Ready, Set, Stutter, Consume|
Newsweek Magazine and the Myth of Style
William S. Lewis
Lewis demonstrates co-optation and commodification
of dissent by media and
the elevation of consumerism to
a status somewhere between sociology
and "hard news." Subcultural dissent
is trivialized as mere "style,"
while conformist "style" is idealized
and elevated to the level
of current events and social
The birth of the Cosby Show,
the deaths of Yuri Andropov,
Count Basie, and Ernest Tubb,
Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" pass,
the Union Carbide chemical plant
disaster... From amidst the litany
of images associated with the
year 1984, one image stood
out the most prominently for Newsweek
magazine. This image was that
of a new person, a
new class, a new style.
It was the Yuppie. So
bright was the glare cast
by the chrome bumpers of
thousands of 300 series BMW's that Newsweek
marked out the yuppie's appearance
as the most important event
of the year, celebrating the
ascendancy of this überbourgeois in
a fourteen page, year-end cover
story. What is remarkable about Newsweek's
endowment of pre-eminent status to
the phenomenon of the Yuppie
is its willful neglect of
such 1984 issues as the
marked increase in cold war
tensions brought on by Soviet
instabilities and the United States'
agitation, the realization of the
true status of third world
peoples in relation to global
capitalism occasioned by the Bhopal
disaster and the tremendous shift
of wealth from poor to
rich caused by the Reagan
administration's "trickle down" economic policy.
Such events as these, happenings
which were and remain of
inarguably greater import to both
our daily lives and to
the world situation, were given
short shrift or not mentioned
at all in this "Year
of the Yuppie" issue in
order to highlight a phenomenon
which would ordinarily be assigned
the status of a "style"
Prior to this feature on the consumption habits of the young urban professional, such lengthy style articles as the one on yuppies appeared fairly rarely in Newsweek magazine. Even when they did appear, it was almost never as a cover story. Instead, such articles were usually consigned to the rear third of an issue, to the "Lifestyle" section. Certainly, style profiles had never before constituted the most important event of the year. However, this article on the yuppie was among the first in what would become a trend for Newsweek: the elevating of what are essentially articles having to do with the very surface of our cultural lifethe way in which we present ourselves through our lifestyle choicesas the most newsworthy event of the week or, in the case of the yuppie, of the year. This inclination to prominently feature style articles as news articles has escalated over the decade elapsed since the publication of the yuppie feature to the point where, if one used Newsweek as one's sole source of information, one might think that the most newsworthy items of our time have to do with what kind of salad we eat, with whom we choose to sleep, what compact discs we buy and what we wear to work. The number of cover articles and pages devoted to style in the magazine has increased to such an extent that, in the summer of 1995, it was not in the least bit astounding to see back to back cover stories on "bisexuality" and the "overclass". In this atmosphere "hard" news stories fight for space between editorial cartoons and the burning issue of the resurgence of tandem bicycles.
Speculations about what may have motivated this multiplication and diffusion of style articles in Newsweek might identify any number of causal factors. Perhaps the increased frequency reflects the post-cold war rise of neo-isolationism and a concomitant ambivalence towards hard news. Maybe the increase is occasioned by a feeling on the part of Newsweek's editors that the average reader is unable to deal with complex issues, or, possibly, the explosion in the number of style articles reflects the simple fact that the publication of such features led to an increase in magazine sales. Each of these explanations may or may not be true and, regardless of their veracity, they are not the focus of this essay. What is the focus of this essay is the fact that style is becoming more and more of an issue, perhaps even to the point of constituting the whole issue, for Newsweek's readers and editors. With the recognition that style has come to play a dominant role in Newsweek's text, the question is begged: "In what way does the notion of style function for Newsweek and what kind of part is the reader expected to play in this narrative?" or, phrased differently, "What is the relationship between Newsweek and (the) Newsweek reader in terms of the magazine's perspective on style?"
1. Defining Style
In order to address this
question of the relationship between Newsweek
and its reader in terms
of style it is first
necessary to define the term.
