Monday, August 18, 2008

Hipsters on the Hill

First, let me say that “King of the Hill” is the most respectable of the Sunday night cartoons. The characters in it all based in reality. Although they are caricatures, they are not impossible characters. As such, you can come to truly like and respect them, as opposed to simply being amused by them, as you would just about everyone in “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” and “American Dad.”

The lead character, Hank Hill, is the “anti-Simpson.” A reviewer pointed out that he, and the show, genuinely represented middle-class virtues. This is true. The man works hard in one of those jobs that you never think about but society as we know it could not live without. He sells and delivers propane. He believes in his product, and doing his job well. He accepts people for who and what they are, warts and all. He tries hard to see the good in people, no matter how little he understands them. And he genuinely appreciates things that he likes because he likes them, not because it is “cool” or “hip” to like them.

In tonight's episode, Hank's wife Peggy sells a house in a largely Mexican-populated neighborhood to a “hipster.” This hipster had wanted a house that was “real,” in other words, a neighborhood with no white, non-ethnic people, much like the neighborhoods I have moved into every time I have moved since I was 18: Harlem, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. This, of course, was immediately followed by a wave of young people with questionable fashion sense playing kickball, skateboarding, and opening art galleries.

It seems that “real,” meaning “non-white” implies that there is a phoniness to white culture. That you can only be “real” is you are in a minority Perhaps this attitude is in the tradition of middle-class teenage rebellion against the apparently stifling limitations of middle class culture, against the emphasis on moderation and predictability that the suburbs became when WWII veterans came home, got married, and started raising kids. They felt that by moving into an “ethnic” neighborhood, the could get more “real.”

The truth is that, yes, suburban life is limiting. The culture that has built up there is largely a product of commercial marketing. But if you want to find a place to live that is not so much, just moving into one with no white people is not the answer.

The tradition of young people with artistic inclinations moving into ethnic neighborhoods can be traced to the American Bohemian movements of the 20th century. Artists have always lived on the edge of poverty, and thus have sought affordable housing, and showed a willingness to “rough it” in exchange for cheap living space. These spaces frequently turned out to be abandoned industrial and blighted ethnic ghettos. In the 1950's and early '60's, this took them to neighborhoods of New York City like Greenwich Village. In the '80's it was the East Village and TriBecCa. In the '90's it was Williamsburg, etc., etc. What would happen then is the process we now know as Gentrification.

Gentrification is the process by which a “real” neighborhood becomes a product of corporate capitalism. First come the artists, who hold events in the loft spaces of converted factories, etc. Then come the coffee shops and stores set up to serve the artists. Next come the wealthy people who want to see what the artists are doing. Then come the children of rich and middle class people who want to be artists. Then follow the entrepreneurs who open more fashionable coffee shops and boutiques to serve the reich people coming to see the artists and the children of the rich and middle class. By then the landlords have realized that they are sitting on a goldmine and start raising the rents, pushing out the original tenants and the first wave of artists, who now can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood they “revitalized.” By the time that's done, the only businesses who can afford to open there are large corporate chain stores like Starbucks and Victoria's Secret.

This process has become so efficient, streamlined, even, that it can bypass some of the steps, such as the artists moving in, and go straight to the children of the rich and middle-class wanting to live like artists, and that is what happened in this episode of “King of the Hill.” And looking at this particular story, that is what I find annoying about hipsters. In their worst manifestations, they are not really artists, they don;t really want to be artists, they just want to live like them.
There are three types of people. There are those who do things, like artists, cowboys, and recreational bowlers, for instance (doers). Then there are those who think it would be interesting or fun to do these things once or twice (tourists). They take art classes, go to dude ranches, make a date with friends to go bowling. Finally, there are those people who think it would be fun or cool to be the person who does these things. Those are hipsters. They are annoying because the ruin it for the rest of us, the doers and the tourists.

Doers can respect tourists if they have an interest in setting up an industry for them, That's why art classes and dude ranches exist. They take the tourists' money, give them what they paid for, and everyone goes home happy. Then the hipsters come in.

The hipsters walk into a place and say “Look at me! I'm being hip because I am doing this!” without truly digging what it is they are doing. The bad haircuts, aggressively out of shape bodies, and thrift-story little league t-shirts that don't fit are all symptoms of this. Real artists don't have time and money to get haircuts, work out, and buy clothes, that is why they look the way they do. By imitating this look, they are practically insulting the artists, as well as driving up the price of second-hand t-shirts. When they take over the ballfields to play kickball, they are not doing it because they really enjoy kickball over any other recreational sport, it is because of the irony of playing a kids game as a grown-up. They are not saying “I love this game,” they are saying “I love being being the person that plays this game.” When they do suburban middle-class things class things like set up lawn chairs and drink beer and have Tupperware parties, it is not because they are seeking the serenity that comes from a satisfying suburban middle-class lifestyle, ti is because it is fun to be ironic, and it is ironic that these “rebel artists” are doing suburban, middle-class things. And when they moved into the Mexican immigrants neighborhood, it was not because it was all they could afford, it was so that they could say “Look at me! I'm cool enough to hang with ethnic types and I'm bringing hip culture with me!”
Hank was in the neighborhood because one of his co-workers wanted him to say some words about his daughter on the occasion of her 15th birthday (a celebration in Mexican culture). There he discovered the best fish tacos he had ever tasted and other aspects of Mexican immigrant culture that he really liked. However, the hipsters had come in, acted like they were “bro's” of the locals, and playing their weird, depressing music in the local cantina. Then their presence raised the property values, and Hank's friend had his rent raised.

When Hank discovered that the fish taco he had enjoyed was now replaced with salmon, he realized that his wife's success as a realtor was spelling the end of a way of life of his friend. Peggy realized her mistake and together with their friends, they made the neighborhood appear as white and normal as any normal, white neighborhood. They showed up at the doorstep of a hipster couple with a casserole saying “welcome to the neighborhood!” They put on sweatsuits and went walking for exercise while pushing a baby carriage. They had their middle-aged white guy in an undershirt act like he had just bought the house next door. Soon the hipsters packed up their lawn chairs, art galleries, and kickballs and moved out.

That's the sort of outcome that could only happen on television.

Captain Zorikh

No comments: