The extent to which identities can be named seems to show an inverse relationship to power in the U.S. social structure.

Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters

  By way of a segue into the more syntactic portion of this paper, we can now analyze the various types of representation which are at work throughout the genre.

  Genre Analysis
  Race, Gender,
    and Class
  The Postmodern
  Works Cited and
    Films Referenced

This section is divided into three subsections:
Race and

Gender and


Representations of race and ethnicity
The bulk of the subculture genre is comprised of films filled with whiteness, which, in and of itself, does not separate the genre from Hollywood films in general. Hollywood is often challenged on this point with regard to hiring practices and non-representation of peoples of color, and rightly so. What is not as often questioned is the effect that this has on the representation of whiteness itself. Especially in the case of genres, such a line of questioning seems valid. As Richard Dyer has pointed out, part of the power inherent in whiteness is precisely its going-without-saying in our culture.

In the realm of categories, black is always marked as a colour (as the term “coloured” egregiously acknowledges), and is always particularizing; whereas white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything. . . . White people “colonise the definition of normal.”(45)

He rightly adds that “power in contemporary society habitually passes itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior” (45). The same concept is echoed by Ruth Frankenberg in the quote which opens this section. Thus the normalization of whiteness, the colonization of normality, serves to reify and re-entrench the power of whiteness.
    At one level, this cultural trend is upheld throughout the subculture genre. Where there are depictions of the mainstream, it is virtually always represented by whites. What is more interesting, though, is the way in which these films colonize the margins for whiteness as well. The genre as a whole, after all, focuses on the margins. Its representation of those margins as being populated by whites is a fairly straightforward instance of the kind of colonization to which Dyer was referring.
    The reverse is also true, in some sense: In depicting the margins directly and fully, and representing them as white, the genre creates a particular picture of whiteness as well—whiteness as a marginal space, a challenged and challenging state. Robert Ray points out that “the mass audience in this country likes to live dangerously, likes to see the most privileged elements of its ideology sorely challenged, if not defeated” (19). It is precisely this challenge, without defeat, that the subculture genre provides.1 As bell hooks has pointed out, “in the United States, where our senses are daily assaulted and bombarded to such an extent that an emotional numbness sets in, it may take being ‘on the edge’ for individuals to feel intensely” (“Eating” 36). Thus American youth—especially those in the mainstream—“desire cultural spaces where boundaries can be transgressed, where new and alternative relations can be formed”  (36). She further identifies this as a trait which is (at least somewhat) derivative of whiteness itself:

1. Lyotard refers to a similar compulsion as a part of the postmodern condition: “we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality” (82). I will return to the postmodern condition in the section on the Postmodern Condition.
2. Taking on identities of color also lends authenticity and a (rather ironic) sense of history to the subcultures, as I will discuss in the Naturalization section.

The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. (“Eating” 21)

Ruth Frankenberg finds strikingly similar notions in the narratives of white women about race and diversity:

At the risk of being crass, one might say that in this view, diversity is to [one woman’s Jamaican daughter-in-law] as ‘the works’ is to a hamburger—added on, adding color and flavor, but not exactly essential. Whiteness, seen by many of these women as boring, but nonetheless definitive, could also follow this analogy. (197)

