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 sciences.

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" article.
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 expression.
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:

In the marketing of style, in its images, surfaces and scents, the dream of identity is paraded before our eye's mind. It is only a dream of public identity, but it also plumbs the well of inner identity. Style, in its images and politics, offers a provocative typology of needs, a symbolic politics of transcendence. In this sense, style provides people with a powerful means of expression. Insofar as style is a device of the marketplace, however, it is simultaneously a means of containment. By investing purchasable commodities with connotations of action, having vies with doing in the available lexicon of self-realization. (Ewen, 106)

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 views.
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:

...dismiss the fantasies written about Generation X, that have them hip-hopping in their ripped jeans from here to oblivion. They're Norman Rockwell as dreamed by Madonna: a mix of '50's values and a '90's knowledge of the world. Expunge 'grunge' from your vocabulary. They'll be pushing prams and putting their money in the bank.

As this quote makes clear, Newsweek reveals Generation X as identical to the dominant culture. Sure, Newsweek notes, they dress a little differently, but didn't baby-boomers do the same before growing up to become investment bankers?
But sometimes, Newsweek notes, this journey from participation in a subculture, to consummate consumer in the dominant culture is a difficult one. In an article from 1994 titled "Turning in the Badges of Rebellion" Newsweek reports on a rebellious style which has had its day: the fad of tattooing. Ignoring that the trend of tattooing originated in the gay and punk subcultures in their attempts to, in the case of gays, claim their bodies for themselves or, in the case of the punks, distance themselves from dominant cultural values and reassert class identity, Newsweek notes only that those people who once made the decision to tattoo themselves are now trying as hard as possible to erase their neo-primitive designs and Black Flag logos. To the end of showing their remorse, Newsweek's article profiles several people who once "thought it would be cool to have a tattoo," but who are now paying big dollars to have these markings erased through laser surgery. The surgery, the article notes, is extremely painful but, "try getting a job at the Gap if you've got LOVE and HATE dyed into your knuckles."
In a quite succinct way this article on the morning after of tattooing sums up the narrative pattern which Newsweek follows in its articles on oppositional styles which could present a challenge to conventional lifestyles through their difference. In the text to this article, Newsweek notes that, "It was once 'cool' to get a tattoo." Given the context the rest of the article provides this quote must be read as saying that, even though the tattoo is and was something which constitutes itself as different from mainstream culture, it means nothing as a self-creationary or oppositional act. Instead, the tattoo is only a mispurchased style because its presence prohibits its purchaser from getting a job and buying more style (at the Gap). The offending style which in Newsweek's universe could never signify an instance of opposition or self-creation must therefore be expunged in order that the consumer ­­which is what we all essentially are for Newsweek­­ is able to more fully engage themselves in the orgy of style consumption which is Newsweek's universe and controls the force of their narrative.
The necessity of the transition from subculture to culture is a dominant theme in Newsweek's reporting on style. For Newsweek, radicalism leads inevitably to normalcy. By endlessly repeating this narrative pattern, Newsweek establishes its dominant myth that reveals us to ourselves as essentially consumptive. Subcultures however, by dint of their occasionally being associated with a refusal of consumption or with an inability to consume (like Gen X and the prohibitive power of tattooing) cannot always represent the consummate consumer which Newsweek endorses. Because of this opposition, the magazine makes a concerted effort to dissolve potentially resistant subcultures into the dominant culture by maintaining that all subcultures reveal themselves, upon close examination, as identical to the dominant consumer culture.
<IMG SRC="../../graphics/dot.gif" VSPACE=5 HSPACE=12 height=1 width=1>Newsweek, with its insistence on and reification of the necessary journey from subculture to culture, presents its reader with a pattern to be followed and an archetype to be lived up to. What is this archetype? It is conspicuous consumption of stylish commodities embodied. It is what Stuart Ewen pointed to when he wrote that, in the contemporary world, we seek to make a stylish commodity of ourselves. It made its first rough appearance in 1984 in Newsweek's article on "The Year of the Yuppie" and it reached its final form just last summer in a 15 page cover story on "The Rise of the Overclass."
According to its established pattern, Newsweek equips its profile of the nascent form of the ideal consumer (the yuppie) with an origin myth. Yuppies, the newsweekly writes, were born out of the subcultural movement of the sixties. When they were young and idealistic these pre-yuppies constituted a subculture which protested the status quo through the cut (or lack thereof) of their hair and their stylish choice of protesting the Vietnam war. However, in reality, the baby-boom generation was not, Newsweek demonstrates, that different from what they have become: namely, consummate consumers. As one representative yuppie (a Columbia graduate) interviewed in the article says, "We were upper middle-class kids who were used to getting what we wanted. I really felt strongly about the strength of our will ­­that if we wanted the bombing [in Vietnam and Cambodia] stopped it would stop." The Columbia graduate, with this quote, exposes his past of protest for what it "really" was: an act of selfishness. In so doing he (like the other yuppies profiled in the article who have gentrified that former hotbed of subcultural activity, the Height-Ashbury district of San Francisco) has identified himself and his peers as self-interested consumers. After all, the baby-boomers never were "really" radical. How could they have been when Newsweek reveals that: "The '60's...were all very me oriented."?
