Topics: Life News
It all began when my daughter’s friend Catherine moved to the Midwest. Catherine and Franny, my 10-year-old, had been friends since they were babies, and the decision of Catherine’s parents to leave New York — brought about in part by Sept. 11 — was traumatic for both girls. Besides, Catherine was a New York kid. What would they make of her in Minnesota?
Catherine had her own answer to that. When she came to visit us a few months into the school year, her look had completely changed. Gone was the generic Gap and Old Navy garb of before. Though only 11, she was now wearing a plaid miniskirt, striped stockings and a little black shirt adorned with a tragic looking kewpie doll — imagine a bobble-head with a Laura Petrie do — called Oopsy Daisy and the message “Oops, I Went Goth!”
Musically, goth has always been sort of like punk’s sick little sister. While punk snuck out at night and smashed your parents’ car, goth was at home setting things on fire. Punk liked speed; goth preferred absinthe. But both were joined by a certain cynicism and disdain for what our president might call “traditional values” — and certainly good grooming. While punk has splintered into myriad musical shards — from the pop punks who groove to radio-friendly bands like Good Charlotte and A Simple Plan to spiritual punks who listen to straight edge groups — goth is still best represented by bands like Bauhaus and the Cure.
But the goth (and, to a lesser extent, punk) fashions favored by kids today don’t necessarily have anything to do with the music (just as goth-looking bands like the Grammy-winning Evanescence don’t have much to do with goth). It’s a look — deathly pallor, black everything — that can be traced back to Wednesday Addams and Winona Ryder’s character in “Beetlejuice.” It’s a look that put the fun back in funereal, and after making the rounds on high school campuses for decades, it’s filtered down to the preteen set. Aggressively antisocial and unhealthy looking, goth provides a uniform for those determined not to blend in. And the gloomy outlook it evokes (“My whole life is a dark room!” complains Winona’s character in “Beetlejuice”) speaks to the black moods of puberty.
Catherine’s mother, Betsy, says her daughter’s look was a way of defining herself in this new environment. “At the end of the day,” says Betsy, “all the kids come off the bus in their shades of pastel and there’s the kid in black.” While she has not inspired others to follow her through the gates of hell, neither has Catherine’s look alienated her from her peers or her family. After six months in the fifth grade she was given something called the Friendship Award (it is Minnesota), and Mom and Dad, while prohibiting anything too extreme, are supportive of her new style. “I’m proud of her for being willing to live out loud,” says Betsy, and, like any good parent, she’s more concerned with how her daughter behaves than how she looks. Still, she adds, there are limits: “No belly shirts, no bras showing, no fishnets and, except for lip gloss, no makeup.”
Catherine’s example made an impression on my daughter, and within a few weeks of her friend’s visit Franny was clamoring for clothes featuring Emily the Strange and timorously trying on snap-on studs and dog collars. When did all this merchandising of goth and punk paraphernalia start targeting little girls? I wasn’t haunted by the specter of Marilyn Manson and the Columbine kids, Middle America’s nightmare of the ’90s: I knew too many authentically nice kids who looked like Hellboy. And I wasn’t worried about the look sticking, either; in middle school in the ’60s, I had gone for Carnaby Street gear only to switch to work shirts and jeans in high school. It’s the sense of disconnection I feel seeing my little girl trying on an older look and attitude. Franny still inhabits a world where her pets are more important than petting, and I can’t escape the style’s echoes of sex and death.
Not that I have anything against sex and death. (They are, in fact, two of my principal preoccupations.) I just don’t like to think about them in the context of my daughter. Especially when she’s 10 years old.
If youth cries for anything, it is the authentic. From Young Werther to Holden Caulfield, from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “The Gilmore Girls,” adolescents throughout history have disdained the phony and clamored for the true.
Punk was supposed to be true — the no-bullshit alternative to bloated prog rock and self-satisfied consumerism. (That punk became commercialized itself was prophesied in Joe Strummer’s dictum: “He who fucks nuns will later join the church.”) To a young punk in the late ’70s, there was no graver insult than the ubiquitous “Poser!” And posers were everywhere, from musicians who introduced jazz chords to their songs, to the yuppies who wore skinny ties and danced to the Knack.
