I. Comic-book Geeks
My seventh grade homeroom was held in an art classroom containing three long tables with tall stools. When we wandered into junior high school that first morning, searching for familiar faces from our elementary schools, the art teacher invited us to sit wherever we liked. Most of the girls headed to a table on the far side of the room, so I followed. Large athletic boys had taken the opposite table, and closing the square with the teacher’s table at the front of the room were the kids who hadn’t decided quickly enough or didn’t know where they belonged.
We spent a lot of time in homeroom in junior high, so that visceral first-day decision proved crucial. As I sat with the girls day after day, hearing my clothes, face, mannerisms, hair and general worthiness to breathe air assessed negatively, I looked longingly at the boys excluded from the cool boys’ group, who sat at that miscellaneous middle table and never stopped laughing. I wondered what was so funny. I saw them furiously scribbling on notebook paper, shoving the paper around the circle, adding onto each other’s scrawls, and laughing again. One day, I caught a glimpse of what they were up to: they were drawing comics of our classmates, our teachers, robots, spaceships, aliens, and each other. As I tried to keep one ear tuned to their table while keeping up with the inanities at my own, I learned that comic books, sci-fi, video games, and someone named Monty Python made up the bulk of their conversation. If they looked like total dorks, it didn’t appear to concern them at all.
One day, I’d had enough, particularly from one queen bee who had discovered that my father worked at the factory owned by close friends of her parents’ and decided that this made me an even less valuable human being than previously imagined. I picked up my books. “Where are you going?” the girls asked, curious and maybe frightened. Changing tables and making decisions were wrong, simply not allowed. I didn’t answer. I just carried my stuff over to the comic-book boys’ table and sat in the empty stool. The boys looked at me for a moment in astonishment, and then resumed their normal Monty Python- and Mad Magazine-inflected conversation, including me as much as their rudimentary social skills and my complete lack of drawing ability, knowledge about computers, exposure to Mad Magazine, or interest in sci-fi and comic books permitted.
The girls’ table reacted with horror. Sitting with these geeky boys was social suicide, and they tried to persuade me to move back, some out of concern, some out of pique to have lost a target. But I had weighed the benefits and risks of trying to remain part of respectable seventh-grade society, and had cast my lot decisively with the freaks.
I have never looked back.
II. Madonna and John Hughes
That’s how it used to be in the pre-Internet, pre-Glee, pre-It Gets Better, pre-Lady Gaga era. Being a freak (a term I am using broadly and lovingly to include bohemians, punks, artists, nerds, deviants, geeks, etc.) meant swearing allegiance to a small, despised, but fascinating tribe with its own customs and norms, defined in opposition to the mainstream. Dual citizenship was rarely permitted or desired. “Notes on Black,” first published in the Village Voice in the 80s, elucidates the mindset:
Hello, I get a nosebleed above Twenty-Third Street, and I will never tell you to ‘have a nice day.’ I believe nothing on television. Sure, I’ll talk about Zydeco music. I cried when Dali died. Don’t try to tell me about Julian Schnabel. … I was a dweeb in high school. I write, or maybe I paint. I have criminally low self-esteem, body flaws that I think hideous, and never go to bed until dawn. Leave me alone.
…Used to be, if you went to a party wearing all black and saw someone else, a total stranger, wearing all black, you could go up to him and say, “Let’s get outa here.”
Not all sub-tribes wore black or harbored opinions about Julian Schnabel, but most had some kind of distinguishing aesthetic by which fellow freaks could spot them, making nametags unnecessary.
Identification as a freak, regardless of subgroup, meant that you had evaluated the economics of conformity and found either that the rewards weren’t worth the prodigious, exhausting effort it would have taken to fake normal every day, or that you were too far gone even to fake it. The benefits of identifying as a freak were entirely intrinsic. One neither wanted nor expected any validation from the culture at large, which was just as well, because the popular culture’s messages about difference only looked encouraging at a distance. Sure, Madonna had a chart-topping hit called “Express Yourself,” but the purpose of self-expression in that song was for a girl to win a “big strong hand to lift you to your higher ground.” That wasn’t quite the kind of self-expression for which a freak had sacrificed the opportunity to have a normal adolescence.