    It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the representation of the subcultural, marginal space would move from whiteness into ethnicity and racialization. In the last three years, there has been a significant change in the genre. As I pointed out in an earlier section, Boiler Room was the first film in the genre to begin shifting away from the typically white protagonist and subculture—though most of the characters in the film are white, they are ethnically Jewish, Italian and Irish, and their ethnicities are constantly restated throughout the film. Following that film, the genre has gradually but steadily moved toward more “color”ful casts. Groove, The Fast and the Furious, and Blue Crush all featured white protagonists in subcultures comprised mainly (or entirely) of people of color. A borderline entry into the genre during this period, Bring It On, is perhaps the most indicative of what is happening with the increased representation of color in these films.
    In Bring It On, the new head cheerleader (Kirsten Dunst) at Rancho Carne—a rich, white high school—discovers that her squad has been performing (and winning competitions with) stolen routines for years. Stolen, that is, from the cheerleaders at a high school in East Compton. Directly challenged by the East Compton squad, the Rancho Carne team develop their own routines and go to the national competition. This year the East Compton squad have managed to get the money together for the trip to nationals as well, and they end up defeating Rancho Carne there—which suffices for a happy ending, because the Rancho squad are proud of having done it themselves.
    The East Compton cheerleaders are a hip-hop squad, and as such their routines stand out sharply from those of the schools at which the Rancho squad perform. It is clear, in any case, that the Rancho squad don’t have any progressive ideas on race or class. At a game against a school whose cheerleaders are girls of color, they are challenged by the rival squad and respond with, “That’s all right, that’s OK, you’re gonna pump our gas someday.” (Immediately thereafter, however, they are shown up by the East Compton squad, who arrive unannounced and outperform them with one of the stolen cheers.)
    While it is ultimately a morality tale about overcoming obstacles (and, incidentally, race) through hard work and self-determination, Bring It On shows quite openly the appropriation of black culture by whites. The type of appropriation carried out by the Rancho Carne squad is very similar to the appropriation at work in most of the recent subculture films themselves. Cultures and people of color are used to lend flavor, as hooks might say, to the subcultures.2 In doing so, there is not necessarily any challenge posed to white dominance.

Boiler Room (47 sec.)
Quicktime 5.8MB
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To make one’s self vulnerable to the seduction of difference, to seek an encounter with the Other, does not require that one relinquish forever one’s mainstream positionality. When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternate playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other. (“Eating” 23)

It should be noted that hooks’ essay deals primarily with young white males’ desire for sex with young women of color. However, the “encounter with the Other” that she describes can, I think, reasonably be expanded to include encounters of identification, rather than just sexual encounters. In any case, in the subculture films this encounter can take exactly the form she describes—in Boiler Room, for example, one of the primary conflicts is between two Jewish men who are competing for the firm’s secretary, who just happens to be black. More often, however, it is the commodification of race and ethnicity in the more general sense that is taking place, as white protagonists racialize themselves and/or participate in racialized subcultures. It is perhaps not coincidental that these films often happen to be coming-of-age narratives, since as hooks points out, the encounter with the other can be “a way [for young white men] to make themselves over, to leave behind white ‘innocence’ and enter the world of ‘experience’” (“Eating” 23).
    David Roediger suggests that in projecting onto, and identifying with, Othered persons, we reinforce our own position of dominance. Blackface minstrels, he points out, “were the first self-consciously white entertainers in the world. The simple physical disguise—and elaborate cultural disguise—of blacking up served to emphasize that those on stage were really white and that whiteness really mattered” (117).
    Finally, the racialization of the subculture can ease the compromise position which I have argued is present in the genre. Membership in the subculture can be a midway point between individuality and belonging, a way of living the American fantasy on both sides. This compromise is acceptable/effective, I think, largely because it is transient. This is the power of myth: one can participate for a short time (two hours, say), taking in the experience of challenge and resolution, and then go back about one’s everyday life without direct consciousness of either the challenge or its resolution. Projecting this mythic fantasy onto Othered bodies may help to make the compromise more acceptable. As Renata Salecl has pointed out, our fantasies often posit an Other who can have enjoyments that we ourselves aren’t allowed—the Other steals, in some sense, our enjoyment.

This Other who steals our enjoyment is always the Other in our own interior. Our hatred of the Other is really the hatred of the part (the surplus) of our own enjoyment which we find unbearable and cannot acknowledge, and which we transpose (“project”) into the Other via a fantasy of the “Other’s enjoyment”. (212)

In the two most recent films of the genre, Drumline and Biker Boyz, the protagonists themselves are black. There may be several reasons for this trend, if in fact it becomes a trend. Perhaps it is further evolution along the lines of the representations in Boiler Room, Groove, The Fast and the Furious, Blue Crush, and 8 Mile. Perhaps it represents niche marketing—black films constitute an identifiable market, and one which studios and distributors have been tapping for years. Perhaps, in any case, these last two films are simply an anomaly. After all, they were each released within three months of 8 Mile, a film which fits into the more familiar white-protagonist/black-subculture mold. There is no reason to think, then, that Drumline and Biker Boyz mark an irreversible trend in the genre all by themselves. It may be interesting to see, however, if they mark the beginning of one.