I was not exactly hardcore myself. Living in San Francisco then, single and reasonably unfettered, I found the punk scene to be the most fun thing going, and spent evenings at such local haunts as the Mabuhay Gardens and the Deaf Club, listening to S.F.’s (mostly lame) local bands while awaiting the return of such heroes as the Clash and the Ramones. Punk elevated both cynicism and passion, and I remember pursuing a lot of pleasures for no reason but kicks — authentic kicks, of course. For all that, punk remains the classic soundtrack of youth.
But not 10-year-old youth! Forget about the sex and drugs, if you can. Punk embraced contempt and affected a world-weariness that I think are well and proper when in your 20s, maybe even in your teens. I feel like an old scold saying, “My daughter’s too young to be that cynical!” and I realize I’m experiencing the feelings of denial common to all parents who watch in alarm as their children grow, with the added protectiveness a father feels for his girl. But I also feel like she’s trying on a costume (she toyed with the idea of going trick-or-treating as a punk last Halloween but went as a goth vampire instead), which, like all costumes, can be discarded. The battle against cynicism will be a lifelong one, I think, and is not limited to those who dress only in black.
While committing some then-punk sins in my youth (I still had a job, I still smoked pot, I still washed my hair), I managed to avoid the poser tag by getting most of my gear — Army jackets, bowling shirts, spaz sunglasses — from the Salvation Army. The punk stores that existed were mostly cheap and located on off streets in the Mission District. Only a poser would buy a motorcycle jacket from a boutique.
The little punks and goths of today don’t have to go skulking around back alleys to get their garb. Now, kids can get their goth on at any of Hot Topic’s over 500 stores, conveniently located in local shopping malls. Goth has gone mainstream or mainstream enough to be considered just another fashion choice for the young miss or mister. The equally ubiquitous Claire’s Accessories, where good girls once went to get just their ears pierced, now sells silver cross leatherette cuffs right beside the butterfly glitter charms. Even Disneyland features fashions inspired by Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.”
While Emily the Strange — a dark-banged night crawler with four cats for friends — can be found in America’s better shopping malls, she was born in West Oakland’s Dogtown, a neighborhood with real street cred. Emily creators Matt Reed and Rob Reger (whose company, Cosmic Debris, also brought us such Hello-Kitty-in-hell characters as Oopsy Daisy — she of the “Oops!” shirts — and Yum Pop) had the brilliant idea of making street wear for girls and adding the goth touch. “When we first started we didn’t really have an age in mind,” says Cosmic Debris’ Brian Brooks of Emily’s early days. “It was just whoever would buy it.” Brooks worked on Emily for years before coming up with Oopsy Daisy (whose audience he defines as “anybody who likes things a little bit messed up”). Though Emily now has her imitators, he thinks her appeal is her singularity.
“Emily is the original one who forged into this darker land,” says Brooks. “Everything geared toward kids is sickly sweet and colorful.”
If Cosmic Debris gave the little goth girls something to wear, the makers of Living Dead Dolls gave them something to play with. Living Dead Dolls are just that; each comes in its own coffin, with its own death certificate. Some are missing eyeballs, in a look that owes nothing to Little Orphan Annie. In fact, the general expression is one of menace, closer to “The Twilight Zone’s” Talking Tina than to Chatty Cathy. Like Emily, the dolls went from cult status (co-creators Ed Long and Damien Glonek originally made them by hand and sold them at horror conventions like Chiller Theatre) to the mainstream. (The dolls are now made in China and sold in Tower Records and Hot Topic.) And there’s ancillary merchandise as well: T-shirts (“We’ve Passed Away, Now It’s Time to Play”), stationery and a dead-doll’s-head pencil sharpener (stick a pencil in its eye and the shavings come out its mouth).
“There’s really not one set or group that is buying our dolls,” says Glonek. “We do a lot of conventions and signings and we see a certain core of our audience. They range from little kids to older women and men in their 50s and 60s. And they’re from all walks of life, from goths to punks to normal housewives.” The creators of both Emily and the Living Dead Dolls seem somewhat clueless when it comes to their merchandise’s appeal to the younger set, or maybe they’re just too busy to consider the implications of marketing morbidity to little girls.