The Breakfast Club seemed to celebrate cross-clique unity, but disappointed girl-freaks everywhere when Molly Ringwald’s Princess gave Ally Sheedy’s Basketcase a makeover, revealing her, Cinderella-like, to have been beautiful all along, so that Emilio Estevez’s Athlete could fall for her. But isn’t that what Princesses were telling Basketcases all the time? Why don’t you just fix your hair and put on some makeup and act normal?
Appealing as it was, The Breakfast Club didn’t celebrate difference; it elided it. All the impossibly gorgeous teenagers were revealed to suffer similar pain beneath their superficial differences, but the famous theme song doubts they will remember the innocent truth of their deep connection when Monday morning dawns: “As you walk on by, will you call my name? Or will you walk away?” In all the John Hughes teen movies of the 1980s, marginal characters made temporary alliances across the bright-line boundaries of class and clique, but the borders remained otherwise well-defended. Polarization formed the root of the films’ central conflicts, so Hughes couldn’t really couldn’t afford to interrogate those boundaries too closely.
What was a self-respecting freak to do? Seduced, perhaps for an evening or a weekend by Hughes’ chimerical adolescent agape, or by some other bone of acceptance the popular culture pretended to throw, the freaks returned to school on Monday, a bit more cynical, knowing the answer to the question that only a simple mind would ask.
Two good angels whispered in my ear in the spring of 1988. One told me to apply to Rutgers, even though my guidance counselor, who apparently believed that I was headed for low-wage employment and early marriage, told me I would probably never get into that or any other college. The other one told me to check off the box for special-interest housing on the postcard that came with my admissions packet to Rutgers College.
That little checkmark landed me in Demarest Hall, the dorm officially designated for students interested in the fine arts, humanities, and foreign languages, and unofficially for those devoted to the hunt for self-expression, truth, joy and late-night revelation, those who were “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time,” who felt everything deeply and far too much. If you’ve read The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, you’ve had a glimpse into the crazy, beautiful life of Demarest, where its author, Junot Diaz, lived and wrote.
Demarites were required to produce a project for their section every semester, in addition to whatever projects they were working on for classes or on their own, so the place blazed with creative energy day and night. A jam was always on somewhere if you needed to play or listen. People were forever writing, singing, drawing, composing, sculpting, rehearsing or painting something. A stroll down the Philosophy section’s hallway guaranteed a strange conversation, if you were in the market for one. Someone was always desperately in love, or heartbroken or overjoyed. Emotions ran high, and Demarest has witnessed, tragically, several suicides over the years, but Demarites also celebrate life, perhaps most dramatically in the “Reaffirmation of Existence” rite. Antic silliness often overrode the angst. Sometimes, things were on fire.
Demarest was a revelation: here was my tribe, my people, at last! It had its own traditions, language, rituals and mythology, and living there felt like a homecoming to many a previously-isolated freak who hadn’t known there was a home to come home to. Before the World Wide Web in the mid-90s made it possible for ordinary people to connect with strangers around similar interests, free of geography, an adolescent freak living in a small town might not have the slightest notion of his membership in a larger nation, and might well assume that she was the only one of her kind. Finding kindred spirits felt rare and precious when you didn’t know how many of them were out there, and until we came to Demarest, some of us had no idea. The sense of belonging and acceptance was so profound that it left a permanent mark. Ex-Demarites, only half-jokingly, or maybe less than half, call themselves and the worldwide community of those who have ever lived there, Demarest-in-Exile.
