Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jillian Venters' "Gothic Charm School": Book Review

"Nice costume! Halloween is over, freak!" How should a black-clad denizen respond? "The Lady of the Manners" explains Goths to the rest of us-- and "mundanes" to Goths. Once you wear black, do should you ever talk back? Can Goths age gracefully, under umbrellas and sunscreen? How do you get makeup stains off the sink? What one-liners have Goths heard far too many times from the likes of gawkers like you?

Expanding her "gothy advice column," Venters in this spirited primer encourages: "Good manners for Goths, why you shouldn't dress like the Crow, or how, if you're going to wear whiteface, you should make sure you apply it on your damn ears and neck." (5) She emphasizes how "Goth is a subculture and (for some) a way of life, not an emotional template." (19)

This underlies her whole approach. She denies any "secret Goth cabal." She patiently relates the historical background, pop cultural contexts, snarkiness and cattiness, gossip, accoutrements, sartorial fripperies, sounds, and sights that Goths gravitate towards. She explores her subculture wittily.

She advises how Goths should act among themselves, online, at jobs, and in public. "You chose to dress that way, which means you don't get to complain about the attention your appearance garners." (186) Politeness rules, which appears to be a tricky point among an assemblage so devoted to gatekeeping, backstabbing, and mopes. A sub-heading is telling: "Why no one has an 'original' Goth look, so get over yourselves already." (199)

Her later chapters address her cohort, with plenty of detail on couture, cosmetics, and wardrobe-- not costume. Aware of how rumors about doom, depression, death, and decadence dog her trenchcoated, booted peers, she also reminds "Snarklings" that the way Goths respond to both taunts and inquiries represents for "norms" the way that those leaning towards the dark side will be perceived. "The Goths who express themselves through their wardrobe aren't doing it to draw attention to themselves; they're applying their preferred aesthetic and bringing the world around them closer to what they want it to be." (45)

Speaking from decades of experience, she relates to worried parents, co-workers, friends, and possibly romantic partners (I wondered if Goths ever date exogamously?) how to behave around crushed velvet and heavily mascaraed companions. She admits her own predilection to dress everyday as if the evil twin of Mary Poppins. But she warns neophytes: "Think long and hard whether you have the physique to wear the costume; it is a sad, harsh fact that nothing becomes an object of ridicule faster than a heavier-set person dressed up as a character previously portrayed by Brandon Lee." (98)

Taking on a persona that one must dress the part for takes courage. Yet this also leads one into conformity. Venters directs her Goth audience towards lightening up. She twists what people inside and outside her charmed circle expect. "Not only does the Lady of the Manners now derive quite a bit of amusement from her over-the-top moments of gothness, but she tries to hone and refine the more clichéd aspects of herself in order to make them the more perfect examples of those clichés." (113)

This reminded me of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex keening, so early in the punk movement that paralleled my own coming of age, "I Am a Cliché." Commodification with Hot Topic (and Emily's Strange, strangely unmentioned) signals "mainstream acceptance" rather than prolonged denigration. Venters navigates deftly between the two perils of giving in to what the subculture pressures a "Goth cabal" (or should it be "cabbalist"?) initiate to imitate-- and the stronger current that pulls one outside into making a living. She spends considerable time on socializing, rumor-peddling, and gossip, as these, reinforced by clubbing and costume balls, strengthen the subcultural bonds Goths, as with any such group (say, sports fans) thrive among.

Paul Hodkinson's Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture (2002; see my review) studies this phenomenon as a participant-observer sociological thesis; Nancy Kilpatrick's The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined (2004) intersperses comments from Goth respondents with her own topical entries. As with Gavin Baddeley's Goth Chic: A Connoisseur's Guide to Dark Culture (2006), defining Goth reveals its widespread (post-)Romantic aesthetic within past and present Western society. Whereas many Goth surveys tend towards the encyclopedic, Venters as "Lady of the Manners" adopts a personal, chatty persona.

This makes her "Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them" a welcome, brisk introduction. As with some of her predecessors, however, there's minimal attention to sexuality (as opposed to flirting) or music (as opposed to brief discographies) given their role in the scene. Music's treated only in her penultimate chapter.

For me as a preternaturally pale, (post-)punk veteran, "Goth-friendly" by her classification but admittedly on the outside looking in, I wished she'd covered music much more. But she carefully expounds on club etiquette and proper conduct. I note how often decent behavior goes unmentioned in any coverage of this subculture (or any such, for that matter). Many Goth overviews downplay its sounds and dampen its erotic sensations. Perhaps these elude explication. The visual appears more readily transmitted. Venter's enchanted by signifiers: the dress, the looks, the ambiance-- as signs by which Goths identify each other, congregate for safety and camaraderie, and reinforce their own codes and defense mechanisms.

That defense must be established seems a circular action. Goths have set themselves apart, so they may bristle and snarl back when outsiders edge too close, touch their finery, taunt their stance. Venters steps into this standoff. She reminds her fellow creatures of the night how etiquette confers dignity. The more stereotypes are diminished, the greater the hopes for Goth's acceptance and sustainability.

What of Goth's future? She speculates on a Steampunk-Goth evolution. I share her hopes that "Eldergoths" may age gracefully into "subcultural migration" and cross-fertilization. Concluding, she predicts that her fellow revelers need not "grow out of" this embrace of the macabre, the haunted, the morbid underside of what's relentlessly peddled to all of us as a sunny, cheerful, bright-- and forced-- demeanor. Morbid but not moribund-- now there's a forecast any blanched, parasoled Goth might smile up at.

(Posted Amazon US & "Not the L.A. Times Book Review" 5-14-10-- and featured 5-25-10 on Pop Matters.)

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