At least for the purposes
of this essay, 'style' will
refer to those cultural practices
associated with the consumption and/or
production of commodities which, in
their selected appearances, tend to
portray, reaffirm, establish, or represent
one's identity, or identification with
a particular cultural structure such
as class or subculture. Style
is thus personal adornment such
that the adornment contains a
message which can be read
and whose intent is to
signify; that by which a
style signifies can be anything
from the cut of the
clothes one wears, to the
type of food one eats,
to the gender one identifies
with, to the mores to
which one subscribes. That which
is signified by these styles
is a self-identification, either through
opposition to or by alignment
with a particular mode or
modes of cultural
Lest this essay be accused of reducing all cultural phenomena to the realm of style, let me make it clear that, in this definition, style is only that which alludes to something else (even though this something else may only be itself) and style is not always a matter of choice (though in Newsweek it might appear so). Is it not only in this way, by allowing for a wide ranging definition of style, that we can recognize such deeply culturally embedded styles as heterosexual style and such anti-styles as minimalist style even though the former is often identified with an essential origin and the latter identified with a conscious attempt to strip style away?
Within this admittedly large definition of style there can be differentiated at least two modes in which style acts or performs. As defined in the paragraph above, style is that which both identifies and is a mode of self-identification. Style therefore presents itself to be analyzed through dialectic. Within this dialecticthe movement from being wholly identified by the style one inhabits to the act of fully choosing or creating the style one presentsthere are to be found both instances of opposition to dominant or interpellative cultural practices and instances of wholesale capitulation to hegemonic cultural practices.
The recognition of these polar moments of style and the emphasis of one pole over and against that of another is the way in which many contemporary theorists have gone about theorizing style. Such authors as Michel Foucault, Michael Hebdige, and Jo Spence have chosen, if not exactly to privilege (as they feel that, more often than not, style chooses a person rather than that a person chooses a style), to emphasize the possibility that style can be a means of self-identification or self-creation which might place itself in opposition to, or even apart from, hegemonic cultural practices. On the other hand, such authors as Guy Debord, Louis Althusser and Stuart Ewen have gone so far in their emphasis of the opposite pole as to deny any such political power of style, recognizing that the only thing which style can signify is the apparent progress of itself in its meaningless flux. Both of these perspectives on style have their strong and weak points. However, taken together as dialectic, they can serve as a tool which aids in understanding the functioning of style in Newsweek magazine. By examining how the magazine plays the spectrum between these two conceptions, first allowing the reader to see style as empowering and then (or simultaneously) dictating a style in line with dominant cultural practices, something may be said about the relationship between Newsweek and its reader in terms of its style reporting. This project will be aided by a cursory examination of the two basic perspectives on style (style as liberationary and style as alienating) gained from a very brief summary of three representative positions: those of Stuart Ewen, Michel Foucault and Dick Hebdige.
Published in 1979, Dick Hebdige's book Subculture: the Meaning of Style, can be read as a eulogy for the explosion and subsequent speedy demise of the British punk movement. However, the book is also an exercise in how to read culture at the level of style, particularly as style is seen to illuminate the relationship between culture and subculture. This relationship between culture and subculture is a crucial one for this essay and it will be referred to extensively in this paper's treatment of Newsweek. Hebdige begins his analysis of the culture/subculture relationship with Stuart Hall's definition of culture as "that level of experience in which social groups develop distinct patterns of life and give expressive form to their social and material experience" (80). From this starting point, Hebdige attempts a reading of the 'expressive forms' created by a succession of British post-World War II subcultural youth movements in order to determine what "meaning" or "meanings" these forms signified.
Why does Hebdige want to read these subcultures and what does he expect to demonstrate with this study? In the introduction to the book he says that he is interested in the "status and meaning of revolt, the idea of style as a form of refusal, the elevation of crime into art" (2). By examining the 'signifying items,' the style or expressive forms of subordinate groups, he believes that the tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be seen. Hebdige is thus involved with the issue of class, not at the level of economics, though economics may, in the last instance, play the dominant part in creating these tensions, but at the level of the material production and re-production of the commodity of style. He is interested in these tensions where they 'appear' as expressive forms and he thinks that these forms or styles can be made intelligible by recreating the dialectic which engenders them.
