other as their platonic soul mates, and both speak of contentment with being unmarried and childless in middle age.

In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Brownstein is quite clear that rejecting a nuclear familial relationship is a form of creating a “family of choice”: “The idea of a nuclear family to me is so illusory and foreign. But at the same time, I’m not someone who feels lonely. I see family as a constellation of friends or lovers or people who embody compassion, kindness, openness and allowance for faults and contradictions. And I guess, you know, just through various means provide a sense of belonging… So you have to find people with whom you feel seen, and that’s what family is to me, I guess, is being around people who make you feel seen.”

In the Portlandia universe, Elder Goths Jacqulin (Brownstein) and Vince (Armisen) present an alternative imaginary to the prospect of aging as decline leading to an ultimately unwanted terminus through their association with the Goth subculture.

The characters first appear in the episode ‘SeaWorld,’ detailing their wills and funeral plans to a cheerful middle-aged female lawyer. Jacqulin and Vince are the epitome of 1990s Gothic styles, sporting black clothes, black wigs, skull accessories, and heavy white makeup with black accents. The pair plan to leave their personal possessions (all of which have a Gothic flavor and are comically extreme in nature – i.e. “the tears of a Scottish deerhound”) to each other, insinuating no close familial relationships or even close friendships.

They are forced to hold public auditions in the lawyer’s office to determine who will take care of Bella, their pet bat. As their funeral ideas grow more elaborate and macabre, their lawyer becomes more perturbed and suggests more practical plans, but ultimately acquiesces to their wishes.

Rather than viewing aging and funeral plans as an end to life, Jacqulin and Vince’s queer temporality revels in planning the end of life – which for Goths, may not be a true end at all. If, as Shumway and Arnet argue, the macabre Goth aesthetic should be understood as a desire for some alternative world rather than an extinction of the self, Jacqulin and Vince’s funeral planning is a part of a continuum of existence; an alternative imaginary where aging is not an end.

The shock and comedic value of disturbing non-Goths with their plans to be left to rot on a hill rather than buried represents an alternative temporality to social aging shaped by Gothic images and values.

This view of a queer temporality through the lens of Goth can provide a partial answer to Eva Krainitzki’s question at the end of her article “Judi Dench’s Age-Inappropriateness and the Role of M: Challenging Normative Temporality”: “Would it be possible to resist Skyfall’s age appropriate-narrative closure and imagine an alternative future for M?”

Death is an exit – and the only age-appropriate exit – available for M. Portlandia’s Goths are more passive-aggressive seekers of attention than M’s culturally defiant role model for older women, but conceptualizing the narrative of aging through a Gothic temporality allows an aging character’s decline – terminating in death – to become something other than an end.

In addition to challenging social aging as a decline, Portlandia’s Elder Goths subvert the norm through their strong, almost desperate identification with the nonnormative. In the episode “Weirdo Beach,” Jacqulin and Vince’s deep need to be perceived as “weird” by others (who now show acceptance by smiling at them) leads them to decide go to the beach instead of the new graveyard in town. Their Goth garb, the most visible sign of their subcultural membership, becomes comedic fodder for the first time in the series.

At a rental car agency after performing a memorial for their broken down hearse, Vince struggles with retrieving his wallet from his long black coat and asks Jacqulin to pay the agent, complaining “this is why we do stuff online, so I don’t have to take off all of these clothes.” Their attempts to “be weird” leave the agent unperturbed.

Once the couple cluelessly arrives at the beach, an elderly Romanian Goth played by heavy metal musician Glenn Danzig gives Vince some brightly colored clothes, telling him, “Sometimes to have a good time, you have to dress a little lame.”

Jacqulin and Vince appear to love their new colorful clothing and celebrate by playing football on the beach. However, although these “lame” bright colors may be fun, they are also fleeting: by the end of the episode, Jacqulin and Vince are back at home in their everyday Goth wear: black upon black with skull accents. Sartorial expressions of normativity are a diversion, not a longtime lifestyle change; visual displays of subcultural identity are far more important than having a normative idea of fun.

But their choice to be visibly deviant has severe consequences. Even though Jacqulin and Vince feel that they are not perceived as “weird” anymore by the locals, law enforcement in Portland disagrees, and the couple experiences discrimination and criminal charges for their choice to seek attention for their public displays of weirdness. When the Portland police are called to investigate the arson of a taxidermy shop in the episode “Dead Pets,” they immediately round up all the weirdos – including artists building doll head sculptures, video game fans, and of course, Goths Jacqulin and Vince, who are arrested for providing a confusing definition of the word August.

Their defense lawyer, played by Paul Reubens (best known as the actor behind the character Pee-Wee Herman), preaches in defense of the weirdos as groundbreakers in ways which appeal to the privileged culture of Portlandia – “the first people to eat kale, the first people to try marijuana!” – when a group of young, white ecoterrorists dressed in brightly colored outfits enters the courtroom and confesses to the arson in song.

Even on a show which prominently features subcultural members who mainstream culture may consider weird, Elder Goths are portrayed in the Portlandia universe as the weirdest of the weirdos.

Portrayals of Goth in American popular culture cannot be separated from youth. Just as aging characters are filled with anxiety about aging and ultimately constructed as undesirable, the few Elder Goths in popular culture are marginalized, discriminated against, and eventually criminalized for their age-inappropriate dress and behavior.

In Portlandia, Jacqulin and Vince present an alternative to biological decline by celebrating Gothic values, creating an alternative, Gothic temporality of aging where morbidity and funeral planning present new options for conceptualizing the lifespan.

For Goths, the narrative of aging is not to be feared.

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