Hipster Sexism Is Not a New Concept

In a world where sexism is always satirical and satire is always sacred, hipster sexism becomes nearly impossible to challenge. It’s not only okay, but appropriate and even necessary, to incorporate other work people have produced on the subject into your own discussions.
Publish date:
November 1, 2012
sexism, media, casual sexism, journalism, hipster sexism

Alissa Quart over at NYMag has sparked a conversation this week with her piece on hipster sexism, riffing on her discomfort with Lena Dunham’s cheeky election video:

Hipster Sexism consists of the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox: the stuff you learned about in literature class.

Quart discusses the hallmarks of what she also refers to as ironic sexism, and its spread through hipster media and culture, differentiating it from what she calls “classic sexism,” the stuff of which Republican campaigns are made. She taps deep into the hipster ethos, which aims to make itself look hip, jaded and cool by repurposing out-of-fashion things, whether they be record players or sexism, and making them hip again via the medium of irony.

Hipster Sexism flatters us by letting us feel like we are beyond low-level, obvious humiliation of women and now we can enjoy snickering at it. Beautiful young chicks in little bikinis, urinating on the street, are funny!...Hipster Sexism is a distancing gesture, a belief that simply by applying quotations, uncool, questionable, and even offensive material about women can be alchemically transformed.

And she makes some excellent points in the piece, but there's a small problem with it; this is not a new concept, and it's one that's actually been discussed in the media before. This would have been a stronger comment piece if it had incorporated some of that work.

This is not your invention.

Here’s the thing about media, pop culture, and the zeitgeist, especially in a media landscape where there is so much every day: Things come up again and again, and each time, people act like they’re new. People have actually been talking about hipster sexism, or as I put in in 2009, “liberal sexism,” for quite a while; Candice Chung specifically used the term earlier this year in Australian publication Daily Life.

Intriguingly, both Chung and Quart credited their inspiration to the same source: A Jezebel post on hipster racism that became a huge topic of conversation earlier this year. Both authors also, notably, made the misattribution of making it sound like the author, Lindy West (whom, incidentally, I'm a fan of), had invented the term; Quart specifically said the concept of hipster racism was “minted” by Jezebel.

Except this isn't actually the case, and there's ample documentation to demonstrate this fact; that credit actually lies with Carmen Van Kerckhove, who wrote about it in 2007. I also wrote about it extensively in 2009, giving due attribution and credit to Van Kerckhove and Racialicious in a post that continues to be one of my most widely read, circulated and (frustratingly) reprinted without permission. Until earlier this year, it was the number one Google result for “hipster racism.”

This may read to you like sour grapes at an inside baseball game, but it’s actually important. Critically so, because when we talk about phenomena like hipster sexism, we need to acknowledge the work that’s been done on the subject before, building on it rather than erasing it. It’s hard to be original when there’s so much being said, and sometimes it's really difficult to remember where or when you heard a term, but it's worth doing a quick Google to check, because your work will be stronger, and your readers will benefit from the time you took to find more resources for them.

Because, honestly, it’s distracting, at least for me. I want to get into Quart’s article and engage with what she’s talking about, because what she’s saying is true, but I keep getting sidelined by the fact that she, like a lot of other young commentators in the media, has made the mistake of believing that you need to be original at all costs. Media should be a conversation and a free exchange of ideas, not a scrabble to the top.

Hipster sexism is an issue, no matter who is writing about it, and Quart’s points are valid and important; she notes that the ironic distancing created through the use of hipster-isms makes people think these issues don’t matter anymore, when they’re actually critical.

The objectification of women is sexist and gross whether you’re wearing a PBR hat or saying that women need to prove they’ve been “forcibly raped” before being eligible for government assistance.

There’s something that happens behind the ironic veneer of hipster sexism, and that’s actual sexism. It’s a great front for people to use; “we’re just joking around, no one actually thinks this way.” It allows people to express actual sexist ideas, and maintain sexist social structures, without having to be nakedly open about it. It’s just as harmful for everyone involved as what Quart calls classic sexism, but it’s more insidious, because it’s harder to pin down and challenge.

If you object to hipster sexism, you’re just a stick in the mud who doesn’t have a sense of humor. You need to relax and have some fun, because after all, you’re among friends, and we all know that we’re just fooling around. You become the sour-faced harpy, the anti-fun. It’s okay to rail against conservative sexism and the brash honesty of classic sexism, but you can’t criticize your fellow hipsters. Bonus points, though, if you manage to use some hipster sexism in the course of making fun of conservatives.

As Chung points out in her piece, the existence of hipster sexism means that a certain brand of sexism is not just accepted but actively celebrated in hipster circles -- even when it includes alleged sexual assault, as in the case of Terry Richardson. He is, after all, “one of us,” and thus can do no harm.

By armoring himself in liberal sexism, he makes himself unassailable; and we see the same thing with the glorification of accused rapists and sexual assailants like Assange and Polanski in liberal circles. Because they’re contributing something of value to hipster culture, they’re given a free pass on their actions.

It sends a clear message to women in hipster and young liberal communities: Embrace the hipster sexism or find yourself on the outside of the conversation. Don’t challenge sexism when it’s done “right,” and be aware that if you’re sexually assaulted, emotionally harmed or exploited by a beloved of the crowd, you’ll be pilloried for reporting it and challenging it, not supported. No matter how much all your hipster buddies claim to care about sexism and equality.

In a world where sexism is always satirical and satire is always sacred, hipster sexism becomes nearly impossible to challenge. It’s not only okay, but appropriate and even necessary, to incorporate other work people have produced on the subject into your own discussions; I lose nothing by citing and giving credit to Quart and Chung and adding commentary and thoughts of my own, and in fact I have a lot to gain by engaging with their ideas and noting insights they've made that I might not necessarily have arrived at on my own.

This is an issue that's a lot bigger than credit for hipster racism and hipster sexism; it's a widespread problem in the media that needs to be addressed, because it happens on a regular basis. There's also a deeper issue here in terms of the politics of who receives recognition and who does not; it is notable, for example, that Van Kerckhove is a woman of color, as is Chung. Both women have high media profiles and are fairly well known, yet neither apparently deserved credit for her work when a white woman decided to pick up the keyboard. This doesn't escape my notice, or that of other sharp-eyed people looking at the politics of media.

Image credits: Chris Lott, Lars K. Jensen, Steven Depolo.