Hipster sexism

Terry Richardson ...  loved for his ‘buzz generating’ work.

Terry Richardson ... loved for his ‘buzz generating’ work.

It’s tough being a hipster these days. Once loved for their oversized glasses and majestic beards, things just aren’t what they used to be after mainstream folks started weighing in on irony.

Recently, Jezebel’s Lindy West wrote about the rise of ‘hipster racism’ – a phenomenon spearheaded by “educated, middle-class white people” who feel the itch to prove they are “not racist by acting as casually racist as possible”.  The idea rests on the fundamental belief that anything wrapped up in enough irony will somehow transcend from ‘utterly repulsive’ to’ funny’ –  rendering ‘jokes’ like, “I want to look aboriginal” (at a spray tan studio) or “Wait. I’m going to be a total Asian right now” (while taking Instagram food photos) regrettably ‘acceptable’ in certain social circles. 

But race isn’t the only social taboo subjected to the hipster whitewash. Overt sexism, while shunned in theory, has also found its way into unexpected corners of our culture in recent years.  We may be getting better at spotting garden variety misogynists (thanks to this helpful guide by one strident feminist), but what happens when the perpetrator is embraced by the ‘in groups’ of our society?

Richardson and his famous 'thumbs-up' pose.

Richardson and his famous 'thumbs-up' pose.

Take Terry Richardson, for example. Considered something of a genius among the publishing circle, the 46-year-old photographer is known as much for his 70s basement porn aesthetics as his ‘edgy’ fashion campaigns for clients like Miu Miu, Sisley and Tom Ford.

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Magazine editors love him for his ‘buzz generating’ work, and celebrities can’t get enough of posing with him – or as him – in his trademark thumbs-up portraits. It’s as if mesmerised by his Stephen King glasses and porn star mo, the world has turned him into a kind of  countercultural hero – conveniently ignoring his proclivity for ‘tampon tea’, spontaneous nudity and a track record of alleged sexual misconducts

If nothing else, Richardson’s continued popularity serves as a true testament to the power of irony. Here is a rich, white, powerful guy who would’ve been sent packing his bags in any other industry – but as someone who has built his entire persona on sexual deviance and kitsch; he has somehow managed to relocate himself to an entirely separate moral universe.  What’s more, anyone who criticises his ‘art’ is forced to ask themselves, “Is this an endorsement of sexism or ... a parody of it?”   

It’s worth noting that Richardson insists he “wouldn’t ask someone to do anything he won’t first do himself”. Not that he was the one performing fellatio from a garbage can while wearing a diamond ‘slut’ tiara. (That was Alex, his former intern). Nor was he the one photographed eating a foot long Sub from the crotch of Jersey Shore’s Mike ‘The Situation’ while other men looked on and laughed (That was model Bar Refaeli).

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But if we have any shred of doubt on whether ‘Uncle Terry’ is, in fact, a textbook misogynist, it’s because so many people seem to ‘get’ his work. Designers and editors are happily playing co-conspirators – landing him cover after cover in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, GQ and Vogue.  And did we mention his girlfriend is Audrey Gelman, 26, press secretary for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer? (AKA hipster feminist icon and Girls creator Lena Dunham’s best friend) *insert multiple exclamation points*.

So why is Richardson’s brand of ironic sexism tolerated by so many smart, influential women? Susan J. Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that feminism’s work is done, believes it comes down to the surprisingly persuasive power of ‘misogyny with a wink’.

“For the media savvy [generation], irony means that you can look as if you are not seduced by the mass media, while being seduced by [it] ... [and] wearing a knowing smirk,” writes Douglas. In this sense, the pleasure of ‘admiring’ someone like Richardson actually comes from “the feeling that you are reading against the grain”.

It’s a catch 22 for women: Could it be that we’ve been putting up with seemingly misogynistic behaviour to prove that we are above it all? Douglas seems to think so. At the heart of “enlightened sexism” is the argument that “women have made plenty of progress because of feminism – indeed full equality has allegedly been achieved – so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.” After all, argue the sceptics, “these images can’t possibly undermine women’s equality at this late date.”

This would probably explain the curious revival of lady hating in the guise of ‘ironic humour’ in recent years. Just take a look at the charming label printed on the chinos sold by British clothing company Madhouse. Underneath the standard washing instruction was the additional option: “'Or give it to your woman: It's her job.” (As journalist Emma Barnett discovered and tweeted in horror back in March)

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And then there were the less subtle versions on last season’s Topman T-shirts. The multinational chain store released one T-shirt slogan that reads, “Nice girlfriend: What breed is she?” and another that attempted to peddle what can only be described as “domestic violence chic”:

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Perhaps it's no surprises that a social media storm ensued. But then again, sexism has a way of sneaking up on you in the darndest places. Just ask the people who have never even heard of Terry Richardson – they are probably too busy reading more culturally refined publications – like GQ, Harpers Bazaar, or Vogue.