After establishing that the radical stance of the baby-boomers in the '60's was only a facade with self-interest lurking just beneath, Newsweek proceeds to give example after example of the extremes yuppies go to in purchasing those things which will make them appear to others as "with it" or stylish. One representative yuppie, pictured sitting in her convertible and holding a West Highland terrier, proclaims that, "without children I would be comfortable with $200,000 a year. Money means a lot to my happiness. I want to be able to go to Europe when I want to, to buy clothes if I want to. The way you look is very important, sometimes I think it is more important than what you can do." This emphasis on style, on looking good by virtue of your ability to consume stylish commodities, is emphasized over and over again in the article. One yuppie talks about how he would only date someone if she has a job, an apartment and a big car while another reveals that her preferred mate resembles a Standard & Poors report on a successful company. Yet another yuppie says that her purchasing of a condo "makes me feel smart and it gives me more control over my life."
In their insatiable consumption of brie and Perrier, through their endless workouts in the gym to sculpt their bodies, and onto their networking parties where they present their crafted image, the yuppie that Newsweek profiles consumes conspicuously, in order that they may appear as good consumers, so that others may recognize their good taste and reward them by allowing them to continue their upward mobility. Just as Stuart Ewen described the modern subject in All Consuming Images, the yuppie lives, through style, as a self-for-others.
Throughout the litany of examples of conspicuously consumptive practices which characterizes Newsweek's yuppie celebration of style there is only one brief mention of the economic factors which make this cultivation of style possible. Hidden in a brief note, Newsweek reveals that "the glamour" of the yuppie "obscures a more significant trend toward downward mobility among their peers." This causal factor of the yuppies' unprecedented ability to consume is, however, swallowed up in the article's fastidious cataloging of the typical yuppie's necessary accessories. The yuppie thus appears in Newsweek as nearly unencumbered by economic conditions. The only thing which seems to be supporting them is their style.
While the economic reality which allowed yuppies to become yuppies at the expense of those less fortunate is barely mentioned in Newsweek's article, it disappears entirely in a feature article which appeared eleven years later and which purported to show what had become of these stylish individuals. Not surprisingly, commensurate with the unprecedented shift of wealth from the poorest to the richest segments of American society which occurred and continues to occur during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, the yuppie has become even better at playing the consumption game. The yuppies have become, Newsweek trumpeted, "The Overclass."
That which distinguishes the "overclass" from the rest of us, Newsweek maintains, is that they deserve their position in society. This myth is foisted on Newsweek's reader (and neatly ties into Horatio Alger and puritan work ethic myths) even though these overachievers "started out as yuppies." Meaning that they did not start from economic ground zero. Thus the distinguishing factor of these sterling individuals is not their achievements (as Newsweek writes, achievements just "translate into money") but, is, just like the yuppies' distinguishing trait, their ability to consume stylish goods. After the exposition of yuppie style it would only be redundant to catalog the overclass' consumptive tendencies: their steady diet of arugula and Range Rovers will therefore be left unanalyzed. Suffice it to say that, as Newsweek presents them, the members of the overclass are even better than the yuppies were in their ability to present themselves as stylish beings. The overclass is Newsweek's archetypal consumer.
But in what way is the overclass better consumers than the yuppies who made of conspicuous consumption an art? Newsweek believes that, while the yuppies were still somewhat tied to their economic conditions ("I need $200,000 a year to support my lifestyle"), the overclass is the class which has succeeded in totally freeing themselves from the economy. They are able to consume that which they will. Ironically, this freedom from economic contingency allows them to fully participate in the economy as unfettered consumers. As Newsweek writes: "America is becoming a two-tier society. One class will have the autonomy to live where and how it wants; the other will be increasingly constrained and shut out." This ability to completely determine one's own lifestyle; the reverie of floating freely among commodities, choosing and rejecting them solely on the basis of preference, is Newsweek's dream of the ideal consumer and it is that towards which all their articles on style point.
As the ideal consumer which Newsweek seeks to direct its reader's lifestyle towards comes into full focus with its article on the overclass, the notion of style which Foucault and Hebdige suggests drops totally out of the picture. Style, once theorized as self-creationary or oppositional, is, for Newsweek, that realm which can only be fully explored by those who have unlimited purchasing power and who exist within (in fact are) the hegemonic culture. Self-creationary style and personal style might both, outside of Newsweek's world, be read as politically powerful gestures constituting some kind of refusal of, or opposition to hegemonic culture. However, styles with such force will never make it between Newsweek's covers because the magazine's dominant narrative does not allow style to have this type of power.