Hebdige borrows heavily from Althusser and his theory of ideology and Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony in order to explain the dialectic by which subcultures function. In this conception, subordinate groups are seen as contained and framed by an ideology which encompasses both the subordinate culture and the dominant culture (16). Within 'ideology' exists a struggle between ideologies; the subculture attacks or refuses the dominant culture, the dominant culture assimilates the subculture, a new subculture arises, and the pattern repeats itself.
In chronicling the dialectical movement of culture and subculture, Hebdige focuses on the area of signs, of aesthetics, of style. He focuses on style because he believes that, in style, the tensions between culture and subculture are the most visible and, consequently, the easiest to read. Subculture, he writes "stands apart as a visible construction, a loaded choice, it directs attention to itself, it gives itself to be read" (Hebdidge, 101). The punk subculture, by doing such things as threading safety pins through their cheeks, wearing ripped bin liners for clothing, and playing music which was not music but noise, constituted a rupture in the fabric of a society in which safety pins were for baby's diapers, clothing was made of cloth and not ripped, and music was melodic. Punk thereby presented itself as oppositional to the dominant culture through its 'forbidden contents.' Hebdige points out that, in their appearances, subcultures work, just like Roland Barthes mythologists do; they give the lie to the seemingly natural connection between style and reality. In their moment of demythologizing, subcultures seem "an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporal blockage in the system of representation" (90).
For Hebdige, subculture, in its moment of rupture, in its time of being born in opposition to a dominant culture, accomplishes two things. First, it demythologizes the seeming "naturalness" of the dominant order by bringing into question how we relate to ourselves, to commodities, and to each other. It suggests the possibility of difference and refusal to a dominant culture which wishes to appear, if not homogeneous, then content in its contradictions. Second, following from its first accomplishment of demythologization, a subculture points to a reality which is usually covered up in the play of a dominant culture's signifiers, and this reality is, for Hebdige, in the last analysis, a reality of class and of class difference.
Although Michel Foucault avoids economic reductivism, he does, like Dick Hebdige, point out two movements in style: one which is dictated by a cultural hegemony or, in Foucault's terminology, a dominant discourse, and another which might be originary and creative. This latter type of style is suggested by Foucault in a seminar paper he presented at the University of Vermont in 1982. In this paper, instead of focusing, as did the great majority of his previous output, on what he calls "Technologies of Power" or those relations which "determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject" (Foucault, Technologies, 18), he announced that, with the second and third volumes of his History of Sexuality and in works subsequent, he had begun to examine "Technologies of the Self." These technologies, in contrast to technologies by which a passive subject is objectified, are those practices which allow individuals "to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being, so as to transform themselves..." (Ibid., 18) For Foucault, these techniques by which one might create oneself, outside, maybe in opposition to, and despite the hegemony of discourses associated with Technologies of Power, falls principally into the realm of aesthetics. The cultivation of Technologies of the Self becomes, for Foucault, the search for an aesthetics of existence (Foucault, "Aesthetics," 49) associated with a striving for the beautiful.
With this notion of "Technologies of the Self," Foucault appears to recognize the power of individuals to somewhat determine the way in which they are subjectified through aesthetic or stylistic means. This power of style is posited even against the overwhelming and near totalizing forces of economics, sign systems and subjectifying discourses to fix a subject in a determinate position. Thus Foucault, in his later works, finds, in style, a faint glimmer of hope. The cultivation of a style is associated with the possibility of, if not resistance to, then at least the failure to capitulate to, subjectifying forces. Style becomes, for Foucault, a way to engage in the subjectification of oneself.
Stuart Ewen, like Michel Foucault, is concerned with the power of style to subjectify and, like Dick Hebdige, he looks at how style is used as an identifying commodity but, unlike these two theorists who attribute a political and/or self-creationary power to style, Ewen's analysis of style denies any such agency. Through the presentation of a genealogy of the concept of style, Ewen argues that the production and consumption of "stylish" goods is inextricably linked to the production and consumption of "stylish" subjects and that both are inextricably tied to a capitalist economy whose very reflection is the imagery of style. As Ewen writes in his well researched book, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture:
As can be seen from this quote, Ewen is aware that style, or the choosing of a style, is something which we feel identifies us and that, as far as we choose our "style," we believe that we are choosing ourselves. However, because the style that we choose is a product of the marketplace, and as such is only an appearing-to-be, no authentic self-realization is to be found in style.