Kid-freaks today grow up knowing that no matter how strange they are, they can find an online community of precisely similar oddballs. Most know that geeks like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs can grow up to accrue fortunes and wield power, regardless of whether they ever had a date for the prom. They know that dreamers, punks, emo kids, and other high school undesirables grow up to create the art, movies, books and games that re-awaken the imagination of a public that has had it beaten out of them. And most kid-freaks know, although the reminder can never hurt, that It Gets Better. They self-identify younger, find one another sooner, and grow in pride and confidence. A former student of mine lived in Demarest two years ago, and from what he said, it sounded like not much had changed except that the students are more sophisticated than we ever were, perhaps because they grew up with the knowledge that their people were out there somewhere, or no more than a few clicks away. Demarest isn’t water in the desert to them, the way it was to me and a few other people.
Almost everyone I still know who lived in Demarest twenty years ago grew up to have more or less conventional lives of employment, marriage, parenthood and community life. Few, I would imagine, wear the external regalia of their inner freak that made it so easy once to tell who was in what camp. Nametags would help, but in adulthood we need to look a little more carefully, to ask questions of new acquaintances and listen between the lines of their answers. Demarites are not the only souls in exile, and you never know who might be part of the diaspora.
IV. Glee, Lady Gaga, and “Raise Your Glass”
What happens when a group that crosses geographic and economic boundaries forms and connects? It becomes a demographic. Before freaks could even recover from their breathless rejoicing in their new, technologically-enabled connections, corporations began to work out how to claim their quirkiness and sell it back to them in attractive packaging, and, while they were at it, market it to a mass audience, as well. Over the past several years, weird has gone mainstream to great success.
This summer, I took my daughter to see Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, and found myself blown away, not so much by the talents of the twentysomething performers, which are impressive, nor the brutal, redundant explicitness of 3D live action, which is not, but by how drastically freakhood has changed since I was a young freak.
Only half the movie is what one might expect in a concert film: lots of performances and screaming fans. The other half of the movie consists of testimonials from Gleeks about how the TV show changed their lives. Three fans, one a gay teen who survived bullying in middle school, one a little person elected Prom Princess, and one a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome, become co-stars of the film, telling a quasi-religious redemption narrative about exclusion and humiliation healed by Glee’s gospel of self-acceptance. Hundreds of other fans featured for a few moments wear the kind of t-shirts worn by Glee cast members in the Born This Way episode, which announce in large font the character’s flaws (“Bitch,” “Bad Attitude,”), perceived flaws (“Four Eyes”), or inborn traits (“Brown Eyes,” “Likes Boys”). Young Gleeks gathering outside the Meadowlands for the concert show off their own homemade shirts announcing whatever traits they think make them weird or different, and flashing the iconic L for loser on their foreheads. The scene outside the stadium, at least as presented in the movie, is a high-spirited, high-decibel celebration of difference and diversity featuring mostly white middle-class teens from northern New Jersey and their resigned-looking parents.
It was odd, and I didn’t understand it. When I was a teenage outcast, I had a small group of fellow eccentrics with whom to celebrate and commiserate, but there was neither a mass-scale stadium show at which to do so, nor a TV show bleating the message that it was awesome to be different. One of the intrinsic rewards of being a freak had always been the knowledge that you were part of a small, select group privileged to cast a knowing eye on the rest of humanity. It wouldn’t have been much fun if the rest of humanity also consisted of freaks, or, God forbid, were in on the joke. The Izod Center in the Meadowlands holds 20,000 people. Freaks have always been a tiny minority, so statistically speaking, the attendees at the concert can’t all be freaks, no matter what their t-shirts say.
Two of the musical numbers performed in the Glee concert complicate the question further. One is the Pink anthem, “Raise Your Glass.”
So raise your glass if you are wrong
In all the right ways, all my underdogs.
We will never be, never be anything but loud
And nitty gritty, dirty little freaks.
