Barthes has identified what he finds to be the very principle of myth:
it transforms history into nature (129). Barthes notes a particular
dilemma raised by the presence of a myth: either the subject of the myth
(for instance, French imperialism) is obscured to the point that the myth
is not effective in reinforcing it, or else the myth lays the subject so
bare that no observer would believe it as reality. How, then, can the myth
have any power (as the mythologist certainly will claim that it does)? The
answer lies in myths particular power to make the subject matter seem
completely normal. As Barthes points out, when myth is inevitably driven
to having either to unveil or to liquidate the concept, it will naturalize
it (Barthes 129, emphasis his).
The most significant concept of this myth system (the subculture genre),seems to be the fractured, marginalized state of post-modern society. As a genre, these films work to naturalize subcultural stances of marginalization, and even resistance. Dick Hebdige argues that in the medias treatment of youth subcultures, there is a process of recuperation continuously at work, whereby the subcultures are simultaneously returned, as they are represented on T.V. and in the newspapers, to the place where common sense would have them fit (94). Members of the subculture can be trivialized, and their rejection of the mainstream can simply be denied. As Barthes has described it, the spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors (151). Alternatively, according to Barthes, the Other can be reduced to a pure object, a spectacle, a clown (152). Either is an effective manner of neutralizing the anger, discontent, or outright rebellion inherent in a subculture.
Works Cited and
methods are apparent in the subculture genre. Here the spectacles
and tribunals of subcultures are filled with young, white males. There
is no threat of upending the power structure in terms of race or gender.
And yet the subculture itself is spectacularized and removed from everyday
life. It is so clearly distinguished, in fact, that it too becomes innocuous.
Throughout this genre, the margins of society are not only made to appear
safe and unthreatening, but eventually glamorous and inviting. The concept
is neither unveiled nor liquidated, but finally naturalized.
Beyond the general capacity of the myth system to naturalize, we can locate particular features of the genre that have a naturalizing effect as well. Ironically, one of the most powerful naturalizing tropes is the exceptionalism of the protagonist himself. As I noted earlier, in the majority of these films the protagonists is one of the best at what he does. The effect of this, however, is to make his membership in the subculture all the more natural an occurrence. It is as though he had no choice in the matter.
This is further reinforced by the presence and actions of the Wise Old Man, who makes frequent references to the protagonists talent. Eddie Felson tells Vincent in The Color of Money, youre a natural flake (which he means as a compliment). In Days of Thunder, Cole Trickle learns to race stock cars by watching on ESPN, and a little over a year later, he wins Daytona. Perhaps the clearest example of this type of naturalization comes in Rounders. As Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau) sits with Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), Mike asks if he regrets his choice to live in the subculture he has chosen (in Petrovskys case, that of judges). Petrovsky responds, What choice? At a crucial moment later in the film, Mike quotes Petrovsky again: We cant run from who we are. Mike is a rounder, and the course of the movie is entirely focused on his realization of that fact. In the end, there is indeed no choice to be made.
I suspect that the racialization which occurs in these movies is, among other things, also a naturalizing influence. Hebdige notes the tendency of certain white youth subcultures to identify with their black counterparts. He notes that early skinheads in Britain, for example, found a source of conviction in the culture of West Indian immigrants. Here [in West Indian culture] was a culture armoured against contaminating influences, protected against the more frontal assaults of the dominant ideology, denied access to the good life by the colour of its skin (57). Class may be transcended, and so it is too ephemeral a foundation for true subcultural identity. But race is a clearer distinguisher in EuroAmerican society, and thus a firmer basis for rebellion. Such an identification might seem ironic, either in the context of post-World-War-II British youth subcultures or in the context of (for instance) the rich, young, straight, white male stock brokers in Boiler Room.
It may be ironic, but it is not coincidental: as bell hooks has pointed out, it is a sign of white privilege to be able to see blackness and black culture from a standpoint where only the rich culture of opposition black people have created in resistance marks and defines us (158). This is precisely what is taking place in real-life subcultures, to some degree, and certainly in subculture movies. Seths quoting of The Notorious B.I.G. in Boiler Room is an apt example. Either youre slinging crack rock or youve got a wicked jump shot. For Biggie, this is true enoughthere are very few legit opportunities for success offered to young black men. (Its hard being young and from the slums.) For Seth, however, its simply an easy way out: he is from a family which offered him great opportunity; he dropped out of college. His identification with a black superstar like B.I.G. is only as deep as he wants it to be. The issue of race, then, is reified and turned into a sort of badge, which can be worn to show the truth and depth of ones opposition/resistance to mainstream culturea badge which is especially necessary when ones opposition is neither true nor deep.