I’ve been finishing a book, which will be out in May this year.
Posts and links to follow soon.
This weekend the Observer predicted the demise of the hipster. Because markers of hipsterdom – like tattoos, beards, topknots, bunting, and cocktails in mason jars – have been increasingly widely adopted (moving from being exclusively hipster affectations, to being cool and then mainstream), the article asks if hipsterdom is at an end. The answer – as the piece acknowledges – is that what it means to be a hipster is evolving: that this group of young and young-ish people, most of them middle class and well educated, who seek to live in (some) ways which differ from social norms, will adopt new and different markers of their ‘otherness’.
Part of the problem with writing about hipsters is that they are so hard to define – which accounts, I think, for why there has been such a focus on what hipsters look like. Skinny jeans, brogues, and flat caps define hipsters more easily than a set of ideas or principles. Also, the stereotype of hipsters liking things before they were cool inevitably emphasises these ‘things’ rather than any set of reasons for liking those things. (I hope this makes sense.) With their thrift store shopping, and embrace of cooking, baking, and crafts, they have all the appearance of an enthusiasm for the handmade, the artisanal, and the environmentally friendly. But as Alex Posecznick observes:
hipsters are voracious consumers of a style that is constantly shifting desirability in order to promote endless consumption. A hidden shop selling vintage clothing is popular for a short time before it is made irrelevant the next day. They have turned consumption itself into an art, where the fine distinction of this hat over that invests cultural capital, and where although it is used and battered, it can be sold for four times the value of a new hat.
So are hipsters all show and no content? The Observer article’s distinction between proto-hipsters (those who originate what it means to be a hipster) and hipsters (those who follow, buying in to the aesthetic but not necessarily the ideals on which this outward manifestation is based) is useful here. Firstly, I would argue that what it means to be a hipster differs according to geographical context: it is different being a hipster in Johannesburg or Lagos than to being a hipster in Montreal or Melbourne or, even, Cape Town. Any suggestion that hipsters are going to disappear really is not borne out by my experiences of Joburg. Secondly, hipsters have certainly made an impact on some of the ways in which we live, particularly in cities.
Despite my view that Joburg hipsters are really quite different from those in Brooklyn, there are some characteristics which travel quite easily over space. And one of these is the hipster café. I have eaten or drunk coffee in a series of small, independent, and fairly earnest eateries in Melbourne, Perth (yes, even Perth), London, New York, Montreal, Toronto, Cape Town, and Johannesburg which are, really, virtually interchangeable: they share the same incandescent light bulbs, wood panelling, metal stools, amazing coffee, homemade soft drinks in jam jars, and interesting food. Father in Braamfontein could just as easily change places with Café Pamenar in Toronto’s Kensington Market.
It is in these places that I think it’s possible to see the ideas which underpin hipsterdom, best played out: in their commitment to using organic and free range produce, in their interest in recovering and remaking old recipes, and in their enthusiasm for experimentation. Flat whites and drip and cold brew coffee originated in hipster-run cafes.
It’s difficult, though, not to have some sympathy with arguments that some hipsters are fairly clueless politically. Having witnessed the slow gentrification of lower Woodstock in Cape Town – one of the city’s most deprived and rundown areas – with hipsters opening cafes for other hipsters, and selling coffees which most of the suburb’s original inhabitants could never even dream of affording, I feel that these criticisms have a point. I was reminded of this point in an excellent review of Marc Spitz’s book Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film. A lot of the hipster aesthetic embraces twee, and this definition of twee could quite as easily apply to some iterations of hipsterdom:
twee is anti-greed and suspicious of an adult world that revolves around avarice. More importantly, twee is aware of humanity’s capacity for violence and evil, but chooses to be optimistic about human nature nonetheless. This could be a progressive stance – one that not only believes we’re capable of improvement but works toward it. In practice, though, twee politics too often prescribe escapism and isolation, allowing the privileged to respond to crises both global and personal by sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, ‘Na na na, can’t hear you!’
The point about hipsters and their predecessors – beats, hippies – is that these are, largely but not exclusively, subcultures of the relatively wealthy and the privileged. The unthinking transformation of very poor parts of cities has certainly involved hipsters, but their social and cultural insensitivity is also closely connected to their own unawareness of their privilege rathern than to the fact that they’re hipsters. Instead of dismissing hipsters, I would suggest, rather, that like other youth subcultures before them, they have despite having no defined political programme and with a fairly flexible set of markers which define them, had a subtle influence over how food is thought about and consumed, particularly in urban areas. I think it is as interesting to consider the widespread dislike of hipsters, as it is trying to pin down hipsters themselves.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The television series which I most I want to watch at the moment is Girls. Written by and starring Lena Dunham, it follows the exploits of four young women in New York. Unlike Sex and the City, to which it is usually compared, its success is based partly on how truthful its depiction of the characters’ experience of living in New York is: that it is expensive, and not particularly glamorous. It portrays sex and relationships wincingly realistically.
