Few things make me want to put a paper bag over my head more than depictions of subcultures in pop culture. They’re usually so awkward and embarrassing that I feel bad for everyone involved, because these depictions are usually wildly inaccurate and misleading, since they’re developed by people who aren’t actually members of those subcultures. Works of pop culture created by subcultures, after all, rarely travel outside their own circles—and when they do, people are confused by them, because they don’t resemble the subculture they think they know.
The only subculture that seems to be depicted with any degree of success is a specific strain of geek and nerd culture; the same strain that writes television shows and films movies and becomes successful, because creators can infuse their own experiences into their work. More commonly, though, subcultures are hopelessly mangled for the purpose of entertaining and titillating an audience. An exotification happens, whether people are depicting sex work or cosplay, that’s highly exploitative and distasteful.
Subcultures can make a cheap cultural shorthand, because creators assume that consumers only need a rough and stereotypical sketch to get the point. Crime shows use this means frequently to create a caricature to cast as a murderer; throw in a few references to a subculture like the BDSM community, for example, and you’re good to go without further character development. Or an accurate depiction of the community, because that’s not the goal here. The purpose of the depiction is to frame someone for a crime, not to deliver a nuanced exploration of different cultural groups.
Creators of pop culture want to traffic on subcultures, without actually paying their dues. They know that including something exotic and unknown, perceived as an underworld or dark side of the human experience, will get them attention, and so they use subcultures without really understanding them. Along the way, they have no problem reinforcing really harmful and disgusting stereotypes; the Chinese gamblers meeting in dark, smoke-filled rooms, the nerds who can’t care about anything but Star Trek, the depraved and deeply troubling representatives of poorly-understood cultural groups.
No depiction of a subculture is going to satisfy all its members, because subcultures are diverse just like the rest of society. People who belong to social groups marginalised by common interests and activities may be involved in insular social circles, but it doesn’t mean that feel that everyone in their subculture shares their beliefs and ideas. People practice BDSM in very different ways, for example, and may have very different criticisms of the same cultural texts based on their experiences and perceptions. Their individual critiques may be valid for entirely different reasons, and neither one will wholly encompass the community—even if someone claims to be speaking for the community as a whole.
Some creators actually do their research and try to develop an authentic depiction of a subculture, although of course it’s only a reflection of their research, not the culture as a whole. Their research is reflected in the end product, which rings true to at least some consumers. Others don’t, and it’s painfully obvious, and they appear genuinely shocked when the people they were exploiting, mocking, or using for cheap narrative ploys get upset about it. Evidently the thought that not everyone is overjoyed to be used as a plot device is alien to some creators.
There’s an overall sense in pop culture that, while it’s necessary to research professions to make them accurate, there isn’t the same need to do so with human experience. A medical show will have doctors as consultants and will make adjustments as recommended by people who know better as a result of professional training and, yes, experience. But there’s less consultation on what the lives of individuals are like; you don’t need to talk to mentally ill people, for example, to learn more about how mentally ill patients might feel. You don’t talk to disabled people to learn how people react to acquired disability, or handle routine medical care while disabled.
With subcultures, there seems to be a sense that it’s possible to extrapolate from what people present as their public face. And that it is possible to imagine what membership in a subculture is like. When people who deeply identify with subcultures are depicted in pop culture, though, there’s an ignorance of their actual experience as human beings. And there is often a subtle sense of mockery, not just from the other characters, but from how they are presented. We are often supposed to see them as deviant and gross, tragic and appalling; a character who plays in the furry community is a ‘freak,’ say, unlike all the nice normal characters who populate a drama.
It’s another reminder for people that they aren’t wanted in society and they’re viewed as ludicrous or threatening, or sometimes both. I’ve seen enough stalker superfans in pop culture to know that many creators seem to think that it’s not possible to be deeply invested in a subculture without developing a tendency for violence and aggressiveness in defense of that culture. Reinforcing the idea of otherness, of not-belonging, can actually be a great way to push subcultures even further to the margins, even deeper underground, to entrench their members even further as they hide from a society that wants to use them, mock them, and hurt them, but certainly doesn’t want to recognise their humanity or approach them as equals.