an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
We hate hipsters don’t we? It’s probably their detached air of superiority that irks us most, but in reality, we hate it all. We detest star-spangled Toms, imperial mustaches, and pastel suspenders loosely clipped to skinny jeans. We loathe the way they camp out at iconic coffeehouses like Epoch and Cherrywood, hammering away at their typewriters only to pause periodically to swipe through their smart phones.
If we can’t conjure up enough reasons to hate hipsters, there are plenty of resources to inform our opinion. Vice Magazine, The Onion, and Huffington Post provide a steady stream of pseudo-intellectual snark to help us justify our contempt, while websites like “Look at this Fucking Hipster” and “Die Hipster” nourish our most vitriolic inner snob. These websites have been around for years now, making us wonder which came first, DIY banjo woodworking classes or “You Know You’re a Hipster When…”
At about the same time hipster hate sites like these were reaching their pop culture cruising altitude, the liberal-arts-grad social justice bloggers began their anti-hipster campaigns. Hipsters became targets of sweeping erudite critiques. Hipsters were suddenly sexist, racist, privileged purveyors of cultural appropriation. They caused East Side gentrification. They perpetuated rape culture. They scandalously fooled the world into buying fake bean-to-bar chocolate.
Then academia got involved. Dissertations analyzed the neoliberal appropriation of rebellion through hipster praxis. Academic books attempted to define “the hipster” and deconstruct the ethical flaws in hipster consumer culture. Scholarly periodicals decried hipster urbanism and hipster creative class entrepreneurship.
Meanwhile, a diverse milieu of Austin twenty-somethings continues to work, socialize, and survive in an increasingly fast paced and competitive local job market. They seek out cheaper rent, reliable roommates, and faster Wi-Fi. Yes, they sometimes wear ragged cut-off jean shorts, drink Lone Star beer, and shop at thrift stores, but so does my Uncle Dale. Uncle Dale is no hipster, but his gunsmithing talents match well with hipster “maker culture” and he does sometimes engage in what has been called “hipster racism” and “hipster sexism.” Uncle Dale and I don’t mesh well politically, but we do agree on one thing: It’s time to stop talking about hipsters.
At least, it’s time to change the way we talk about hipsters. In recent years, scholars and social critics have managed to blame most of the social shortcomings of college educated Millennials on a group of twenty-somethings who seem to share little in common other than a loosely understood set of semiotics and a self-proclaimed search for authenticity. These critiques are usually well written and confront the poignant issues of white privilege, structural racism and sexism, and the ongoing marginalization of the working class. But the objects and language of such critiques frequently miss the mark, or worse, their arguments are mimicked by amateur bloggers, stripping away the scholarship and reducing the hipster hate down to easily digestible, social media clickbait.
Beyond Hipsters: Actually existing sexism, racism, and marginalization
Issues of “ironic sexism” and “ironic racism” are as relevant now as ever, and deserve serious scholarly attention and activism. When social critics like Meghan Murphy (2013) or Alissa Quart (2012) deconstruct the issues of structural racism and misogyny, they directly confront the myth that the current generation—benefitting from civil rights struggles—is so colorblind and equitable as to move beyond such “historic” injustices (Watson 2012). But by labeling these trends as hipster, they unwittingly engage fashion, media, and marketing tropes, thereby limiting their otherwise far reaching structural critiques to the sins of a satirical icon. The resulting straw man is either easily dismissed or created in the image of the “hipster other,” allowing the reader to wash their hands of the whole issue and dismiss any notion of critical reflexivity.
Likewise, the gentrification of working class and minority neighborhoods is a serious threat to the social and economic sustainability of cities throughout North America, and countless scholars have outlined the political, economic, socio-cultural, and environmental causes of gentrification (for examples unique to Austin, see Tretter 2013a & 2013b; Long 2016). But when urban geographers and sociologists reference hipster gentrification, their arguments are often reduced to knee-jerk generalizations that speak of the “hipster takeover of the urban core” (Bogovic n.d., 7), “hipsters much-maligned habit of gentrifying poor neighbourhoods” (Elley 2014, 27), and the tendency of hipster urbanism to appoint “young white professionals to ‘reclaim’ the downtown in denial of their own occupation” (Cowen 2006, 22). Indeed, as Geoff Stahl (2010) notes, the hipster has quickly become an “easily identifiable locus about larger issues” and a “modern day urban folk devil.”
A real problem emerges, however, when no one can agree on a definition of these devils, and at the same time everyone seems to “know one when they see one.” As Maly and Varis (2015, 1) note, the hipster is “rarely clearly defined—it seems to be used as if its meaning was universally fixed and transparent, while in reality its meaning is opaque and fluid.” Of course, some have tried to define the hipster. Greif (2010) offers no fewer than three definitions of hipsters (as historic figure, as a cultural icon, and as postmodern consumer) before jokingly admitting that he “suspects those definitions are wrong” (13). Bogovic (n.d., 15) enigmatically states “hipsters are the bureaucratic apparatus through which difference is administrated and regulated by means of neoliberal forces, while they delude themselves in perceived uniqueness.” (I’ll give you a moment to process that). Elley (2014, 6) seems to have the most revealing definition when he declares: “the Hipster is them, but it isn’t me.” It’s worth noting that the identification of hipsters referenced by Elley (and others) is based upon a purely semiotic display of fashion and behavior—a problem that can lead to essentialization followed by disdain and othering.
Perhaps the best description of a hipster comes from Cummings and Reft (2010), who after presenting a detailed and carefully articulated treatment of the rhetorical issues surrounding “hipster identity” suggest the following:
What does seem to define the hipster category, broadly speaking, is the existence of a new group of youngish, more or less educated people for whom career ambitions, prolonged education, or personal choice have pushed marriage, children, homeownership and other traditional features of adulthood farther and farther into the future.
Maybe this is the most useful definition for this article, because as Cummings and Reft seem to be smartly aware, this is no definition at all, but rather a near exact retelling of the lifestyle choices and characterizations of the “Millennial” generation, who number over 76 million in the United States alone (Ng et al. 2010).
Yet, such social criticism is not a benign exercise on the part of academia. The scapegoating of a shadow group has tangible consequences for scholarship, awareness, and policy. Not only are we creating a contentious social atmosphere for any twenty-something donning skinny jeans and a trendy hat, we are actually obfuscating the real social, economic, and political factors that underlie the marginalization of communities. You don’t have to look beyond Austin for examples to understand what I mean.
I never intended to write about hipsters. Much of my research directly or indirectly addresses Austin counterculture, the creative class, and gentrification in East Austin neighborhoods, so it comes up frequently in interviews and focus groups. Suffice to say I’ve shared more than a few Topo Chicos with amateur, indie musicians at Shangri-La. And let’s face it, as a tattooed, Chucks-wearing academic in black rimmed glasses, I’ve probably been mistaken for a hipster a time or two. Despite the convincing satirical treatment of Austin hipsters I’ve seen in sources that range from Portlandia to Smithsonian Magazine, the ATX hipster should not be made into a one-dimensional patsy for all that is wrong with Austin. And while the irony of listening to a mustachioed barista in neon wayfarers tell me that he “fucking hates hipsters” seemingly calls to question the credibility of my research subjects, I have conducted enough interviews with young Austin bohemians to confidently assert the following:
All jokes aside, there is a point to be made here. That is, while there are plenty of people who fit the above description, it’s a satirical construct, not a research demographic. It is perfectly acceptable for writers and scholars to deconstruct complex cultural notions of hipster semiotics and praxis, but I have serious concerns when I start seeing urban geographers, sociologists, and economists scapegoating and critiquing a media-constructed trope for gentrification, sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation. These are real issues that deserve ongoing critical research and policy development. Rather than talking about hipsters, we should look for the synergies in the research of people like Markus Moos (“generationed” space and “youthification”), Heather McLean (feminist critique of the creative city), Sarah Dooling (ecological gentrification), Phil Hubbard (“studentification”) and other scholars of the city. These academics are conducting sound demographic analysis, applying critical theory, and proposing meaningful policies. They are doing real research, but hey, maybe it is being dismissed as “too mainstream.”
In the end, denouncing hipsters as the source of all things wrong with Austin has become a lazy habit in this city, and we should think about the reasons we default to “die hipster scum” every time we see a bearded ukulele player on a fixie. When we do, we play into social media essentialization and pop-social commentary. At best, we add faux legitimacy to a modern day folk devil. At worst, we condescendingly make light of inequality, marginalization, and privilege in a city that all too frequently markets itself as a progressive utopia.