I’m interested in Girls not only because it looks fantastically entertaining: it seems to me to be part of a new kind of feminism which has emerged over the past few years.
In a pair of articles for N+1, Molly Fischer has taken a look at the rise of the ‘ladyblog’ since the founding of sites like Jezebel and The Hairpin in 2007 and 2008. For many young women, these blogs – and others – have taken the place of women’s magazines. Considerably more intelligent and far better written, ladyblogs take aim at the ways in which women’s magazines create and play on women’s insecurities, as well as the values underpinning them.
But Fischer points out that ladyblogs also peddle femininities which are not always tolerant of dissent, and are often unwilling to engage in debate. She writes about the response to an earlier, more critical post:
When intimacy is your model of success, it becomes easy to assume that everyone is either a friend or a traitor. I had tried to approach the ladyblogs as an observer rather than a participant, but my writing about them in an apparently impersonal public voice, as a woman—which became a woman holding myself apart from their community of women—registered as unacceptable aggression. So, was I a spinster feminist, or just out to impress boys? This was the exact corner of the internet that seemed like it ought to know better.
I was particularly taken by her observation that the blogs’ and their readers’ tendency to refer to themselves as ‘ladies’, rather than ‘women’, signals a kind of discomfort with adult femininity. I think that this is worth exploring. In a review of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Katie Roiphe criticises the book – a novel about a group of variously arty people in Toronto – on the grounds that Heti’s behaviour and thinking are not really befitting a thirty-five year-old woman:
One of the salient facts of Heti’s milieu…is the very young quality of the book’s philosophical speculations, the palpable feel of college students sitting on a roof marvelling at the universe and their own bon mots, though Heti herself is 35. …
The perpetual, piquant childishness, the fetishizing and prolonging of an early 20s conversation about the Meaning of Life is central to both the book’s appeal and its annoyingness. Heti’s character is working in a hair salon and thinking a lot about art and how to be ‘the ideal human’ while also hanging out with people so fascinating…that she is recording their every word for posterity.
How Should a Person Be?, Girls, even Whit Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress, as well as the increasing number of overtly feminist blogs and publications for women, from Frankie and The Gentlewoman to The Vagenda and The Flick, are a manifestation of the new feminism of the 2010s. EJ Graff explains this particularly well:
Young women are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
These young women are irreverent and unashamed of talking openly about sex. They’re less focused on eliminating consumerism or beauty culture than was the Second Wave. They’re quicker to reach out across the social fault lines of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and other -isms. They love appropriating pop culture and wielding humour with sly commentaries like the blog Feminist Ryan Gosling or the video Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. Their multimedia creations make Barbara Kruger’s 1980s sloganeering art (‘Your body is a battleground’) look hopelessly earnest, or earnestly hopeless.
I agree with Fischer’s argument that the use of ‘lady’ and ‘girl’ can signal a strange unwillingness to grow up – explicable, possibly, because it occurs within a wider cultural context which put enormous value on youth and youthfulness – but many of these blogs and other publications write for, and about, ‘girls’ and ‘ladies’ for other reasons. This is a deliberate reclaiming of terms which have been used to diminish, and to put down women.
As Graff makes the point, this most recent feminist wave has managed to negotiate itself out of the depoliticised impasse of third wave feminism, to a position where it expresses a genuine anger at the systematic marginalisation of women. Crucially, it is a feminism which is willing also to act and to protest – and it’s difficult to underestimate the significance of the internet in allowing these women to mobilise. Fischer refers to the emergence of an ‘online womanhood’, and I think that this is an important observation.
But as third-wave feminism was dismissed as ‘lipstick feminism’, this new wave has been dubbed ‘cupcake feminism’. On the one hand, celebrations of Women’s Day and other woman-centred events have been accused of taking the edge off campaigns for issues ranging from equal pay to increasing access to contraception and birth control, by transforming them into fun, cupcake-serving gatherings for ladies.
On the other, though, as ladyblogs have reclaimed the words lady and girl, so, arguably, have they reclaimed the cupcake. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that the popularity of cupcakes isn’t connected, at least to some extent, to a weird infantilisation of women’s food and eating habits. But one of the most interesting features of this new feminist wave is its attitude towards food and eating.
