by Nash Croker
All the jock frat boys called you a hipster fag
And I think you liked it, I think you loved it
I think you loved it
Priests, ‘JJ’, (2017)
I am not a softboi.
Ostensibly I’m just like him. His clothes aren’t much different. His cut, his piercings. We probably like the same bands. Maybe not all, but enough. We probably have too much to say about The Smiths or existential philosophy.
But we’re both different. It’s obvious as soon as you look at us. I don’t have to tell you. It can be read just like our cultural markers. Just like the posters on our walls. Just like the bands on our t-shirts.
Before a class last month we were set a 10-page essay by Jose Esteban Munoz to read. Like much of Queer Theory it spent its pages talking to other theorists, leaving many students desperately clutching for understanding. Some white students angrily voiced their frustrations and the white teacher regressed to saying they set the reading precisely because we could not fully comprehend it. That it was a lesson in accepting and working a response to a piece that has barriers to entry so high as to alienate the reader. Like many readings I found myself instinctively extrapolating meaning from the small turns of phrase I could interpret. Perhaps I simply enjoy Munoz, but there was something to be said about taking on this exercise. Something that is racialized, something that speaks to privilege and academia. Do we have to fully understand academic work, do we even have to read academic texts in their entirety? So much as the author’s argument and framework are pivotal, little else prevents the formulation of response. All of which, are valuable.
White people often want it all. Not content to briefly observe something they must inhabit it to have the full experience. There is an air of becoming to the white reader. White academia and white art are not content just to be aware of ‘Other’ existence but must also have ownership over it. The academic discipline of Anthropology exists to intellectualise the ‘Other’ for the becoming of the white western world. Take Jennie Livingston’s ‘Paris is Burning’ documentary, for example. These artifacts and practises then change. Stripped of their context by the white reader they become an affectation. Look at a white man’s bookcase. Beyond what it usually lacks (art by women or people of colour), it is specific and it is aspirational. White men’s bookcases are rarely solely expressions of the act of reading but instead take on the new meaning. Taste is aligned and constructed. There are staples (Nabokov, Salinger, Bret Easton Ellis) and there are deeper cuts (Shantaram, The Autobiography of Malcolm X), reflecting breadth and precision, in a balancing act that draws you in and then shows one’s prowess and knowledge. Art is a cultural marker, it is social capital for them. It is white affectation.
When one cannot experience something yet is given unrestricted access to all else, art becomes a tool for expanding one's consciousness. Our art becomes the means of understanding a world. It becomes a symbol of ‘wokeness’, of taste and of diversity. White society is haunted by the fact it was defined in opposition to what it supposedly is not. Race is socially constructed so whiteness is defined by its access to power, capital and police protection. The violence at the cost of white society means beyond an ideological justification for genocide and supremacy, there’s little room for culture.
So the softboi is defined by his sentimentalist quirky obsession with art, books and misanthropic music. Self-indulgent and solipsistic, he makes up for his lack of personality by adorning himself with cultural touchstones. His taste tells us who he is, but in an absence of self he falls deeper and deeper into his art to mine some sort of identity. This very process of seeking some semblance of personality then becomes his personality. He is the boy who wears the ‘Queen Is Dead’ t-shirt, not the boy wearing the t-shirt. He is affectation personified.
By contrast, as a queer of colour, depression is often a function of my existence in this world. That is not to say I am defined by my depression, but that depression is a somewhat logical response to the alienation I feel as a reaction to the fact of my brownness and my queerness. To be constantly ‘Othered’, is to feel a permeating sense of unease and alienation in a world designed for and centered around a different type of body. It is a constant struggle then to remain true to myself, true to the discomfort. As such, in an absence of self-esteem and empowerment, all to frequently I sublimate to depression. In this way, not by choice, alienation and thus depression become a function of my identity and continued existence in this discomforting world.
In this melancholy that I feel, I turn to art and culture as a means of yes, indulging the sorrow, but also to help understand and process the feeling. It is part escapism, indulgence and crucially - comfort. That I can empathise with the travel sick longing of Joni Mitchell, or Morrissey’s languished self-pity serves to ease the unease. That too often it is problematic white artists I turn to (see the ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ album sleeve or anything Morrissey has uttered in the last 30 years) is likely my own expression of racial anxiety. But art and my experience of it is affected by identity. So much as it is a comforting indulgence, reading, writing, creating is a means of harnessing melancholia into meaning.
I typically create when I feel down. When you cannot not frame sorrow through the lens of structural power relations and identity, sadness is too closely related to anger. The feeling of injustice is what translates melancholy into power. Oppression gives me a voice. The familiar feeling of alienation that comes with my lived experience makes me morbidly aware of my identity and so focalises my sorrow into meaning. And so I write.
Hence the frustration with the conflation with the softboi. For him, art is a substitute for an identity. For me, however, it is a means of expressing and surviving the very real facts of my existence. While it may be constitutive and transformative for both, what hurts is that these same markers have very different cultural meanings on very different bodies.
The same Sleater-Kinney poster might symbolise an (unfortunately atypical) emotional vulnerability or symbolic feminism on the softboi’s wall, a function of the simultaneous glorifying perceptions and measly expectations our media and culture place on straight white boys. On mine, de-sexed femininity and aggresive angst. The bodies to which we adorn our cultural markers mold the cultural interpretation of our identities. This is why softbois exist, because our individualist consumer culture allows for the substitution of material objects for a personality.
But because all bodies are not equal in this society, these cultural markers provide differing social capital to differently valued bodies. Those cultural objects I turn to to ease the alienation are in turn voluntarily reappropriated onto the softboi as a means of garnering social capital. What they may mean to me is divorced from the palatable constitution of softboi personality - artsy, sentimental, misanthropic male feminism.
Yet the body of a softboi is not intrinsically threatening. There is no edge in the comforting mold of a society made for him. Not content to just fit in the world, he chooses to construct ‘edginess’ by appropriating the culture of those who experience marginalisation and oppression. The sadness that turns to anger and thus voice in my art is tuned to guilt under his gaze. His own privileged guilt becomes his own melancholia. Art that expresses our anger and suffering is taken to produce his own melancholic sentimentality. Garnering him cultural capital in a world more concerned about signifying outrage then actually doing anything about it. The softboi appropriates my suffering to further his faux-intellectual, de-politicised ‘right-on’-ness.
And as a society we lap it up. Because to face the reality of a society built upon centuries of genocide, slavery and continued exploitation and oppression is too threatening to bare. More reassuring instead, to listen to a floppy-haired white boy tell us how “fucked up” Obama’s foreign policy was, while he puts on another Lou Reed album because “TV shows are for people with no attention span”.
I don’t want to be overly deterministic. Not all queer folks or people of colour suffer from depression, and straight white boys can be depressed too. But the violence of structural racism, homophobia and transphobia does mean that nearly half of all trans teens in the US and the UK have attempted suicide or that the life expectancy of trans women of colour in America is 31. Depression may not be intrinsic to identity, but all identities do not exist equally in a world stratified by race, gender, sexuality, class among others. These forces make it harder for others, but they can be overcome.
Faced with the threat of softboi appropriation, what then is the role of queer of colour melancholia? If it is an expression of our identity and existence in this society, it cannot simply be let go of. But when we are expected to be be sad, there is something to be said about a radical queer, brown happiness. Perhaps, I should halt the indulgence (at the very least quit Morrissey), turn sorrow into anger, and try to find empowerment in expressions of joy. After all, lingering in affected misanthropy is the softboi’s game, mine is resistance.