Which is a completely hipster thing to do.
Joshua Long is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. His 2010 book, Weird City, uses the “Keep Austin Weird” movement as a central focus to explore the socio-cultural, demographic, and land use changes occurring in Austin at the beginning of the 21st century.
 The terms “ironic sexism” and “ironic racism” sufficiently define the satirical treatment of racism and sexism and the myth that they are outdated social problems that are no longer too sensitive to employ in media, literature, advertising, gaming, etc. (see for instance, Blloshmi 2013; Rodriguez 2014; Softkey 2014, and numerous others).
 It should be noted that Elley (2014) gives a lengthy and well-articulated discussion of hipster semiotics that the scope of this article does not allow me to fully address.
Blosshmi, A. 2013. Advertising in Post-Feminism: The Return of Sexism in Visual Culture? Journal of Promotional Communications, 1 (1), 4-28.
Bogovic R (n.d.) “Hipsters: Rebellion Commodified.” (accessed 08 March 2016). : https://www.academia. edu/6719739/Hipsters_Rebellion_Commodified
Cowen, Deborah. (2006) “Hipster Urbanism.” Relay, September/October, pp. 22-23.
Cummings, A.S. and Reft, R. 2010. “Behind the Mustache: The Cultural, Racial, and Class Implications of the Hipster Identity.” Tropics of Meta. Accessed 22 Feb 2016: http://tropicsofmeta.com/2010/11/16/behind-the-mustache-the-cultural-racial-and-class-implications-of-the-hipster-identity/
Elley, Benjamin. 2014. “The New Gnostics. The Semiotics of the Hipster.” Master’s Thesis: Dept. of Sociology, University of Canterbury.
Greif, M.; Ross, K.; & Tortorici, D. (2010) What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation. New York: N+1 Foundation.
Long, J. 2016. Constructing the Narrative of the Sustainability Fix: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Representation in Austin, TX. Urban Studies 53 (1): 149-172.
Maly, I & Varis, P. 2015. The 21st-century Hipster: On Micro-populations in Times of Superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies. DOI: 10.1177/1367549415597920
Moos, M. 2015. From Gentrification to Youthification? The Increasing importance of young age in delineating high-density living. Urban Studies. DOI: 10.1177/0042098015603292
Murphy, M. 2013. “The Rise of Hipster Sexism.” Herizons, Summer, pp. 16-19.
Ng, E.; Schweitzer, L.; Lyons, S. 2010. Journal of Business & Psychology. 25 (2): 281-292.
Quart, A. “The Age of Hipster Sexism.” NY Magazine: The Cut. 30 Oct. 2012: http://nymag.com/thecut/2012/10/age-of-hipster-sexism.html
Rodriguez, T. 2014. Numbing the Heart: Racist Jokes and the Aesthetic Affect. Contemporary Aesthetics, 12.
Softky, S. 2014 “You’re the One Making This about Race! American Racism and the Unconscious.” In K.J. Fasching et al. Eds. Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: 203-207.
Stahl, G. 2010. “Mile-End hipsters and the unmasking of Montreal’s proletaroid intelligentsia: Or how a Bohemia becomes BOHO.” Retrieved 03 Mar 2015: http://www.adamartgallery.org.nz/wp-con- tent/uploads/2010/04/adamartgallery_vuwsalecture_geoffstahl.pdf
Tretter, E. 2013a. Contesting sustainability: ‘SMART Growth’ and the redevelopment of Austin’s eastside. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Volume 37 (1), pp. 297–31.
Tretter, E. 2013b. Sustainability and neoliberal urban development: The environment, crime and the remaking of Austin’s downtown. Urban Studies, 50(11), pp. 2222-2237.
Watson, E. 2014. “Lena Dunham: The Awkward/Ambiguous Politics of White Millennial Feminism.” Chapter 9 in Watson, E. Mitchell, J. and Shaw, E. (Eds.) HBO’s Girls and the Awkward Politics of Gender, Race, and Privilege.
Watson, E.; Mitchell, J.; and Shaw, E. HBO’s Girls and the Awkward Politics of Gender, Race, and Privilege. Lexington: Lexington Books.