Representations of gender and sexuality
Representations of masculinity within the genre serve a very different purpose than do the representations of whiteness. The films in the genre are often masculinist in rather typical ways. In Boiler Room, for example, new employees are not allowed to actually sell stocks to the people they are on the phone with. When they get someone who wants to buy stock, therefore, they are instructed to put the person on hold, stand up, and yell “RECO” at the top of their lungs. This indicates to the licensed brokers in the room that there is a potential “whale” on the phone, and the first broker to get to the phone gets the sale. The “RECO” concept does little to further the plot of the movie, nor even much to develop characters. What it does do is allow for a scene of unbridled masculine competitiveness. Subjects in the subcultures are frequently pitted against each other in similar ways. The entire plot of Pushing Tin revolves around a rather juvenile (but certainly masculine) competition between Nick Falzone (John Cusack) and Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton)—each tries to one-up the other by beating him at basketball, showing himself to be a more competent air-traffic controller, and ultimately by sleeping with the other’s wife.
    Several of the films, of course, are explicitly built around such competitiveness. Top Gun, 8 Seconds, The Fast and the Furious, and others focus on competitive subcultures such as rodeos and racing. Even Blue Crush, the first true subculture film centered on a group of women as the subculture in question, masculinizes the competition at the heart of their subculture. Anne Marie is the best of the female surfers because, as we are explicitly reminded again and again, she surfs “like a man.” (Professional surfer Keala Kennelly, who wins the surfing competition at the end of the film, is described in the same way.) The young women themselves are in many ways stereotypically feminine—they are hotel maids, for example. But the competitive aspect of surfing—which is celebrated in the movie—is kept distinctly masculine.
    Beyond competitiveness, the subculture is clearly identified with male (hetero-) sexuality as well. In The Color of Money, we frequently find Vincent (Tom Cruise) strutting for the camera, the Balabushka pool cue dancing in his hand. The cue is often overtly sexualized, and of course the phallic imagery is never far from mind. In 8 Seconds, Lane’s (Luke Perry) crisis of identity is brought on with his being stomped in the crotch by a bull. In Boiler Room, Jim Young (Ben Affleck) tells the new recruits that they are the “future big swinging dicks of this firm.” And in Wall Street, in the final confrontation between Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), Gekko tells Bud, “I gave you Darien [Daryl Hannah]. I gave you your manhood. I gave you everything.”
    Masculinity, then, is portrayed in the films as an implicit aspect of power. As the young men in the majority of these films come of age, they also “come of” their identities as dominant, heterosexual males. When they are broken—whether temporarily or permanently, it is often reflected in their masculinity (as in 8 Seconds and Wall Street).

More interesting, however, are the representations of femininity in the films of the genre. As I mentioned in the secondary characteristics of the genre, the leading female character (that is, the protagonist’s love interest) reinforces the distinction between the mainstream and the subculture. In over half the movies, what this means is that she is representative of the mainstream. She poses a challenge to his membership in the subculture, often directly asking him to give it up. This is, in fact, not necessarily exclusive to a leading female character. In the movie Punchline, where the protagonist is a woman, her husband poses precisely the same challenge—he continually asks her to quit doing standup comedy and focus on her role as a wife and mother. It might seem, then, that romantic and/or familial responsibility are simply in conflict with a subcultural identity. There may be an element of truth to that—relationships are ways of “settling down,” and can tend to tie one to the mainstream. However, there is one crucial distinction between Lyla’s husband in Punchline and the typical female love interest in the genre.
    When the typical female love interest challenges the protagonist’s subcultural identity, she often simultaneously challenges masculinist aspects of his personality. In Days of Thunder, for example, when Claire (Nicole Kidman) is chastising Cole (Tom Cruise), she tells him that the control he seeks in racing is unreal:

Dr. Claire Lewicki: Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what's gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack with forty other infantile egomaniacs.

In several of the movies (Backdraft, 8 Seconds, City Hall, Rounders), she calls into question his loyalty to the other men in the subculture itself. However, when Lyla’s husband challenges her subcultural identity, he does so by asking her to return to typically feminine roles. In the movie Blue Crush, which focuses on female surfers, the protagonist’s boyfriend’s greatest challenge to her subcultural identity is to offer her a role as more mainstream woman—wearing dresses and makeup rather than cutoff shorts and T-shirts, socializing with his teammates’ wives while he hangs out with the guys. In both movies, as in most of the rest of the genre, the mainstream is feminized and/or the subculture is masculinized.
    Ironically, in that sense there seems to be little difference when the love interest is not critical—is, in fact, supportive—of the subculture. In these cases we often find her urging the protagonist further into his own masculinity, for both their sakes—often, in fact, it is simply a matter of economic advantage. In The Color of Money, for example, Vincent’s braggartism and competitiveness are precisely what are needed to make serious money at pool. Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), therefore, pushes him to be ever more arrogant. In Wall Street, Darien (Darryl Hannah) encourages Bud (Charlie Sheen) to behave as a dominant, self-assured man, and to leave things like art and interior design to her. In virtually all of the films, then, and despite the divergent representations of women and of relationships, the subcultural space remains significantly masculine.
    However, the representations of women themselves—beyond how they affect the representation of the subculture—are considerably different between the “within” and “outside” female characters. Though not unexpected, the differences are nevertheless significant. Female love interests who are representative of society tend to be less independent characters. Rounders is a typical example. Mike’s (Matt Damon) girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) primarily spends her time in the movie chasing after Mike, getting upset about his participation in the subculture. The climax of their relationship comes when Mike tells her how important poker is to him, and she responds by getting upset that he is finding fulfillment outside their relationship. Female characters in these movies who live outside of the subculture tend to be this way—petty, nagging, and without any real understanding of the protagonist.
    Women within the subculture, however, are generally represented as knowledgeable and strong-willed. Point Break and The Fast and the Furious provide typical examples. In Point Break, Tyler (Lori Petty) is the one who teaches Johnny (Keanu Reeves) how to surf. In The Fast and the Furious, both Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) show themselves to be talented drivers. In both movies, then, the subculture is represented as a space for women to express themselves and to be strong and independent. That strength and independence extend beyond the subcultural identity as well. Both Tyler and Mia are very self-reliant, and make firm decisions about their lives and relationships. Even a character such as Darien in Wall Street, who is essentially a trophy for both Bud and Gordon (Michael Douglas), seems to have her autonomy intact—she makes her own decisions, as far as we can see, and she is in control of her own destiny. These traits are common to women who are within—or are at least understanding and supportive of—the subculture in question.
    These representations are not without their real-life models. Maria Pini describes the (real-life) raving subculture as one which satisfies “dreams of an ‘elsewhere’”—a space which allows for “movement beyond the constraints, boundaries and regulations involved in everyday being” (1). This is true for both men and women within the subculture, of course, but Pini finds it to be particularly significant for the women who participate. They find an ironic kind of “home” in the raving scene—ironic because, as she points out, “if for these [women], raving can feel like being ‘at home,’ then home is no longer a place of stability, familiarity or enclosure” (15). Rather, it is a space of freedom and transcendence. It is probably not coincidental that Punchline has a strong theme of transcendence. Lyla (Sally Field) turns to comedy as a way of getting beyond the familiar boundaries of home and family. For her the stage is a place of inspiration and magic. The choice between comedy and family life is not simply a choice between subculture and mainstream; it is also a choice between identity and conformity, between enchantment and tedium.