Are you wrong in all the right ways? Of course you are! The most abject slave to fashion, or the most straitlaced member of the church choir, is secretly proud of being wrong in all the right ways (“I can’t help needing to look fabulous every day! What can I say? It’s my little failing.” “I just have to do what’s right, regardless of the lax morals of the heathen society around me! I’m just stubborn that way!”) It’s akin to the dreaded interview question about one’s greatest weakness, to which the only correct answer is, “I really drive myself too hard sometimes.” People believe their flaws to be charming or noble, taken in the right light, probably because the ones that can be interpreted that way are the only ones to which we confess. “I’m oblivious to the ways in which my selfishness hurts the people who mean the most to me” doesn’t make the cut, but “I’m always late because I have no sense of time” sounds romantic and insouciant. Pink gets it.
She collects her listeners into a small band of wild, carefree trainwrecks with whom a famous pop star closely identifies, while making certain that almost no one can psychologically exclude herself from the group, even though she calls them “dirty little freaks.” (I’ll answer to geek and nerd cheerfully, but even I have to draw the line at “dirty little freak.”) It’s brilliant, really, more of a marketing concept for a song than an actual lyric, and it worked: the song is an international hit and one of those tunes we’ll never hear the end of. Twenty years from now, when someone holds a 2010s nostalgia party, “Raise Your Glass” will make the playlist because millions of people felt included in Pink’s cadre of misunderstood rebels.
Pink brands her underdogs in the same way Lady Gaga gathers her Little Monsters unto herself in her own intergalactic hit, “Born This Way,” whose message is that no matter who you are, God made you that way; therefore, you are beautiful and perfect as you are. The prelude to the video adds a Gaga creation myth in which she gives birth to a new race of loving, non-judgmental grotesques. In her new theology, freaks are all Lady Gaga’s cosmic, monstrous children, simultaneously a tiny, marginalized cult, and enough to fill a new Gaga universe and, not coincidentally, the Lady’s own prodigious, presumably meat-lined, pockets. Camille Paglia writes:
“There is a monumental disconnect between Gaga’s melodramatic self-portrayal as a lonely, rebellious, marginalised artist and the powerful corporate apparatus that bankrolled her makeover and has steamrollered her songs into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere.”
Paglia’s criticism is spot-on, but fails to account for why so many millions want to be her Little Monsters. It’s strange isn’t it? Why are large numbers of young people so eager to identify themselves as outsiders? Wasn’t conformity the project of teen popular culture ever since the 1920s? Isn’t the function of pop stars to tell everyone what is cool and how best to avoid the taint of the misfit? And what does the trend mean for genuine outsiders? Freaks have always had their own music and heroes, and even a marginally freakish kid knows that Lady Gaga is a risible, derivative, corporate fraud, but if everyone is a freak, then no one is. And if everyone identifies as an oddball, then any TV show, movie, or pop goddess that plays to that demographic won’t be a cult classic, but a chart-topping, mass-culture hit, leaving the young members of the tribe, ironically, more marginalized than ever.
But what does any of this have to do with Occupy Wall Street? What connects opting out of normalcy, a popular culture that suddenly glorifies freakiness, and a political movement of disaffected young people taking to the streets?
Do what is expected of you, following your parents’ and teachers’ instructions as well as you can, and you will be rewarded with security.
People who knew they didn’t fit in examined the social contract and found that they would not be able to hold up their end of it while holding onto their souls. This is not to say that some freaks didn’t grow up to be wildly successful. Some did, but on their own terms, often banding together with other freaks in creative artistic and business partnerships.
When economic times were good, the social contract functioned reasonably well for the middle class. Children who followed social norms and did well in school went to college, majored in something that interested them, and sooner or later found work that paid the bills. They married, had children, and advised those children to take the same deal.
But a number of trends endangered the contract, beginning twenty years ago or more: Corporations downsized and outsourced. The American workforce grew much more efficient. Manufacturing moved overseas. The population increased. Wages stagnated. Then, we suffered a terrorist attack, and a right-wing government rammed through policies that disempowered workers and deified corporations, while the public was too scared of terrorists (and Congresscritters of being called unpatriotic on Fox News) to object.
