The Embracing, Aping, and Fashionizing of Identity

Many choices on personal taste – especially for young people – are at least as much about representing a particular kind of image of our selves to the rest of the world as they are about whatever enjoyment is derived from the taste itself. Certain tastes connote a whole range of other identities – political, philosophical, religious, etc.

It doesn’t even have to be something incredibly obvious like a tie-dyed Phish t-shirt – it could be a much smaller, but equally potent, signifier. For example – I am indisputably urban in my dress, but wear belts with funny belt buckles; ergo, I am a Democrat and heavy user of the Internet.

These sorts of cues – especially visual (fashion), but in the case of self-representation on social networking services, also text-based (lists of favorite books, bands, movies, etc.) – save us time in deciding the kinds of social interactions we wish to undertake. And so, it behooves everyone, for the sake of the system’s smooth functioning, to behave honestly and more or less stick within the relatively narrow range of identity and behaviors connotated by these signifiers.

Which brings me around to the following story by New York-based blogger (and, clearly, cab driver) The Hungry Cabbie:

…the other day, in South Williamsburg, I idled in front of a brownstone on Wythe Street for a good fifteen minutes while my fare poured her heart out. She had been living a lie.

I had first spotted her not too far away in North Williamsburg staggering out of a bar on Union Street and Richardson. I didn’t expect much from her. She looked like every other girl in Williamsburg right down to the mullet, the Duran Duran tee shirt she had obviously not bought before Simon got fat, the torn leg warmers, the oversized pink plastic belt, and the can of PBR in her hand. She was a classic hipster chick.

But she clearly had to get something off her chest. She danced around it for a while, and I wasn’t in the mood to fish for it…
“I’M A REPUBLICAN!!!” she blurted out. “I’m from Utah. I’m from Utah, and we’re all Republicans. ALL OF US. I mean . . . I love being Republican. I love George W. Bush.” She was talking very fast now. “I hate Ralf [sic] Nader, I hate the Democrats . . . I even hate other Republicans who don’t stand behind Bush. I’m a Republican. . . a Republican.” We were at a light, and I had been looking at her in my rearview. As I turned my gaze back to the street in front of me, I noticed in the mirror that my mouth had been hanging open. The light had been green for some time.

Usually, I’ve got something to tell people. Something to at least start to put things in perspective. Maybe even something to make people feel a little better. But I was speechless. I actually considered that she might be on some crazy drug, and I could be in physical danger.

She kept talking as we crossed into the south side of Williamsburg. I managed to ask, “Do your friends know?” This only served to agitate her to the point where I could barely understand her. And, no, her friends did not know.

She’d voted for Bush twice. She’d actually worked for the Bush campaign in 2000 and, like Alex P. Keaton, worshipped Richard Nixon. Her hobby was collecting Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich memorabilia. She was against abortion, against gay marriage, against immigration, against Arabs in general. Yet she was living in possibly the most liberal neighborhood on the planet.

…She calmed down and worked her problems down to their core: “Why should I be afraid of becoming an outcast just because I support our president? Why should I live in fear of letting all these liberal freaks around here ‘find me out’ for the Republican I am?

She seemed empowered. Her facial expression relaxed, and she grabbed her purse to pay me. Even though the meter had been on, I still could have made way more money out there picking up and dropping off fares in the time I sat in front of her house. I expected a nice tip. I hadn’t considered that, as a Republican, she did not identify with the working man one bit. She gave the change plus a dollar.

Now I was the one who felt deflated. I asked her, “Is there any place in Williamsburg you go to get away from the other hipsters, I mean the real ones.” I didn’t care that I might have sounded offensive.

“Marlow and Sons is only a couple blocks away. I love their oysters.” She said it reminded her of her drunk mother’s summer house on Puget Sound. [emphases added]

Okay. The author is pretty clear on the violation that’s gone on here – the title of the post is “The Impostor” – and that this young woman has violated important social norms in major ways. He makes a point of saying, “I actually considered that she might be on some crazy drug, and I could be in physical danger,” and I believe him when he says that. Cabbies – especially in New York City – have to be keen observers of social behavior. People who deviate wildly from established norms could – often are – real threats to their personal safety.

Continuing – she says that her friends – who presumably, as most friends do, dress similarly, have similar tastes, etc. – don’t know, and then proceeds to rail against the idea that she should feel threated being found out by “these liberal freaks,” a category which almost certainly includes…her friends.

Clearly, this is a story of many things, but first and foremost it’s about a very confused young woman. As nearly all of us do, she wished to make friends and be well-liked, and so adopted the tastes and dress of those around her. But she didn’t download the whole package beyond those signifiers – she was, truly living a lie.

Can a t-shirt and torn leg warmers really lie? Yes. They connote membership of a social group with established norms, one of which is political liberalism. She was concerned that her friends might cease to be her friends if and when her political views became known. Rightly so, too – her failure to disclose the significant way in which she deviated from the set of assumed norms amounted to a great betrayal of trust.

This incident does also remind me of a great bit of analysis by Michael Berubé last December:

I’ve been wondering about this for about four years now: how is it that when former liberals pledge allegiance to George Bush (because, you know, everything changed on 9/11), they not only jettison many of their former beliefs, but they take on every single last one of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Wingnut Faith?

It’s like, “Everything changed for me on September 11. I used to consider myself a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m outraged by Chappaquiddick.”

It’s as if the moment they threw in their lot with Bush, they were e-mailed a Wingnut Software Package that allowed them to download every major wingnut meme propagated over the past thirty years.

In addition to being hilarious, and true (uh-oh! politics alert!), I actually think it’s not too puzzling why this happens. They really do download a “Wingnut Software Package,” because supporting Bush and the project of modern conservatism has become a cultural identity impossible to separate from political views. There’s a lot more to unpack here, and I will do so in future posts.

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