Punchline (49 sec.)
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3. Why such reliance on the scholarship surrounding raves? There is a reason. The work on subcultures focuses largely on subcultures that coalesce around forms of music—the original work done by Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and others at Birmingham, for instance. In the last 10 years or more, that has meant a significant focus on rave and house-music subcultures.

    At the same time, there are real-world precedents for the masculinization of the subculture and feminization of society. In another book on rave cultures,3 Sarah Thornton points out that subjects in both the club scene and the art world “criticize the mainstream/masses for being derivative, superficial and femme” (5, italics hers). She identifies this as a way in which young men reinterpret their position within the world. The powerlessness that many of them feel is turned around by such a criticism of the mainstream. The space of the subculture is one in which these young men do have some power, and so they construct the subculture itself as the space where masculinity and potency are to be found.  

Representations of class
On the whole, subcultures throughout the genre are firmly associated with the working class. Often, subcultural opposition to the mainstream takes the form of opposition to more white-collar identities. In Backdraft, for example, the precinct-level firemen have nothing but disdain for aldermen and arson investigators. Even when it is not so oppositional, the class distinction is present. In Rounders, for example, Knish (John Turturro)—the Wise Old Man character—refers to Mike’s law-school colleagues as “future magistrates and noblemen.” Mike learned to play cards, it turns out, when he and his friend Worm went to private school together. They were not trust-fund babies, however—Mike’s father was the custodian and Worm’s was the groundskeeper.
    Several critics have noted the theme of class ascension in the mob-movie genre, especially in the early films, so there might seem to be some similarity here. But the theme of class ascension is not at work in most of the subculture films (Wall Street being one significant exception). This may explain why subculture protagonists are not doomed to the “precipitate fall” which characterizes the early gangster flicks. As Warshow points out, the gangster movies present an “intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous” (“Gangster” 133). The gangster’s death is the only resolution, but in accepting it the audience acquiesces to ultimate failure. Choosing to fail, as Warshow puts it, is the only safe option presented by the gangster movie. Pierre Bourdieu calls this the process of “social aging”:

the slow renunciation or disinvestment (socially assisted and encouraged) which leads agents to adjust their aspirations to the objective chances, to espouse their condition, become what they are and make do with what they have, even if this entails deceiving themselves as to what they are and what they have. (110–111)

As Sarah Thornton points out, participation in a subculture is a way of putting off social aging (102). Subcultures, however, are virtually always associated with youth—in these films as, largely, in real life. Thus social aging seems as inevitable as the physical kind.
    While the gangster’s demise has the effect of reinforcing class hierarchies, then, it should be noted that the subculture protagonist’s non-demise does not have an opposite effect. There is no real class ascension represented in the subculture film, as there is in the gangster. And the subculture’s connection to the working class acts more as a sort of wedge between the subculture and mainstream society. Thus the protagonist’s choice to stay in that group is essentially still a declaration against the idea of class ascension. The class hierarchy, therefore, is implicitly reinforced—though it is stripped of significance.
    Thornton borrows another idea from Bourdieu, that of “cultural capital.” Cultural capital, as she relates it, is “the linchpin of a system of distinction in which cultural hierarchies correspond to social ones and people’s tastes are predominantly a marker of class” (10). Thornton points out, extending Bourdieu’s theory, that there is an alternative kind of value system at work in subcultures—a “subcultural capital.” The space of the subculture is one in which the rules of the young are significant. Subcultural capital consists of knowledge, attitudes, paraphernalia, etc., and possession of those things confers a status on the owner in much the same way that the knowledge, tastes, and accoutrements of high culture confer status in the mainstream. Significantly, Thornton points out that “subcultural capitals fuel rebellion against, or rather escape from, the trappings of the parental class” (12). A subcultural identity is a means of avoiding class-based identity, in a sense. This is the primary means by which the class system is stripped of significance throughout the genre—what matters from the subcultural subject position is subcultural capital. Class is irrelevant. If anything, it may be worn as a symbol—white-collar youth take on the working-class character as yet another way to break away from “the trappings of parental class.”