By Mollie Fellow, Final Year Criminology students
Everyone has something they identify themselves with, it’s taught at the most basic level of sociology.
I remember my first activity in my GCSE sociology class being the concept of identity and what I see as ‘my identity’ and how society perceives that; through my academic journey I never thought the stick figure I drew with what I saw as my identity at 15 would become such a large part of, not just my life, but how I see crime and victimisation.
Doing a degree in criminology has allowed me to develop my understanding and learning, it has allowed me to see how people perceive crime and how the concept of a ‘victim’ is subjective. It has also allowed me to see how that subjective nature of what determines ‘a crime’ and ‘a victim’ excludes and trivialises the experiences of many in wider society. It has also allowed me to learn about Cohen's theories of moral panic and folk devil. Something I could say present within my own life and the sub-cultures I identify with.
To put context to what I mean, when I was a teenager, I found that music and clothing was my form of expression. I liked heavy metal, I dressed in some outrageous ways, and I moved through subcultures like ‘emo’, ‘scene’, ‘goth’ and ‘punk’ because I felt I belonged there and made them a big part of my identity. Growing up as part of an alternative community wasn’t without its problems, by standing out I was opening myself up to criticism and attacks. Yet I always felt that those attacks and criticism were considered by society in a trivial context, that my concerns were ‘silly’.
Those concerns didn’t seem silly when I was finding out about cases such as Sophie Lancaster who was beaten to death alongside her boyfriend for their alternative look, it didn’t seem silly when I had things shouted at me in the street when all I was doing was walking down the high street. Yet I grew up being told I’d regret that part large part of my identity, my piercings, my tattoos, my hairstyles and I was told it was all a phase.
I was told that by dressing the way I did or listening to the music I did, I had ‘brought it on myself’ and I should ‘try to fit in more’. But nearly 10 years later I’m still a frequent part of the alternative community, I still move through those same subcultures, still using my appearance to express myself, still listening to the same music and it’s still a large part of my identity; Sadly, I still face the same attacks and criticism and still face the same responses to my concerns. There was a feeling that even on these smaller issues in life that all these problems are minimised or trivialised simply based on how I looked, music I listen to you and the subculture I was in.
This led me to delve further into the sociological and criminological theory around responses to subcultures such as Cohen’s theory of moral panics and folk devils. I noticed that heavily in the 90s and 00s that Goth and alternative subcultures, were met with relatively negative opinions in the media. Strings of events were linked to heavy metal and alternative subcultures such as:
- In 1984 Ozzy Osbourne's music was blamed for the suicide of a fan due to satanic overtones and songs such as 'Suicide Solution' and was sued by the individual’s family (Gewertz, 1986)
- The murder of a 15-year-old girl in 1995 was attributed to the metal band Slayer when the family of Elyse Pahler tried to sue the band for influencing the three teens who carried out a satanic sacrifice resulting in her death (Weiner, 2001)
- In 1999 shock-rocker Marylin Manson was given a lot of negative press surrounding his influence on the Columbine High School Shootings which also generated further negative opinions on those in gothic subcultures and those wearing Trench Coats (Olge, Eckman and Leslie ,2003).
These links to horrific crimes and tragic events are paired with many controversial moments within alternative music such as Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat and Marilyn Manson being given an honorary priesthood with the Church of Satan which when applying the theory of Cohen lead to creation of folk-devils for the media to display. In turn stoking the fire of a moral panic surrounding heavy-metal, and alternative subcultures painting them as Satan worshipping, violent, death obsessed teens, ostracising them further from society. Whereas, from personal experience and from extracts I've read from Arnetts' book 'Metalheads' (1996) about heavy metal having a calming effect on its listeners and the agnostic, atheist or even Christian backgrounds of heavy metal listeners; a reality far from that shown in the media.
It has saddened me the further into my degree I have got and the more I look at the framing of heavy metal and seeing all these misconceptions of subcultures that me and my friends belonged to being the dominant view of society. This conclusion isn’t just from academia but is the learning I have done from people I met at alternative club nights, the abuse and torment that they had received for dressing a certain way or listening to a certain kind of music because of how heavy metal and alternative subcultures are viewed by society.
Furthermore, my understanding of alternative victimisation is drawing on mine and my partners experiences of verbal abuse from random strangers about us being freaks, the staring from random people in the street and the fear of dressing in a way that makes us happy in case someone decides that we should be attacked for it or have things thrown at us for it. The quote I gave in the title is an example of a statement said to me when I was on a bus minding my own business; from this experience I see how the moral panics and anti-goth panics have influenced the treatment of those in alternative subucltures.
It saddened me to learn about cases such as Brian Deneke, Sophie Lancaster, Jacob Crockett, the 2008 'anti-emo' riots in Mexico, the 2012 'anti-emo' riots in Iraq and many more examples of people being killed or targeted for their relation to alternative subcultures (Alioto, 2017. Greene, 2014. Long, 2012. Madrigal, 2008. Scott, 2017. Wilson, 2014.). These deaths lay in the misconceptions of alternative subcultures, targeting people for the way that they dress and the way society perceives it as wrong; this societal perception that alternative subcluters are wrong, satanic and filled with freaks I believe not only led to these attacks but in a way has led to some form of societal justification for these attacks.
I refer to my earlier idea of ‘you brought it on yourself’ by standing out, by being different that you’ve opened yourself up to these attacks. This attitude is a reflection what consumers have been spoon fed by the media and turned into the point of targeting for alternative victims. I’ve seen odd amounts of academic research looking at the framing of heavy metal/alternative subcultures and victimisation of listeners or the members of its surrounding subcultures. I feel this is something that needs to be changed, there needs to be more research into how these panics are affecting the modern-day alternative teens and what we can do to mitigate the effects of them.
No-one should live in fear because they choose to dress slightly differently to others, no-one’s problems should be trivialised simply because of how they look or what music they listen too. As a society I think it's time we challenged our conceptions of importance on "normal" appearance and our conception of alternative subcultures.
Alioto, D. (2017) What the Killing of a Punk in Texas Says About America. Vice. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/434agp/what-the-killing-of-a-punk-in-texas-says-about-america [Accessed 11th April 2019]
Arnett, J. (1996) METALheads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation. Colorado: Westview Press.
Gewertz, C. (1986) Heavy metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne was targeted Monday in… UPI. Available at: https://www.upi.com/Archives/1986/01/13/Heavy-metal-rocker-Ozzy-Osbourne-was-targeted-Monday-in/5886505976400/ [Accessed 11th April 2019]
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Madrigal, A. (2008) ANTI-EMO RIOTS BREAK OUT ACROSS MEXICO. Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2008/03/anti-emo-riots/ [Accessed 11th April 2019]
Olge, J.P., Eckman, M., Leslie, C.A. (2003) Appearance Cues and the Shootings at Columbine High: Construction of a Social Problem in the Print Media. Sociological Inquiry, 73(1), pp.1-27.
Scott, J. (2017) Sophie Lancaster murder: Are young people still scared to be goths? The BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40628457 [Accessed 11th April 2019].
Weiner, A. (2001) Are Slayer to blame for a teen murder? Entertainment Weekly. Available at: https://ew.com/article/2001/08/23/are-slayer-blame-teen-murder/ [Accessed 11th April 2019]
Wilson, M. (2014) ‘Zealot' murder suspect has violent family history. My San Antonio. Available at: https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/article/Zealot-beheading-suspect-had-family-history-of-5861943.php [Accessed 11th April 2019]