The ‘Alternative’ Label- Competition, Insolence And Elitism In Imagery

Now, before people decidedly jump up my ass in a reaction to the title, I strongly urge you to read before formulating an opinion or, indeed, criticising mine. Firstly, I would like to stipulate that my view does not apply to all ‘alternative’ and ‘modified’ people- what I want to discuss, or rather, put forward, are my thoughts on a certain mentality that surrounds the so-called modern culture of being ‘alternative’, which is present, just like any other superior mentality elsewhere, in the above circle. As always, I do not intend to bash or single out anyone, I simply want to draw attention to an issue that is not often discussed because a number of people who refer to themselves with the above label appear more preoccupied with seeing themselves as society’s ‘outcasts’ and ‘victims’ rather than perpetrators and perpetuators of an elitist mentality and who are, increasingly as time goes on, largely accepted on a wider scale. I am aware, at this point, that I sound very scornful, but it is something that really grates under my skin, so I am going to address it in the best way that I can.

To give a bit of context, ‘alternative’, nowadays, is used to describe people who sport a range of bodily modifications in the form of tattoos, brightly-coloured, dyed hair, ‘unconventional’ hairstyles and piercings of some description. The term itself originated in the late seventies and early eighties through the evolution of UK and US popular culture, particularly in music, encapsulating the DIY mentality of many young and underground artists who expressed themselves artistically independently of the mainstream media, the attitudes and ethos of these groups also made visible through fashion as an extension and representation of their defiance to the stagnant nature of conformity. It has its roots in times of economic distress and, consequently, artistic oppression because of this, the emergence of a new and unconventional approach to expression being a reaction to the bleakness and the voices of the already unheard being pushed to be stifled further, and I think you do have to be aware of the social context of its beginnings to understand the word in its essence, however, as the meaning of ‘alternative’ has evolved and become more of a broad way to describe a myriad of nuanced things in the thirty-odd years since its initial application, I don’t think that, now, it can and should be used in the same way.

With its increase in popularity and the imagery associated with being ‘alternative’ no longer ‘abnormal’ in many ways, I find it fascinating that the term has, by a number of people under this label, been made paradoxically restrictive in its meaning, when its presence is largely more accepted and prominent in modern society. Intriguingly, I have found that, by today’s standards, the word does not apply to those who have modified themselves in more ‘conventional’ ways, for example, through surgical augmentation, the lightening and darkening of the skin or even the wearing of make-up in some way, all of which are modifications, but not fitting or even accepted in the description above. It pertains mostly to the exterior image of the people who subscribe to it, however, there have also been loose mentions of an ‘alternative lifestyle’ from people who consider themselves in this way, but I am not sure exactly what this means as it is rarely specified and the lifestyle of one ‘alternative’ person can and, often, does vary exceedingly in the opinions and life choices and even occupation of another visually similar person. This categorisation of people based on the way they look is used by those who don’t subscribe to the above to describe those that do, but, more pressingly, seems to be increasingly pushed forward by people who do consider themselves as belonging to ‘alternative’, as they believe it says something about themselves as people, their lifestyles and their personal choices with it, which my be true to an extent, but is not always indicative of their character as a human being based purely on the way that they dress. I find that, the more I come across people at present open to this description, the more it seems to strike me that there appears little synergy between the mentalities of the people within this apparent subculture outside of their views towards physical imagery, and even then there is great disparity. This is not to say that those who do describe themselves as ‘alternative’ are not allowed to exercise differing views regardless of the subject in question, but, through my understanding and observation of it, it is not merely the having of one or a mixture of the above things that makes you ‘alternative’ or, indeed, someone who is accepted by others under this label, but rather these things are used as a yardstick for measuring someone’s alleged individuality and social acceptability by people who consider themselves somewhat regulators and authorities of this culture and, believe that they have the power to either validate or dismiss people based on what they think being ‘alternative’ is and, how much of the person in question applies to their list of qualifying rules. I know that people harbouring the above mindset may think that I have no right to express views that are critical of them in any nature, the audaciousness of someone who has no tattoos and piercings, of which I have four, but would not be considered remotely ‘alternative’ in any way expressing an opinion that is not complimentary or in veneration of them, but this is exactly the kind of mentality that I would like to comment on and expose, as I don’t believe or agree that anyone has the right to make anyone feel inferior based on a number of superficial choices that a person may or may not make, or that anyone should get away with demonstrating a certain moral highground based on their aesthetics, especially when those doing the segregating, those who consider themselves ‘individual’ and ‘alternative’ to everyone else look incredibly similar to others labelling themselves in this way which, surely, should draw attention to the fallacy of it in itself.

