What do these two have in common?
First: the insistence of the stereotypical caricature of a hipster claiming to have “done it before it was cool” – whether that be a cultural-nostalgic return to vinyl records or the careful curation of a waxed, Edwardian moustache.
And second: the clichéd, cringeworthy non-compliment: “you’re not like other girls”?
Surely, to do something when it is cool is the marker of good timing? And surely, to fail to resemble any of the characteristics of any others among a whole gender is to insultingly suggest some failure of socialisation? Why are these both considered by some to be statements of pride?
Heritage scholarship teaches that symbols of a shared history function as a way to express belonging, to achieve a sense of inclusion within a community. This sense of social security is something to which humans naturally cling. It offers both a safe ontological position, knowing who we are and where we come from, and a group identity, whether that be based on nation, town, football club, a particular hobby, or appearance.
So how can we reconcile this with the hipster dilemma; the need to be apart from others, separate from the mainstream? This, also, heritage can answer.
To be part of a community is to be included. But a community is, in itself, defined by its boundaries: not just who is in, but who is out: who is ‘not one of us’. Much as bullies claim power by proving that they are stronger than others, so communities function by positioning themselves as distinct from those who are different, who do not exhibit the signs of inclusion.
Thus, to be ‘not like other girls’ is to be positioned (supposedly as a compliment) above the ranks of the ordinary – part of an exclusive group that does not allow itself to be defined by the trends of the majority. (And if you still think it is a compliment, I suggest this article by Kate Jung.) To like something before it is popular is to have been ahead of the majority, not led by others but achieving an appreciation of the sound of vinyl or a love for flat white coffees out of sheer taste levels, not by simply following a crowd. By being apart from the crowd, an individual positions oneself above them.
Although a collection of vinyl records or a dislike of wearing dresses or accessories do not say anything particular about a person’s fundamental personality traits, they have, by virtue of being other than mainstream, become adopted as symbols of a kind of mild counter-culture. And indeed, in some cases, they are. In other cases, the adoption of a community of fellow counter-culturists may be as much a symbol of security and a need for inclusion as anything more “basic”.
In this, the careful delineation of differences between us and them, come many of the prejudices of our age – many of them far more serious than the casual sexism or arrogance I have used as examples here. The roots of classism, racism, and much middle-class pearl-clutching can be found in the barriers we erect to preserve our own sense of superiority in relation to others.
The point remains; if we define ourselves by our differences, when does a point of pride in fact become a point of prejudice?