Personal style never appears in Newsweek (celebrity profiles are merely a manufactured simulation of personal style). Subcultural styles appear in the magazine much more frequently but only as a false difference from the hegemonic idyll of unlimited consumption. Subculture is Newsweek's immediately resolved anti-thesis to its thesis which is total involvement in the consumer culture as stylish consumer. No rupture or refusal is associated with subculture in Newsweek. Such refusal is only shown as a stumbling block (or better phrased, a stepping stone) which one must cross over before totally identifying oneself with the dominant culture. Newsweek's style pages thus contain their own opposite in order to support and reify its grand myth that we are all consumers and that style only signifies this consumption. In Newsweek's universe, subcultural styles simply succeed one another and never "signify" anything. They are always just something new to consume, existing as a roadstop on the freeway to becoming a consummate consumer, the figure which, in Newsweek's narrative, everybody actually is, or must strive to be.
Does Newsweek, in denying the political potential of style and incorporating all style into the dominant consumerist culture, do anything which Time magazine, USA Today, CNN, or your local daily newspaper does not? Is there anything about Newsweek's reporting on style which marks its editorial policy as that much worse than any other newsweekly or other mainstream news source? No, there probably is not. The same kind of editorial policy would most probably be found in any other news source which owes its existence to the link it establishes between commodity producers and commodity consumers. That Newsweek always presents subcultural style as commodified, as existing within the dominant economy, thus comes as no shock. However, what is especially noxious about Newsweek magazine is its narrative insistence that participation in a subculture is but a stutter on the way to becoming an exemplary consumer. The quandary that this insistence has left Newsweek's reader with might be best represented in a "My Turn" editorial column from March of 1995 in which an adolescent Newsweek reader writes into the magazine, complaining about the dilemma which Newsweek's style reporting has left him with.
As this adolescent, Blair Golson tells his own story, "I know all about slobs and the grunge movement, because I was a part of it." For two years Blair, "dressed loose enough to get by and respectable enough to present myself to my teachers every morning." However, after leaving junior high, Blair relates that, though his "priorities were straight (high school, college, grad school, job)," he was not a "self-starter" and "lacked focus." Because of these shortcomings, his parents enrolled him at a prep school. The prep school did not, however, tolerate his grunge look and he was forced to wear a tie and take out his earring so that he might "practice for the real world." At first he hated the choking tie, starchy shirt and naked earlobes of the school uniform but, in time, his self-starting problem was solved by the wardrobe and strict regimen of Fordham Prep. "So what," Blair wrote, "if I don't look like my friends in public school. I was getting a jump start on the future. At least we (the students at Fordham)... won't find it hard to put on slacks and shoes when it's time to enter the real world."
Blair was satisfied at Fordham Prep, he was getting good grades and was on the fast track to realizing his priorities of education and wage slaving in the corporate world and he felt that he owed this success to the navy vests and diagonal striped ties of his prep school. But then Newsweek ruined Blair's idyllic interpellation into Babbithood by announcing in a style article on dressing-down in corporate America that, in the workplace, "grunge is in". "Wait a minute," Blair cries, "what am I supposed to believe?" It seems Newsweek caught Blair by surprise and he felt betrayed. He had followed their grand narrative to a T. He had tried subcultural style ("I was a part of the grunge movement"), not enough to create a true difference ("I never went off the deep end"), but enough to keep himself from fully engaging in the dominant economy by preparing himself for high school, college, grad school, job 1. After the epiphanous moment when he realized that he must give up the subculture to fit in, he then played totally by what he thought to be the dominant culture's rules, styling himself to enter corporate America. Next however, Newsweek had to ruin his idyll by announcing that IBM allows its employees to skip wearing a tie one day each week. Had Blair read the article more closely, he would have learned that this "dressing down" increases productivity by making for "happier" workers and perhaps he would have understood that the rebellious style of the fortune 500 corporations was not really so rebellious ­­just a way in which they stimulate their drones to produce­­ and he might have felt a little bit better about his own style of capitulation. Instead, he just found himself asking Newsweek "What am I supposed to believe?" and plaintively crying at the end of his epistle: "God, I feel alienated."
A naive and optimistic Marxist might see in Blair Golson's plaint of alienation a moment of true consciousness. Perhaps Blair recognized that his ability to determine his own subjectification was severely compromised by his obsequious and conformist relation to hegemonic culture. But, given that his complaint appeared as a regular feature of Newsweek magazine where this conformist relation is paraded as the highest virtue, and, especially as he asks Newsweek's editors, "What am I to believe?" this plaint can not be seriously regarded as an insurrectionary moment. In this cry he is only asking his alienator to end his alienation and, if Newsweek follows its pattern of trivializing subcultural styles and idealizing the style of consumerist culture, the magazine is not about to perform this absolution. For, according to Newsweek's position on style, Blair is fitting in just fine. He sees only two options: a subculture which is meaningless and a dominant culture which he must tailor his self and style towards. Blair has become, by identifying himself in accord with Newsweek's perspective on style, more alienated than he realizes and, in his alienation, he might best represent the relationship between Newsweek and its reader in terms of style.

The author would like to thank Kakie Urch whose comments on this paper were invaluable and who led him through the alien terrain of cultural studies.



Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988.
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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1 ­­ This trajectory is eerily reminiscent of the profiles of Newsweek's "overclass".