Again, I would like to reiterate that this is not focused on all ‘alternative’ people or those who look as if they would otherwise be a part of this scene, whether they submit to the label or not. I have never been the kind of person who has believed in the exclusion or separatism of people in society for any reason, but in relevance to this subject, the drawing of conclusions about people, their character, their mentality and their value as a human being based on the way they appear on the outside is inexcusable to me, regardless of the so-called reasons or motivations for doing it. If you were to take this argument out of the context of an expression of complaint towards the mentalities of certain ‘alternative’ people, the subject of humans being judged based on their physical appearance, especially by what they do and do not have on their skin, would fast become one about race and personal identity and the right to look however you want to without fear or actuality of being discriminated against, and very rightfully so. So why, then, do certain ‘alternative’ people think that it is excusable to discriminate against those who do not make the choice to modify themselves in a conspicuous way and, view themselves as superior to those who do not feel the need to exhibit their interior selves, their wants, inclinations and desires in a topically physical way? If the tattoos, dyed hair, hairstyles and piercings are indeed an extension of self-expression, then why is it that certain ‘alternative’ people cannot seem to accept that there are people who do not express themselves in this way and who communicate their innermost selves through other media, not linked to an ‘alternative’ lifestyle in any way and, whose choices neither make them inferior nor superior to you? I am not in any way dismissing that people with dyed hair, tattoos and piercings have been looked down upon notoriously for various lengths of time and that discrimination of varying colour has been rationed upon them based on their physical choices, however, to answer this ignorance with insolence of another kind is not the way to combat or stand up against attitudes of contempt and foolishness. You cannot isolate people to make yourself stand out, this only puts forward the perception that, for all your alleged ‘activism’ and the right-on way you wish to be portrayed, you are, in fact, no different to those who you see yourself as alternative to, which, depending on the society in which you are placed, is incredibly subjective in this world.

The notion that your ideologies, opinions, moral leanings and other personal tastes are based solely on your looks, or that the way somebody appears on the exterior invites you to be more drawn towards them as they look more like you and, hence, their mindset will automatically be in some way similar to yours is absurd to me and is something that I have been continually averse to in my life so far. I am not denying that the idea of a collective goal and mentality is expressed through clothing in various factions of life- consider uniforms of any description to convey an image of unity, community and shared identity between people- however, this conformity of image is not conventionally condusive to individuality, which is not always a negative thing depending on the circumstances in which it is applied, however, in terms of ‘alternative’ culture, to use an image or persona to exclude other people where the look is and has been seen as encouraging to expression and individuality, this is something that I cannot understand, especially where those conforming to the visual ideals pick differences between those that would otherwise also be seen as ‘alternative’, in order to discern whether they are authentic or of value to them or not.

To substantiate my viewpoint, I am going to put this argument in context of my own personal experiences. I have never been the type of person who looks as if they belong to any kind of subculture or identifiable social group, I have never dressed or expressed myself in this way and, because of this, people’s perceptions of me, my tastes and my personality throughout my life have either been confused or completely wrong as, in their own words, they have had ‘a hard time placing me’, so they have either not bothered to get to know me because of this or have been reluctant to engage with me as they are not quite sure of who I am, in a way that they can understand, as my clothing and physicality and the manner in which I express myself are not indicative of where I ‘belong’. To further this, I have also found myself subject to attitudes of uncertainty based upon the company that I keep, both in prior and in the current stages of my life. The people I choose to associate with look nothing like each other, not through intent of being this way, but purely through their own individualism that is not based on the look of one another. The only fundamental similarity between us, I think, is that we consider ourselves good people in the way that we quantify that quality, our personal tastes overlapping in a number of ways, however, these things not being the sole basis of our links to one another and certainly not defining our outward appearance. To personalise this further, my husband is the visual opposite of me in terms of the former description, as he not only sports numerous tattoos, but has had his hair in a variety of different colours and styles throughout his life so far, the most current being his natural colour in a Travis Bickle-style mohican. The number of times that people have attempted to categorise him based on parts of his look, as a punk, a skinhead, somebody inspired by the 60s’ ska and mod cultures, all of which are entwined in some way, yet of which none are singularly representative of his character and tastes in their entirety is phenomenal. He has all the visual markings of an ‘alternative’ person, yet he would not be considered so by those who call themselves by this name for reasons tied to their own haughtiness of perception. There have, conversely, been situations where people who are not physically similar to either of us in any way, but who might identify more with my husband’s look based on the amount of perceived visible relevance to their own have seemed to dismiss my presence because I do not sport the visual ‘badges’ of a relatable person to them. Whilst neither party has looked identical, I have looked the least like either of these two people by comparison, so by this rationale, if it can indeed be called that, I have been the least ‘alternative’ one, even though my tastes may be quite similar to the other person in question and, regardless of the fact that neither myself nor my husband subscribe to or endorse this look or label in any way. It is incredibly confusing, the regulations shrouded in irony and hypocrisy, making the ‘alternative’ scene of now an unquantifiably unfocused one to me. There seems a mentality of togetherness in the way that certain people portray themselves within this group, yet the actuality seems to be to divide instead of unify. Weighted with competition to define who is more alternative than thou, this entire outlook comes across to me as a colossal waste of energy and time.