Jane Hu has written about the place of food in Girls:
if we’re looking for what’s truly universal in Dunham’s depiction of young, white, upper-middle-class life in New York City, then maybe the cupcake isn’t such a bad place to start. Eating is, after all, about as universal as it gets. … hunger, in all its manifestations, drives Girls.
The tentative title of Hannah’s memoir-in-progress is, after all, Midnight Snack. A title is supposed to be suggestive and representative of a body of work, but really all Hannah’s (unfinished) Midnight Snack indicates is that she still has not learned how or when to eat like an adult.
One of the clips from Girls makes this link between food, eating, and ladies, and girls, explicit:
This can be read in several different ways. I think that’s it’s worth noting how long the camera lingers on their ice cream-eating. How many series about women depict them eating – and enjoying it, without feeling guilty?
It’s striking how many ladyblogs feature food and recipes. The Flick has a section on food and drink, and Frankie includes at least one recipe per issue, and has several on its blog. Neither views food – as so many women’s magazines do – as something which needs to be limited and controlled. It is to be made and eaten with pleasure.
In a sense, this is a depoliticisation of food: these publications write about food because their readers are interested in it, and may enjoy cooking. It does not diminish them as feminists. They can have their cupcakes and eat them.
At the end of Margaret Atwood’s fantastically brilliant first novel The Edible Woman (1970), her protagonist Margaret McAlpin bakes a cake. Over the course of the book, Margaret – who has a degree, but works for a market-research company in Toronto, and who has a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the direction in which her life is going – becomes engaged to the eligible Peter. As she realises, slowly, that this engagement and marriage will subsume her identity in his – that she will be consumed by it (and by him) – she begins to lose her appetite: first for meat, and then, slowly, for fish, vegetables, bread, and noodles. By the end of the novel, she can’t eat anything. After a crisis, she breaks off her engagement.
She invites him to tea, to explain her decision, and serves him her cake, which she has made in the shape of a woman:
She went into the kitchen and returned, bearing the platter in front of her, carefully and with reverence, as though she was carrying something sacred in a procession, an icon or the crown on a cushion in a play. She knelt, setting the platter on the coffee-table in front of Peter.
‘You’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you,’ she said. ‘You’ve been trying to assimilate me. But I’ve made you a substitute, something you’ll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along, isn’t it? I’ll get you a fork,’ she added somewhat prosaically.
Peter stared from the cake to her face and back again. She wasn’t smiling.
His eyes widened in alarm. Apparently he didn’t find her silly.
When he had gone – and he went quite rapidly, they didn’t have much of a conversation after all, he seemed embarrassed and eager to leave and even refused a cup of tea – she stood looking down at the figure. So Peter hadn’t devoured it after all. As a symbol it had definitely failed. It looked up at her with its silvery eyes, enigmatic, mocking, succulent.
Suddenly she was hungry. Extremely hungry. The cake after all was only a cake. She picked up the platter, carried it to the kitchen table and located a fork. ‘I’ll start with the feet,’ she decided.
Later, her flatmate, Ainsley, reappears:
‘Marian, what have you got there?’ She walked over to see. ‘It’s a woman – a woman made of cake!’ She gave Marian a strange look.
Marian chewed and swallowed. ‘Have some,’ she said, ‘it’s really good. I made it this afternoon.’
Ainsley’s mouth opened and closed, fishlike, as though she was trying to gulp down the full implication of what she saw. ‘Marian!’ she exclaimed at last, with horror. ‘You’re rejecting your femininity!’
Marian looked back at her platter. The woman lay there, still smiling glassily, her legs gone. ‘Nonsense,’ she said. ‘It’s only a cake.’ She plunged her fork into the carcass, neatly severing the body from the head.
Yes. It’s only cake.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
There has been some fuss recently around the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in 1994, has a reputation for annoying left-leaning academics and public policy makers. His description of the Bell Curve was accused of being blind to cultural and social influences on learning and childhood development, and his most recent polemic has been criticised for its rose-tinted view of the American white working class during the mid-twentieth century.
One of the best criticisms of the book which I’ve come across is Nell Irvin Painter’s article for the New York Times, ‘When Poverty was White.’ Painter, whose History of White People (2010) I urge you to read, makes the point that America has a well-hidden and very recent history of white poverty. She accuses Murray of ‘historical blindness’ caused by his
narrow focus on the cultural and policy changes of the 1960s as the root of white America’s decline. The story of white poverty…is much longer and more complex than he and his admirers realise or want to admit.
