“We take no joy in this,” said American Apparel co-chairman Allan Mayer yesterday of the company’s decision to fire its founder, CEO, and card-carrying asshole Dov Charney. Mayer’s pretty much the only one, though — anyone else who’s followed Charney’s career will be taking unbridled joy in the fact that he’s finally been shown the door. And with Charney’s soul bro Terry Richardson also in the news again over his general ghastliness, it’s been a bad week for the patron saints of ’00s semi-ironic misogyny. The only real question: why has it taken this long?
As far as Charney goes, Mayer apparently acknowledged that people will be asking why American Apparel didn’t act earlier, and argued that “a board can’t make decisions on the basis of rumors and stories in newspapers.” It’s not like there have only been vague Internet rumors about Charney’s conduct, though — he’s been the subject of multiple lawsuits over the years, most recently for allegedly strangling an employee (while calling him a “wannabe Jew”). One suspects that his board gave not a single fuck about any of this while the company was making money hand over fist, but American Apparel has lost its way in the last few years, recording increasingly large losses and seeing its share price plummet. If anything, I imagine the board has finally lost patience, and also lost confidence in Charney being able to turn things around — and his history of checkered conduct, to put it politely, provides an easy way to get rid of him.
Corporate cynicism aside, there does seem to be something symbolic about Charney’s fall. It’s another harbinger of the slow demise of the culture that he and Richardson came to define. The attitude of “hipster” culture — and I’m using the “h” word for want of a better term here — toward women has been reasonably well documented, at least in terms of its most prominent figures. Both Richardson and Charney seem to finally be getting a richly deserved comeuppance, although any sense of justice being done is tempered by the fact that they both remain apparently ignorant of why their conduct is not OK, and rich enough not to care either way.
But it’s interesting to think a little bit more deeply about that culture’s gender politics. The hipster aesthetic, such as it was, incorporated plenty of semi-ironic appropriation of the tropes of traditional masculinity: trucker hats, flannel shirts, PBR, beards/mustaches, and so on. I say semi-ironic because beneath the veneer of irony, there was always something deeply conservative and deeply unpleasant about it. Specifically, it was reflective of a wider shift in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s toward the reassertion of traditional alpha-male masculinity.
These things go in cycles, of course: the ’80s were largely about androgyny and flamboyance, with the decade’s defining styles — synthpop, house, etc — arising out of gay culture. The early days of grunge were also characterized by reasonably progressive gender politics — its rise coincided with riot grrrl, and Kurt Cobain was famously a self-identified feminist. As someone who lived out their teens in the ’90s, being a misogynist shithead was something you sneered at the meatheads on the football team for doing. It was part of culture, sure, but it wasn’t part of what you might call alternative culture.
By the late ’90s, though, the pendulum was swinging back. This didn’t just happen in the US; in the UK, it was lad culture, which had its roots in the early ’90s and got a huge boost from the neanderthal end of Britpop and the staging of Euro ’96 in England. There’s probably a lot to be written about how all these cultures arose as a backlash against both feminism and the rise of metrosexual dudes, who wore cologne, were professionally Nice to Women, and got laid a lot. Traditional alpha-male types watched this with horror, and what came next was depressingly predictable.
It’s not like misogynist culture ever really went away, of course — a trip to any sort of frat party will be enough to remind you of this. But in the late ’90s and early ’00s, it was cast as something transgressive, a daring reaction against politically correct orthodoxy. Look, we’re being sexist assholes! Aren’t we daring! If you don’t like it, you’re just a square! And, of course, there was always the ubiquitous defense of irony — no, look, we’re getting drunk and harassing women, but we’re doing it ironically!
As Judy Berman wrote here earlier this week, there’s nothing transgressive about any of this. American Apparel’s aesthetic, for instance, was the most time-worn cliché in the world: using hot girls in various states of undress to sell clothes. Of course, American Apparel’s aesthetic was all about irony, or so it’d have you believe, but really, whether this was done with a sort of knowingly arched eyebrow and sly wink is kinda beside the point; saying “Hey, I know I’m being kinda sexist” doesn’t change the fact that you’re being kinda sexist. The fact that the half-naked girl being used to sell your clothes is in a deliberately flashed-out photo wearing silly glasses doesn’t change that she’s a half-naked girl being used to sell your clothes.
If anything, the ironic stage dressing makes it all the more cynical. It’s bad enough not to know that being sexist is wrong; it’s worse to know this and do it anyway, because it’s a route to commercial success. The perpetually infuriating VICE, for instance, came up with a magic formula for success that was one part actual intelligent, progressive, boundary-pushing journalism to nine parts nihilistic misogynist awfulness. Decades on, it remains as divisive as ever, equally capable of publishing something as good as this or as bad as this.
It’s this tension that’s been at the root of VICE‘s success and, I’d argue, that of many icons of hipster culture; if it was flat-out misogynistic, it’d be easy to criticize. Misogynistic in an allegedly satirical way, though, with a lashing of something worthwhile… that’s harder to get a handle on. (See also: American Apparel’s advocacy for immigration reform and worker rights.) You can make the same argument about hipster culture in general: that it wasn’t all bad or all misogynistic. And sure, you’d probably be right. But ultimately, on balance, it served to perpetuate the same old patriarchal values that more progressive types spent most of the 20th century trying to abolish.
Anyway, while hipster culture may have been shot through with ambiguity, the men (yes, always men) behind it were less perplexing: they were just assholes. Apart from Charney and Richardson, the third member of the culture’s holy trinity of awfulness is VICE founder, racist prick and determined alpha male Gavin McInnes (“Why are all you wimps complaining that violence is bad, ‘macho’ is bad?… This idea of this beta male being in control is, what, 20 years old? You’re going against 40,000 years of evolution”). His fall from grace has already come, of course, and he’s been put out to pasture at Spectator “High Life” waste of space Taki Theodoracopulos’ largely ignored website, where he rants into the void like an elderly and mildly deranged dog on wheels howling at the night sky.
Then there’s Hipster Runoff bro Carles, whose blog pretty much embodies the idea of being misogynistic while pretending to satirize doing so, a man who’s made a living out of dressing up “Look at these dumb sluts!” as “‘Look’ at these ‘dumb’ ‘sluts’!” (Seriously, if it wasn’t for the existence of quotation marks, Carles would still be serving beers at the Charleston.) And you can also add to the list dickheads like Action Bronson and Black Lips, and plenty of others.
All of them exemplify a special sort of cynicism: the nihilistic appropriation of misogyny for personal gain, dressed up in a pretense of irony and satire. The world can do quite happily without them. So, farewell, Dov Charney — don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, eh?