I don’t consider myself an enormous mystery and never have done: I quantify myself by the thoughts I have and what is in my heart and this is exactly the approach that I apply to other people, regardless of what they are wearing or the perception of their likes and dislikes that is put across by what is or isn’t on their body or skin. I don’t give a single shit about the way someone looks or what they are wearing if the words that come out of their mouth when they turn to speak are intelligent, informed and expressed in a manner of care for others, which is where my interest and attraction to people lies. Humility and strength of character and conviction are some of the greatest qualities that any human being can possess and, to me, are more insightful and indicative of a person’s innermost workings than the colour of their hair or the ‘modifications’ on their skin. What absolutely hurts me is that there are people in the World who have otherwise intelligent and engaging things to say who do call themselves ‘alternative’, which is fine, but they will then go and derail their persona of openness and social consciousness by posting a video, for example, ranting about how ‘misunderstood’ and ‘victimised’ they are as a ‘race’ of people with colourful hair, piercings and tattoos. It is not right that anyone should be judged based purely on their physicality, but it often comes across that these people to which I refer have willingly sought out these derogatory opinions towards people under the ‘alternative’ label in order to spur on their unfounded aggression and voice their opinions of disgruntlement and feelings of ostracism to other people, subscibers and followers on social media etc, who they know will agree with them.

There is a problem with the way that people are viewed by others in society for an infinity of reasons, but to knowingly seek out unfavouring opinions when you may not necessarily have been exposed to them personally in the volume that you make out to be appears, to me, like a flagrant cry for validation and attention, when the actuality may be that the people directly exposed to you, those in your vicinity and those you communicate with in various personal ways may actually be okay with the way you look and be generally accepting of the way you choose to live your life and be. I find it an absolute shame and a series of pinpricks under my skin that the ‘alternative’ culture of now seems to be more concerned with spreading a new breed of aesthetic elitism than a message of acceptance and looking beneath the skin to uncover the personality of another person, especially coming from a position of discrimination and physical judgement as a number of these people seem to have. It appears to me that the attitudes of prejudice and intolerance that may once have been directed at them in a major way are now enjoyed as a way of enforcing a sense of individuality and expression that has, perhaps, been lost, particularly as tattoos and modifications to the body are becoming more and more de rigueur in Western society and are, hence, no longer viewed as the proverbial sore thumb in societal visuality. Whatever the reason is, it seems that the codes for being ‘alternative’ are becoming tight and more regulated as the discernable aspects of this culture are diminishing with increasing popularity. I think that the fear of not being seen as individual is driving people within this sub-sect into, what my husband calls an “alternative arms race”, fuelling people who were, perhaps, once accepting of the differences and uniqueness of people in society into a dictatorial mindset, leading them into seeking ever more extreme ways to assert themselves visually, not for the sake of mutual togetherness, but to the end of making themselves the imperial figureheads of a temperamental aesthetic ideal. Incredibly sad, but nothing remotely worthy of lament in my eyes if you are going to be a dick to other people purely based on the fact that they do not look like you, in the infinity of unattainable and shifting ways that this personal identity is defined.

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