Her point is that to understand the nature of poverty – why some families seem incapable of escaping it, why certain members of society seem to be particularly susceptible to it – we need to historicise it.
There is a similar argument to be made about white poverty in South Africa. One of the reasons why photographs of poor whites in South Africa draw such attention is because South Africans tend to think of poverty as being black. Poor whites are a strange anomaly in the economic and racial politics of post-1994 South Africa.
But ‘poor whiteism’ as a social and political phenomenon only disappeared during the economic boom of the early 1960s. Since at least the 1920s, South African governments were preoccupied by the ‘poor white problem’ – by the existence of a substantial group of people who, as the popular author Sarah Gertrude Millin wrote in 1926, could not support themselves ‘according to a European standard of civilisation’ and who could not ‘keep clear the line of demarcation between black and white.’
South Africa’s earliest soup kitchens were not for black, but, rather, for white children. The first child welfare organisations aimed their work not at black families, but, rather, at white families who were poor. South Africa’s attempts to introduce compulsory elementary education in the 1910s and 1920s pertained only to white, not to black, children. This isn’t to suggest that black poverty was somehow less acute or widespread than white poverty. Far from it. State concern about poor whiteism was borne out of a eugenicist belief that, as Millin suggested, white poverty signalled a decline in white power.
The first attempts to eradicate white poverty were directed at families and children. Although we tend to associate the poor white problem with the 1920s and 1930s, there had been a large group of impoverished white farmers in the country’s rural interior since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s and 1890s, colonial politicians, and particularly those in the Cape, were increasingly anxious about this class of whites. This was partly because the numbers of impoverished whites – both in rural and urban areas – had increased during the region’s industrialisation after the discovery of diamonds and gold, but it was also the result of decades of poor education which had produced at least two generations of unemployable whites.
Both in South Africa and in the rest of the world, poverty was racialised during the 1880s and 1890s. The existence of unemployed and unemployable poor whites challenged the association of ‘natural’ supremacy and the exercise of power with whiteness. The term ‘poor white’ no longer simply referred to white people who lived in poverty, but, rather, invoked a set of fears around racial mixing and white superiority.
Impoverished white adults were believed to be beyond saving, as one Cape industrialist argued in 1895: ‘the adults are irreclaimable. You must let them die off, and teach the young ones to work.’ The Cape government poured money into schools for poor white children. In 1905, education became compulsory for all white children in the Cape between the ages of seven and fourteen. Politicians also passed legislation to allow these children to be removed from parents deemed to be unable to care for them appropriately. After the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910, government spending on education grew from 14 per cent of the national budget to 28 per cent in 1930.
But the problem did not go away. Industrialisation and economic expansion, as well as the effects of the Great War, two depressions, and urbanisation in the 1920s and 1930s increased the numbers of impoverished whites. By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.
In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.
There was also a shift in emphasis in how child welfare societies – the numbers of which had mushroomed during the 1920s – dealt with poor white children. No longer did they only work to ensure that white children were sent to school and adequately cared for by their parents, but they began to focus on how these children were fed.
I’m still trying to account for this new concern about the effects of malnutrition on white children. I think that it was due largely to an international scientific debate about the significance of nutrition in raising both physically and intellectually strong children. Louis Leipoldt – Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal, food writer, Buddhist, poet, and Afrikaner culture broker – was particularly aware of this new thinking about childhood development and nutrition, and wrote about it extensively in publications on child health and welfare in South Africa.
In a report of a survey of the health of children in the Cape published in 1922, the province’s Medical Inspector of Schools, Elsie Chubb, argued that malnutrition was widespread in the Cape’s schools for white children. In most schools, around 10% of the pupils were malnourished. In one school in the rural Karoo, 79% of children were found to be severely malnourished.
Chubb recognised that malnutrition was not purely the result of an inadequate supply of food – although it was certainly the case that many poor parents simply couldn’t afford to buy enough food to feed their children – but of poor diet. Some child welfare volunteers wrote of children sent to school on coffee and biltong, and who returned home at the end of the day for a basic supper of maize meal and cheap meat. Chubb wrote that far too many children were fed on a diet heavy in carbohydrates and animal protein. Children did not eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and milk. She recommended that feeding schemes be established to supplement children’s diets with these foodstuffs.