Gradually, the social contract morphed into this:
Do everything that could possibly be expected of you, much better than the other kids can do it, and you might be rewarded with the chance of staying in the socio-economic class into which you were born. Maybe.
The middle class took note and ramped up the parenting, producing the anxious helicopter parents that everyone loves to mock and no one tries to understand. Helicopter parenting is simply parental love expressed as fear. Adults witnessed in their workplaces how much higher expectations had become since they were young, how much more each employee was expected to produce for lower real wages and less security. They lost their jobs or watched others lose theirs, while the people in the C-suites got richer and more entrenched, whether they succeeded or failed.
Is it any wonder that parents overreacted, and swore that their own children would be survivors and winners? Why else would a sane mother or father sign their children up for town, school and travel teams, some in multiple sports? The kids, at least, get to run around in the fresh air and have some fun before exhaustion and early injuries ruin the fun. For the parents, it’s nothing but expense and commuting. Why else would parents hire ruinously pricey tutors to supplement the instruction in even excellent schools, plus pay for SAT courses and private guidance counselors? Why would parents micromanage a child’s academic career to the extent that some schools felt they had no choice but to use open online gradebooks, so that parents would know the moment a quiz was graded how it affected their child’s GPA and class rank? Why do they urge their kids to participate in as many extra-curricular activities as three students of the previous generation would have managed? What sane person would cut short their children’s childhood, driving them to work harder and longer at younger and younger ages, until sleep deprivation became a widespread health crisis among American youth? Only love and fear could make parents engage in behaviors so patently insane: love for their children and fear for their children’s endangered futures.
These parents and their exhausted kids maintained their ironclad faith in the meritocracy. They believed that whichever Superchildren worked the hardest and achieved the most would still manage to survive in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. But the last few years have shaken that faith. Many recent college graduates, even those with graduate degrees, have found themselves burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, unemployed or underemployed, living with their parents, and losing hope. According to Timothy Egan in the New York Times,
Employment rates and starting salaries have fallen off a cliff for new college graduates in the last two years. One study found that 55 percent of humanities majors newly released from school are either not working or hold jobs that require no college degree.
Even those who have found work will never catch up economically. Graduating during a recession depresses wages for most or all of a career. Many of these Organization Kids must be wondering what exactly it was that they traded their childhoods for, and why, if they kept up their end of that scary new social contract, there isn’t even an entry-level job waiting for them at the end.
Normal isn’t looking too good. The crumbs promised in the social contract are too meager to warrant the effort, and rewards of conformity have never seemed less worth trading your soul for. Suddenly, the freaks seem to have the right attitude. With obscene income inequality and high unemployment, even someone who follows all the rules perfectly and does all the extra-credit assignments life offers can still end up with $80,000 in student loan debt, a part-time job at Starbucks, and a room at home decorated with Star Wars posters. Merit may have nothing at all to do with it. And in that case, why not reconnect with the creative, rebellious spirit whose needs were long ago sublimated to the demands of Advanced Placement courses and Community Service Credits? Why not raise your glass and sing along with Pink calling you a dirty little freak?
And if there is a large gathering in your city in which people your age and older are finally standing up and asking what became of the social contract, and why corporations are not only considered people, but people with considerably more rights than actual people, why not dig a sleeping bag out of the attic, make a sign, and join in? Why not announce publicly that you didn’t lose the game? That you played it with all your heart, but it was rigged, and you’re not going to play it anymore? Why not rebel, critique, camp out, speak into the people’s mic, play the drum? What, finally, do you have to lose?
Well, that’s it: five posts in five days, 4300+ words expounding upon Freaks, Gleeks, Demarites, and Occupy Wall Street. I’m not certain what possessed me to do it this way. It was certainly exhausting. Thank you for reading it, which may have been nearly as exhausting. Please leave me a comment below with your thoughts or reactions to the series. You can tell me I’m wrong. I can take it.
Perfect Whole will skip the November 15th post and return in all its bloggy glory on December 1st, giving the inboxes of loyal subscribers a much-needed rest.