Goth Beauty, and Neo-Traditional Femininity in Magazines

Claire Nally
Claire Nally

In ‘The Beauty Myth’ (1991), Naomi Wolf evaluates how far femininity is constructed and indeed regulated by concepts of beauty. The fashion industry, consumer culture, magazines and the media all present ways in which women are expected to style themselves.

The beauty myth is sold and packaged to women as emancipatory, as offering choice to modern, savvy and assertive women.

The following argument maintains that the logic of subcultural style draws a great deal from “mainstream” strategies of advertising and commodity cultures. In the goth scene specifically, there exists a “complex infrastructure of events, consumer goods and communications, all of which were thoroughly implicated in media and commerce.”

At the same time, many accounts of gender dynamics in goth subculture suggest it is an egalitarian space, offering equality in terms of gendered representation and sexual emancipation. For instance, participants frequently articulate that the subculture is a tolerant space, a utopia of gender-bending and sexual liberation: “A recurrent theme in the stories female goths tell about their style is power and control.”

There are several strands of gendered representation clearly visible in the ephemera of goth culture, each of which is often hailed as challenging to “mainstream values”: the ostensible celebration of alternative sexualities almost always incarnated as bisexuality, or a flirtation with fetish, S&M style and erotic modes of dress such as the femme fatale; a hyperfemininity which seeks to parody femininity (but which is deeply conservative and heavily invested in Victorian sartorial choices); and a notion of androgyny which claims to challenge normative gender binaries.

Indeed, with regard to the ephemera of goth — flyers, magazines, advertisements, as well as consideration of how promoters, bands and subcultural style gurus represent gender — we can see that goth has much more in common with conventional gender values for women than it might first appear.

Any challenge to heteronormative gender roles is partial at best. Catherine Spooner has cautioned against easy appropriation of transgressive values onto goth.

One woman in Amy Wilkins’ research explained “as long as you dress sexy [you will fit in].” It is possible to appraise such comments in the light of the post-feminist climate of the early twenty-first-century, where practices focusing on style and appearance are frequently lauded as sexually empowering: “the body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always already unruly and requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodelling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever narrower judgments of female attractiveness.”

More broadly, John Fiske’s discussion in ‘The Cultural Economy of Fandom’ emphasizes the importance of gender, race, age and sexuality in discussion of subcultures, noting that the notion of “capital,” as theorized by Pierre Bourdieu (1984), and developed by subculture critics such as Sara Thornton (1995), is often neglected in major analyses, in favour of economic and class critique.

In using critiques of post-feminism and its complicity with commodity culture, I seek to reevaluate how gender and sexuality functions in these publications, and provide an alternative way of thinking about goth.

The current analysis seeks to tread a careful line between considering the relatively small-scale, partly autonomous, and specialist nature of goth commodity, and at the same time acknowledging that the logic of such retail and marketing practices are often drawn from dominant discourses found in more “popular” methods of consumption.

This clearly relates to the classic narrative of subculture. In Hebdige’s account, subcultures are sites of working-class resistance, but when they are co-opted by the mainstream, they are diffused in terms of their radical impetus.

However, as Hodkinson has noted, the idea of “subcultural retail”, where consumerism is implicated in a subculture from its very origins, is crucial: “[whilst there is] a significant degree of self-generation for the goth scene, such internal consumption, far from being anti-commercial, was also enabled by the diverse free-market economy within which subculture operated.”

At Whitby Goth Weekend (WGW), a bi-annual festival which began in 1994 in Whitby, United Kingdom, goths and other sympathetic subcultural members such as metallers, steampunks, and bikers assemble for live music, socialising in the pub, and shopping.

The spectacle of buying and selling at WGW’s “Bizarre Bazaar” showcases independent retailers, branded goods, music exchanges, magazines, and flyers testifying to the inherently commodity-driven, although specialist, the logic of the subculture.

If this is the case, then how far do the advertising strategies, the commodities and ephemera of goth subculture replicate traditional gender norms of “mainstream” commodity culture, and how far is resistance to mainstream cultural and economic values even possible? How far are representations of women implicated in discourses of heterosexual/male fantasy or postfeminist beauty regimes and body management? Slippages between subculture and mainstream are frequent and often neo-traditional in their message regarding women’s appearance.

By close inspection of the goth scene through ethnographic research (interviews, observation), as well as scrutiny of cultural products (readings of magazines and self-representation through media) and popular cultural understandings of “goth” in the twenty-first-century, I argue women’s goth fashion and body image often (but not exclusively) represents a traditional type of femininity.

Paradoxically, despite participants’ allegiances to challenging mainstream fashion and beauty culture, such images frequently draw from conventional ideas of womanhood.

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