Helen Murray, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Graaff Reinet and active member of the town’s child welfare society explained the contemporary understanding of the link between malnutrition and poor whiteism particularly well in 1925:
In the winter of 1918 our schools had regular medical inspection for the first time. The doctor who inspected told some of us that he had found some fifty children in our poor school suffering from malnutrition and spoke strongly of the results of such a condition. The children were not in danger of dying of starvation, they had dry bread and black coffee enough to prevent that, but they were in danger of growing up to be ‘poor whites’ of the most hopeless type. The body insufficiently nourished during the years of growth would develop physically weak, and the brain as a result would be unfit for real mental effort. The child suffering from years of wrong feeding could not be expected to grow into the strong, healthy, clearheaded man or woman our country needs today, and will need ten and twenty years hence. To see that the underfed child is well fed is not a matter of charity, but must be undertaken in self-defence.
As a result of the inspection, the child welfare society found a room in the town where between fifty and ninety children could be provided with ‘a good, hot meal’ on every school day:
We had been told that these children could be saved from growing up weaklings if they could have one good meal of fat meat, vegetables or fruit, on every school day of the year….
We have the satisfaction of knowing that there has been a marked improvement in the health of the children and of hearing from a Medical Inspector that she has found the condition of the children here better than in many other schools of the same class.
Murray’s experience in Graaff Reinet was not unique. As child welfare societies were established in the towns and villages of South Africa’s vast interior, their first work was usually to establish soup kitchens, either in schools or in a central locations where schoolchildren could be sent before the school day – for porridge and milk – and at lunchtime, for soup or a more substantial meal, depending on the resources of the local society.
In Pietersburg (now Polokwane), to eliminate the stigma of free meals for poor children, all white children were provided with a mug of soup at lunchtime. Better-off parents paid for the soup, thus subsidising those children whose parents could not contribute. In Reitz, local farmers, butchers, and grocers donated meat and vegetables to the soup kitchen, and in Oudtshoorn children were encouraged to bring a contribution – onions, carrots, or cabbage – to their daily meal.
The National Council for Child Welfare, the umbrella body established in 1924 which oversaw the activities of local child welfare societies, liked to emphasise the fact that it was concerned for the welfare of all children, regardless of class or race. Some welfare societies, and particularly those in areas which had large ‘locations’ for black residents, did establish clinics and crèches for black children. But most of the NCCW’s work was aimed at white children in the 1920s and 1930s, and the same was true of the South African state. By the 1920s, most municipalities in towns and cities made free milk available to poor white mothers with babies and very young children.
Increasing state involvement in child welfare, alongside the work of independent societies, had a significant impact on the health of white children in South Africa during the early twentieth century. But it was only because of the growing prosperity and better education of the majority of white South Africans after World War II that white poverty and malnutrition were gradually eradicated in the 1950s and 1960s.
By historicising poverty – by understanding that white prosperity in South Africa is a relatively recent phenomenon – we can understand it as a phenomenon which is not only eradicable, but which is also the product of a range of social, economic, and political forces. As South African governments and welfare organisations were able to reduce white poverty and malnutrition dramatically during the early twentieth century, so it is possible for contemporary governments to do the same.
But charity and soup kitchens were not the sole cause of the disappearance of white poverty and malnutrition. Jobs, education, and better living conditions were as – if not more – significant in ensuring that white children no longer went hungry.
Texts cited here:
SE Duff, ‘“Education for Every Son and Daughter of South Africa”: Race, Class, and the Compulsory Education Debate in the Cape Colony,’ in Citizenship, Modernisation, and Nationhood: The Cultural Role of Mass Education, 1870-1930, eds. Lawrence Brockliss and Nicola Sheldon (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. I (Cape Town: Juta, 1925).
E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. II (Cape Town: Juta, 1977).
E.G. Malherbe, Report of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa, vol. III (Stellenbosch: Pro Ecclesia-Drukkery, 1932).
Sarah Gertrude Millin, The South Africans (London: Constable, 1926).
Jennifer Muirhead, ‘“The children of today make the nation of tomorrow”: A Social History of Child Welfare in Twentieth Century South Africa’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2012).
Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic Pride and Racial Prejudice in Victorian Cape Town (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1995).
Colin Bundy, ‘Vagabond Hollanders and Runaway Englishmen: White Poverty in the Cape Before Poor Whitesim,’ in Putting a Plough to the Ground: Accumulation and Dispossession in Rural South Africa 1880-1930, eds. William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986).
J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Saul Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Marijke du Toit, ‘Women, Welfare and the Nurturing of Afrikaner Nationalism: A Social History of the Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging, c.1870-1939’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Cape Town, 1996).
Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).
Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.