Ewen makes abundantly clear the relationship between individual style and the selling of a product in his genealogies. In them, he relates how having style an option previously open only to the aristocracy and thus fixed to a specific class identity became the province of a newly emergent mercantile class who, beginning in the middle ages, wished to appear as landed elite (Ewen, 27). This wish to appear as stylish grew as the economic system began to favor an emerging middle class. This tendency gradually became so pronounced and dispersed that, by the nineteenth century propelled by the mass production and marketing of stylish goods class distinctions were no longer tied to one's actual economic situation but were instead bound to one's pattern of consumption. Thus one could be in debt up to one's ears and dying of malnutrition and yet still hold up a middle-class or even upper-class facade by purchasing or claiming allegiance to stylish goods (Ewen, 68). In the twentieth century, Ewen writes, this situation has devolved and expanded to such an extent that we can not help but see ourselves, just like a new brand of detergent, as products to be marketed, as subjects to be molded and manipulated. In the contemporary world, through the lens of style, we can only see ourselves as other.
Style and subjectivity coexist for Ewen, just as they do for Foucault. However, for Ewen, this coexistence exists as subjectivity constructed totally through style and as such it is a striving to appear which is merely a manifestation of an economy based upon the production, consumption and planned obsolescence of stylish goods. As Ewen writes, style signifies nothing but is a "visible reference point by which we have come to understand life in progress" (Ewen, 23) and, as the succession of styles in the modern world is a reflection of a capitalist economy in flux, Ewen's assertion can be read as his negative response to Hebdige's claim that the progression of youth subcultures in post-war Britain were instances of resistance to and a demythologizing of the hegemonic culture. In fact, they were only that culture displaying itself to itself.
2. Newsweek and Style
The style articles that Newsweek
publishes have nothing to do
with style as having the
potential for self-creation or as
having the power to present
a challenge to the dominant
culture. It is not that
these potentials are totally absent
or dismissed in Newsweek's
style articles (in fact, they serve
a very useful purpose) but
that these potentials are inconsequential in the
grand narrative which constitutes Newsweek's
position on style:
a narrative whose story follows
much closer to Ewen's dystopic
view on style than either
Foucault's or Hebdige's progressive
This narrative pattern, or "dominant myth" of Newsweek magazine is that everybody is middle-class (preferably upper-middle class), that style is something which we do not create but purchase and that style is uninvolved with and consequently does not represent us or our political/economic situations. Perhaps this myth could be summed up with the statement that, for Newsweek, we are all consumers and that which we consume is style. It is this myth which denies the conception of style as creative or resistant. If there ever was such a politically powerful act of style as Hebdige suggests existed within the punk movement and Foucault hints at there being in Hellenic culture, it would never make it into the pages of Newsweek because, by the time an individual or subcultural style finally makes its way into the magazine after threading its way through the labyrinthine filter of marketing departments, cultural observers (trend pimps), and less mainstream publications, any political potential has been long since drained in the blood feast designed to turn the style into something which can be sold.
But, as was mentioned before, Newsweek's denial of the political potential of style does not involve the non-appearance of subcultural and individual styles in the magazine. In fact, such styles are routinely reported on in articles which feature everything from grunge rock, to tattooing, to bisexuality, to Generation X. However, for Newsweek, these styles only represent a difference from the dominant culture (the culture of consumption) in order that this difference might be immediately resolved into, and thereby strengthen, the dominant culture. In this way, subcultures, or the small myths that style can create or represent difference, division, and/or dissension within and against the hegemonic mandate of consumption, are resolved into and sustain, even as they are presented as oppositional to, Newsweek's dominant myth that everybody is or should be white, middle-class, and, most importantly, have buying power.