Older fans may appreciate the echoes of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey found here (“Shy little Hush and her pet rat Shriek/ Dwelling in the sewer, these two are bound to reek”) while kids hear something else. (The packages are labeled: “For Spooky Kids Age 15 and Up.”) “I think some of the darker humor aspect goes over their heads,” Glonek says of the preteen girls clutching tiny coffins in their hands. “They just see the cute little creepy dolls, which is the essence of the product to begin with. They’re too young for the humor. They grasp onto the innocence of it.”
And grasping at innocence is what we’re talking about here. Not the girls: Some are too innocent to know what the loss of innocence means, while others are itching for the chance to throw theirs away, as soon as they can figure out how. No, the people grasping at innocence here are fools like me: the parents.
When Franny’s friend Catherine came to visit, my wife took the girls ice skating. While Catherine hugged the rails, knock-kneed in her safety-pinned skirt, a grown man circled about and stopped to compliment her on her look. “Do you know that goth shop over on 10th Avenue?” he asked her before my wife shooed him away. He was, in the local argot, a creep.
In the aftermath of this encounter, both Franny and Catherine had a chance to consider the downside of the goth look. “She and her girlfriends think sex stuff is gross,” Catherine’s mother tells me, and the very mention of sex is enough to give Franny the giggles. But the creep at the ice rink is not alone in his fixation. Just Googling “goth girls,” I got a couple of provocative hits: popular indie porn site Suicide Girls, with plenty of soft-porn pictures, and Barely Evil, “Gothic erotica, punk porn and bad girl models.” It seems sex and death preoccupy some others as well, and some of them do more than simply surf the Web.
But at this age, girls just want to have fun. It’s the parents who bring their anxieties to the table, sometimes accompanied by misgivings about their own adolescent behavior. “Parents experience an enormous sense of loss when their girls enter this new land,” Mary Pipher wrote in her seminal work “Reviving Ophelia,” a book that posited the idea that the best aspects of pre-adolescent girls — their independence, their confidence, their courage — were lost in the “Bermuda Triangle” of teendom. Pressured to become “feminine” and define themselves in relation to men, girls lost their identities and punished themselves through conformity, anorexia and self-destructive behavior.
But as a parent who stands on the other side of that gulf, I feel like I’m peering into the murk. I don’t want to make too much of my daughter’s fashion choices; she is in the midst of defining her own style, she tells me, and is quick to take offense. Franny is also of the age where she trusts the adult world to look after her. When Janet Jackson exposed her breast at the Super Bowl halftime show, Franny refused to believe that “they” would allow such a thing to happen. “Can they show that on TV?” she asked, stung more by Justin Timberlake’s staged humiliation of the singer than the sight of Jackson’s bejeweled nipple.
Right now her interest in the macabre is as childish as our love of “Casper the Friendly Ghost” was when we were kids. Last night she put her Living Dead Dolls to bed side by side, their little coffins touching, as if to protect them. She has a host of pets — a dog, a cat, a turtle and a fish — that she blesses each night, too, in a sort of rude 10-year-old way. Pipher believes that preadolescent girls identify with animals so strongly because they empathize with their lack of speech, their powerlessness. Could they empathize with ghosts for the same reason? Or is it a sign that they’re too big to be scared? Living Dead Dolls, for instance, offer both a through-line to childhood (remember when we played with dolls?) and a send-up of that innocence (remember when we chopped their heads off?).
Pulling her dark hair over her eyes, Franny can do a spot-on impression of the little dead girl in “The Ring.” “Everyone will suffer!” she hisses. The Buddhist in me figures she’s right about that. But I would like to delay some of her suffering just a little while longer. There will be time enough for death wishes and revenge fantasies, not to mention the real heartache and horrors of adolescence. Maybe adopting the goth look, however timorously, will be Franny’s way of outfoxing the femininity trap. (Black lipstick certainly says, “I’m nobody’s damn doll!”) How can I tell? The codes have changed since I was young. Watching her from the shore as she sets off on her journey I can only hope I’ll be able to tell if she is drowning or just waving. Providing she looks back at all.
Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.More Sean Elder.