Androgyny and Gender Within the Gothic Subculture

Androgyny and Gender Within the Gothic Subculture
© Photograph by A Strelkovv

The theme of this article is androgyny and gender blurring within the Gothic subculture. The study of subcultures, their activities, power relations, hierarchies and constitute identities has a long tradition of intense conceptual and empirical analysis within the discipline of sociology (Hall and Jefferson 1977; Hebdige 1979; McRobbie 1995). However, despite the materiality that underpins, supports and defines the very existence of many subcultures limited attention has been paid to the consumption experiences of those involved (see, for example, Goulding, Shankar and Elliott 2002; Kates 2002 ; Kozinets 2001, 2002; Miklas and Arnold 1999; Schouten and McAlexander 1995).

This is despite the fact that subcultures may be defined as sites of praxis, ideologically, temporally, and socially situated where fantasy and experimentation give way to the construction, expression and maintenance of particular consumption identities. These identities, which include gender and/or sexual identities may be seen as part of the pluralistic and ongoing project that constitutes the self in contemporary society (Firat and Venkatesh 1995).

Indeed it may be argued that the breaking down of boundaries, the challenging of accepted norms and the establishment of alternative sexual politics is an integral aspect, central to many subcultural experiences. For example, Goulding (2003, p. 66-7) in her analysis of subcultures based on nostalgia and retro suggests that: “While marketing has always been about consumption gender has always been about difference (Kacen 2000)[…]. However, the embracing of retro from the 1970s onward has involved significant flirting with the idea of androgyny, where masculinity and femininity are conceived as a coadunation of scattered meanings and shifting significance.”

Androgyny and gender blurring has been a theme of youth-based subcultures since the 1960s. For example, during the hippy movement men grew their hair long, wore kaftans and beads and “got in touch” with their more feminine and spiritual side.

The 1970s saw the introduction of “glam rock” spearheaded by such groups and singers as TREX, Roxy Music and David Bowie. Here conventions of masculinity and femininity were flouted with men wearing makeup, sequins, feather boas and platform shoes, while female singers such as Patti Smith (not exactly glam rock, but very underground) adopted male attire in the form of suits, shirts and loosely draped ties.

The punk rock era that followed was possibly more androgynous with the obligatory bondage trousers worn by both males and females, spiked hair, dog collars and a collective adherence to the wearing of black. The “new Romanticism” of the 1980s, on the other hand, was predicated on a nostalgia for a time long gone; for pirates as exemplified by Adam Ant, and for poets such as Byron and Shelley whose aesthetic preference for lace and velvet was mimicked by such bands as Duran Duran and Spandeau Ballet and taken to pastiche proportions by the likes of Boy George.

However, whilst these subcultures have been relatively short-lived, one micro-community that emerged from the punk rock generation of the late 1970s and continues to flourish, albeit in a number of refashioned incarnations, is the gothic movement. Goth is a subculture closely associated with the wearing of black, an interest in the “darker” side of life and death, a particular musical aesthetic and in the United Kingdom at least, with the cult and sexuality of the vampire. However, before these issues are discussed it is important to provide some historical context for the movement and the research that gave rise to the findings concerning sexual identities within this particular context.

Whilst the term “Gothic” has traditionally been associated with a particular style of medieval architecture, art and jewellery and the writings of such notaries as Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelly, it also has a strong symbolic sexual connection in the minds of many, largely reinforced by the popular cultural media of the 20th century.

The issue of sexuality is a key theme in the portrayal of the most iconic of all gothic mythical creatures, the vampire.

In the film the vampire has held a fascination for audiences since the release in 1922 of the German Expressionist F.W. Murnau’s ‘Nosterfaratu, ein Syphonie des Grauens.’ In the story, the vampire can only be released by a virtuous woman who is willing to give her blood until the sun rises.

A plethora of films followed, portraying the Count as a much more elegant and seductive character, from Ted Browning’s 1932 ‘Dracula’ starring Bela Lugosi, through the Hammer horror films of the 1960s and 1970s for which Christopher Lee became famous, to Francis Ford Coppola’s more recent version of Dracula, publicized as the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.

While undercurrents of sexuality permeate most of these films (it is generally accepted that the act of sucking blood represents the sexual act) issues of sexuality are rarely explicit, although when it comes to biting necks vampires do not discriminate between genders. However, a subgenre of the myth does have a history based on homosexuality and particularly lesbianism. Although Victorian morality strictly prevented the publication of graphic erotica J. Sheriden Le Fanu’s vampire novel ‘Camilla’ was a clearly veiled story about lesbian love.

Vampirism thus resists any straightforward gender classification. In keeping with the tenets of Gothic fiction to disrupt normal reality, the vampire is used to symbolise what our culture represses (Hanson 2003).

The ambivalence towards gender created by the notion of vampirism accordingly disrupts traditional delineations of gender roles. Because the sex act (sucking blood) is the same for both sexes and women vampires also penetrate with their “phallic teeth” (Hanson, p. 2), the boundaries between man and woman, masculinity and femininity, are deliberately blurred (Gelder 1994).

Many consider the vampire to be bi-sexual (or “bi-erotic” according to Stater, 1997), as Auerbach (1995, p. 181), recounting a meeting with Sandy Stone, a well known transsexual writer, notes: “Sandy Stone theorised her-and his-existence by summoning vampires. Sandy Stone is a performance artist who has not exchanged one gender for another; s/he embodies both. Shadows of a woman dart out of the man; glimpses of man flicker in and out of the woman. Only by evoking the freedom of the vampire could s/he convey the transcendence of boundaries to which transsexuality aspires.”

On account of their associations with these darker, disrupting forces, Goths are also a group who has suffered greatly from negative media stereotypes portraying them as manically depressed, morbid and death-obsessed. However, for most Goths this is a far cry from the reality of the situation.

Our experience revealed that many Goths are actually creative individuals who enjoy dressing up in a style that is unique and reflects their interests and personality. Moreover, despite common perceptions, they do not take themselves too seriously, nor do they believe themselves to be “un-dead” or supportive of white supremacy.

Goth is based on a musical, literary and artistic aesthetic. It is also a form of escape and fantasy and is made up of a broad range of the social spectrum. It embraces multi-ethnic membership, and it is one of the few subcultures which welcome individuals of all ages.

Contemporary Goths also love vampires, they love fangs, they love dressing in black and they love bats. It is an international movement that transcends conventional categories of gender and whilst most Goths would agree that the cult of the vampire holds a fascination for them (and for some much more than others) the subculture itself extends beyond an interest in death and mortality.

Goth has evolved and fragmented in terms of music and fashion. Labels applied to the various musical genres now include “original Goth”, “mellow Goth”, “metal/industrial Goth”, “experimental/folksy/occult Goth” and “new Goth”.

Similarly, fashions range from simple black tee-shirts and black jeans or bondage trousers to Victorian and Edwardian costumes constructed from velvet and lace. However, it is possible to identify common and enduring symbols and interests. These include the wearing of Gothic colours particularly black, white, purple and scarlet, black and white makeup, religious symbols such as the Christian cross, Egyptian ankhs and Wiccan pentacles.

Goths also tend to have an interest in medieval, Victorian and Edwardian history and in the works of Poe, Dante, Byron and the films of the German Expressionists.