[Note: This article was first published at a time when I was feeling my way around Medium and uncertain what I might write about. I may, and hope to, get back to this series someday. But in the meantime, I’ve found more pressing issues to write about.]
Don’t call it a fan club. Don’t think of it as a hobby. It’s not a common interest group, either.
A subculture is a lifestyle. A highly specific, thoroughly unique lifestyle that feeds a voracious psychological hunger, by spawning a devotion so fierce that in many cases it exceeds that of religious zeal.
Times of severe stress (a pandemic, for example) precipitate the need for a release. An escape from the doldrums of daily madness, as ever more depressing headlines pop up in your notifications and the world seems to descend into chaos just a little bit more by the hour.
A subculture can provide that escape, and it’s easier than ever to find and become part of one. They’ve operated under shadows of fear of embarrassment in the past, but in the last decade, they’ve gone decidedly mainstream.
If I used the term “Furry,” for example, you’d probably know I was referring to the group of adults who enjoy dressing up in cartoonish animal suits and identifying as anthropomorphic cats, dogs, and other plush creatures. Like living teddy bears, or school mascots without the school.
And I’d be willing to bet you know what a “Sneakerhead” is, too. These exacting fashion fiends are obsessed with the latest and greatest tennis shoes, and are willing to pay in the hundreds, thousands, even the tens of thousands of dollars, for their greatest of desired prizes. Nab yourself a pair of custom-mades by an underground “sneaker artist,” and you’ll be the envy of all.
By now you could already predict that things like cosplay & roleplay, collecting, and sports & gaming are responsible for the majority of subcultures alive and well today. But what is it about these left-of-center groups that pull us toward them — and away from 21st Century reality?
Before we can answer that, we have to decide what this wily, slippery beast of a term is, exactly.
Dictionary.com defines a “subculture” as:
noun: a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture.
I don’t quite subscribe to that definition. It makes the whole notion sound rather counter-cultural to me. Rebellious, James Dean on a motorcycle, stickin’ it to The Man.
Today’s “subculture” needs a broader definition.
Psychology Wiki describes a subculture this way:
A subculture is a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.
Thus, the 21st Century subculture starts by bringing together individuals with common interests into groups. But these interests are extraordinarily specific and group members are deeply passionate about them. Scratch that, it goes much deeper than passion into obsession. A fervor of fascination is generated within the individual for this thing, this illusive contrivance, that creates a worshipful reverence.
Often it’s the kind of desire that in a vacuum, you might assume you’re the only person in the world who feels as all-consumed by it. Years ago, you might have been deemed a weirdo for allowing yourself to get swept up in a pursuit that others might consider frivolous or childish.
Some of them are enthusiasts for an obscure sport or competition you’ve never heard of. Many of them are role-players, taking on new identities to shed their real ones, if for only a while. Some are insanity-level daredevils and adrenaline junkies. Others like to test their brainpower against others, or put their creativity on the line. Many are ultra-obsessive fans of the same TV show, movie(s), music, video game, or what have you.
(Pro tip: if it has a convention, it’s probably a subculture. But a convention is by no means a requirement.)
Role playing is enticing because it’s more than an escape, it’s taking on an entirely new persona. Dress up as a wizard, a superhero, or a cartoon pony and head off to your nearest comic book convention. Or squeeze yourself into one of those spandex Morphsuits the next time someone invites you to a party. (Those things cover every part of your body; they won’t hide the love handles but you’re completely anonymous.) Hiding inside a costume can be a remarkably freeing experience, giving you a brief respite when you don’t have to worry about work, bills, relationships, politics, pandemics, and on and on.
I’d submit that a majority of them function as support groups, places where like-minded individuals with common interests can gather and be themselves — even if only online. Passion and enthusiasm play an important component as well. The game changer was the Internet, which led to the true explosion of subculture culture. But we’ll get back to that another time.
So let’s see… To cook up a basic subculture, take your standard AA-style support group, cross it with an old fashioned model train enthusiast’s club, and glue them together with the Internet.
Nah, that doesn’t fit.
Subculture hasn’t always been a nice word. Not long ago, it had a dark connotation, usually because it was used to describe one sexual fetish or another that “normal” people found distasteful.
The fact that more and more people are normalizing sexual fetishes and fantasies as the world grows ever-more “enlightened” has helped to separate the term at hand from society’s underbelly.
I posit that subcultures are becoming increasingly popular because modern life is complicated and difficult, and seems to be growing more so by the day. People need a refuge, an escape from life’s madness. They find those “safe places” in an endless variety of ways. And subcultures are surprisingly welcome places — if you’re willing to fully commit to their rules and ways of doing things.
One core component of a true subculture is that it has its own versions of the hallmarks of actual culture. In other words, every subculture tends to have its own lingo, its own standards for behavior, its own rules, its own ideals to strive for, its own kind of clothing, and so on.
If you’ve ever been to a Renaissance Fair, you’ve been positively drowning in subcultures. Knights, pirates, wizards, mermaids, and much more can be found at these events, and the on-site workers usually present themselves as authentic members of the societies they’re there to replicate. (The “cast members” at Disney Parks are likewise trained to be part of the worlds Disney immerses its customers in, so as not to break the illusion.)
This is a perfect representation of a subculture, because these people are living out their fantasies. Subcultures don’t stop there, encompassing everything from competitions you’ve never heard of to body modification enthusiasts. You’ll find people who choose to live without identifying as human, or people who live for those mundane but “satisfying” videos on YouTube. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
I’m starting a series of articles, each one focusing on a different subculture, how they work, their rules, why people are attracted to them, and more. Why?
Because what if subcultures are important? Could a case be made that everyone belongs to at least one, and that maybe, just maybe they’re necessary for 21st Century survival?
Let’s find out.