One small myth of a potentially powerful subculture appeared in a Newsweek cover story from July of 1995. This feature article dealt with the trend of bisexuality, a trend whose immanent impact on everyday life was indicated by its incubation in such breeding grounds of difference and novelty as "pop culture, cyberspace and...campus." Reporting on the emergence of this "new sexual identity" Newsweek warned that, "To a social order based on monogamy, bisexuality looms as a potent threat." That bisexuals were indeed coming and were prepared to destroy your identity by questioning the dichotomy between gay and straight was everywhere in evidence. All that one had to do to see this invasion, reported Newsweek, was turn on Roseanne and Melrose Place. Unlike the bisexual trend of the mid-seventies which Newsweek wrote off as being an "offshoot of the sexual revolution," this trend was identified as the real thing: a lifestyle whose existence "lurks as a rupture in the social structure, conjuring fears of promiscuity, secret lives and instability."
The "rupturing" power of bisexual style is not, however, the principle theme of Newsweek's article. It is merely the attention grabbing lead, drawing in the reader by promising them the possibility of transgression or difference. This small myth, that bisexual style can be revolutionary style, is not allowed to stand. Almost immediately, it is set upon in the article by anthropologists, sex researchers, and sociologists who offer the opinion that bisexuals are not that different from the rest of us. The small myth of rupture is further eroded by bisexuals themselves who, in sidebar profiles, reveal that they are just like everybody else. Thus the sex researcher says: "(E)very one has the biological potential for bisexuality..." and the representative bisexual echoes him by saying "I never wanted a white picket fence, but I do want someone I can settle down with and raise my BennetonTM kids."
The most radical thing about Newsweek's bisexual is not that they might challenge the hegemonic order, but the threat that, because they are flexible in their sexual consumption, bisexuals might be better consumers than those of us who confine ourselves to a fixed sexual identity. The irony and the menace of the bisexual is, for Newsweek, the possibility that the bisexual might be better able to live the American middle-class dream: to find a life partner, to get a job, to settle down, and finally, to raise kids who will be consumers: i.e., BennetonTM kids. The threat which Newsweek started with: that bisexual style might create a "rupture" in the social fabric by breaking down a social order based on monogamy, is nowhere existent by the end of the article. The potential for a self-creationary or politically powerful style in bisexuality is lost as Newsweek rigorously proves that what bisexuals want is to be monogamous and that their desires are exactly identical to the mainstream culture's in that the bisexual's wish is to enjoy "the simple, mysterious pull between warm human bodies when the lights go out." With this assertion of a mysterious (read essential) pull, Newsweek effectively incorporates bisexuals into the status quo as, just like everybody else, sexually desiring beings.
Perhaps the most egregious example of Newsweek's tri-partite pattern of first identifying a subcultural style, next suggesting that it might constitute a disruptive difference and, finally, dismissing it or incorporating the style into the dominant culture of consumption, is found in its series of articles on the phenomenon of "Generation X." Like most other news sources which jumped on the bandwagon in the race to define the post-baby-boom generation, Newsweek at first stuck to a description of twenty-something's as unemployable, whiny, television addled, by divorce destroyed, valueless, grunge-music-loving slackers. Generation X was, like the bisexual, presented as a threat, as a new lifestyle that didn't fit the system; Generation X was presented as radically different.
But then, in a summer of 1993 cover article titled, "The Myth of Generation X," Newsweek systematically re-examined the small myths they had originally fostered which maintained that Generation X was fundamentally different from their parents. This revised consideration now showed these myths to be erroneous. For example, the article tackled the stereotype that Generation X is constituted by slackers who won't take a mainstream job. They gave the lie to this myth (a myth which they had originally and vehemently propagated) by first naturalizing those "Gen Xers" who truly exhibited an aversion to work by noting that: "there is always a group that chooses not to join the dominant middle-class culture..." Newsweek then finished off the "aversion to work myth" by including profiles of dozens of twenty-somethings successful in mainstream vocations. This process of naturalization and counter-example was pursued against each of the other myths that had originally identified Generation X as different from the status quo until, eventually, a new portrait of the generation emerged. This new portrait revealed the "Xers" to be (surprise!) just like their parents. Newsweek says it best:
Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images:
The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture.
New York: Basic Books, Inc.,
Foucault, Michel. Technologies of the Self. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
Foucault, Michel, "An Aesthetics of Existence" in: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and other Writings 1977-1984. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1988.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen and Company, 1979.
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This trajectory is
eerily reminiscent of the profiles of Newsweek's