 

 

 

 

50 comments

  • The whole point of this kind of thing is to highlight how dumb racism and sexism are by dragging them into the light instead of 'not talking about it' and letting it fester and grow in secret. It's the equivalent of those silly coke ads a few years ago featuring women perving on hot delivery boys or window washers. Although those were in fact more sexist, since they lacked the self-mocking component.

    By publicly proclaiming such unpleasant views, you are in fact repudiating them by reminding people how ridiculous they are. It's not really about irony, it's about being self-mocking and mocking all those people who actually do hold those views, but do so silently.

    The fact that you can look at an advertisement with four buff, shirtless men and one woman and only focus on the sexism towards the woman is in fact quite illuminating.

    If you can't differentiate between satire and actual sexism, that says more about the you then what you're looking at.

    Commenter
    DM
    Date and time
    May 10, 2012, 9:47AM
    • @DM: So how are you going to differentiate one depiction of sexism from another? how exactly do we know which imagery/commentary 'brings out the dumbness of sexism, racism' ? Do you add a disclaimer to everything produced by a photographer/editor etc. who are creating from a 'subversive' place? Anyway, I thought Hipsters hate it when they're made out to be subversive.

      Oh and these people who secretly hide their sexist/racist views get the subtly of 'mockery'? they are just enjoying it for enjoyment's sake! They aren't suddenly keenly aware of the wrongness of their views.

      Commenter
      yaya
      Location
      syd
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 11:44AM
    • Here here DM! Thank you for articulating so vividly the problem with this article. The real "irony" here is that the worst kind of bias and racism comes from people that DON'T understand what you're saying, because they aren't aware of their own bigotry. They say all the right things ("ironic racism is still racism"), while at the same time demeaning those that are apparently being targeted with paternalistic care.

      Thank god we can always trust writers like Ms Chung to take offence where none is warranted.

      Commenter
      IZ
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 12:56PM
    • Um, no. Those coke ads were very tame - they were just some women enjoying looking at an attractive man. That's fine. It's fine to use attractive people in an ad to appeal to an audience if they're just being admired, which is what those ads were. These aren't about admiring - they're about demeaning. And they aren't excused by adding 'just kidding!' at the end.

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 1:03PM
    • yaya - you are correct, the people who hide their sexist/racist views often don't get that it's mockery. These kinds of products aren't aimed at them. They're aimed at all the people who realise how stupid they are for holding those views. The fact that there are those who wear the them without appreciating the irony says more about them than the product.

      Not to go all philosophical, but you can see these kinds of products as a type of Socratic dialogue. By taking semi-benign views to their extreme, they are in fact highlighting their flaws and the ridiculousness of the position.

      pb - you are perfectly entitled to think that, but why do you get to decide what's demeaning on behalf of other people? I personally think that sub ad is silly, but I note that while the men 'looked on and laughed', the model herself is also smiling. Are we supposed to decide that the men's attitudes matter, but woman's expression and attitude is irrelevant because it doesn't support the argument presented about her being a victim of demeaning sexism? If I wanted I could turn the argument around and suggest that it's actually about female empowerment, since the woman is clearly in charge of the situation and the men are lining up because of the power of her sexuality.

      Surely that's what freedom and equality is about - only the people involved get to decide what is demeaning.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 3:20PM
    • I believe that the whole ironic racist thing is is good thing because it either willingly or unwillingly lure's racists into a false sense of security. Its all about the situation and how people respond.
      If someone said, oh that shirt is so funny and if you asked why, they saying something like "its so un PC" or "is that supposed to be ironic?" has a totally different relationship to the person that says " oh that shirt is so funny because its true"

      It allows people to guage if they are like minded or not.
      Like it or not, racists exist, the only thing you can do is out them and choose not to be around them (or educate them)
      Racists would probably prefer to hand around each other and make themselves feel good; As a free thinker, I think I have to respect that.

      Commenter
      james
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 10:13PM
    • Satire behind which 95% of the sadly clueless bandwagon hipsters hide because it allows them to freely express their ugly views.

      Commenter
      Igomi Watabi
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 8:32AM
  • Hipsterism is a white, middle class, consumerist phenomenon. It's no surprise that these relatively privileged people actually think mysoginy and sexism are, like, so *over* right now. Completely deluded.

    Commenter
    Jo
    Date and time
    May 10, 2012, 10:30AM
    • according the women pictured with the article (Lindsay Lohan, Bar Refaeli and Lady Gaga) 'influence' has no correlation with intelligence and credibilit

      Commenter
      Sherri
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 10:39AM
      • Thank you for this article. I couldn't quite figure out why my hipster cousin thought it was cool to display half naked hipster women on my facebook feed all the time and also include it in his graphical works. It just didn't seem quite right. You've clarified why for me.

        Commenter
        mel
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        May 10, 2012, 10:55AM

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