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The Hipster Trope, Explained - Too Cool For You

There was no more hated figure of the post-millennium era than the Hipster. The Hipster believes their superpower is their ultra-discerning, highly specific taste. But they have to keep chasing new discoveries and discarding old favorites as soon as they’re embraced by the masses. Yet while all this has led to hipsterdom being dismissed as pretentious or fake, the authentic version of this character is in search of something deeper—a truly alternative existence. And this can be a noble pursuit—if they can overcome the addiction to irony and put some heart into it. Here’s our Take on where Hipsters came from, and where they’re at today.

TRANSCRIPT

There was no more hated figure of the post-millennium era than the hipster.

  • First off, they’ll never call themselves that, and will vigorously deny being one.
  • The hipster is defined by what they don’t like, rather than what they do. They have a superiority complex based on disdaining anything mainstream and preferring obscure treasures no one else has heard of.
  • Ultimately, the hipster is defined less by an ideology than by an aesthetic — what Huffpost’s Julia Plevin terms the “carefully created sloppy vintage look.” The hipster believes their superpower is their ultra-discerning, highly specific taste. But they have to keep chasing new discoveries and discarding old favorites as soon as they’re embraced by the masses.
  • Yet while all this has led to hipsterdom being dismissed as pretentious or fake, the authentic version of this character is in search of something deeper — a truly alternative existence. And this can be a noble pursuit — if they can overcome the addiction to irony and put some heart into it.

VICE declared the death of the hipster in 2015, but the figure’s aesthetic is more ubiquitous than ever — so did this persona actually die, or has the hipster become what it always hated: mainstream? Here’s our take on where the Hipsters came from, and where they’re at today.

Hipster Cool

The modern “hipster” label emerged in the early 2000s to describe someone who (according to Robert Lanham’s 2003 The Hipster Handbook) “possesses tastes, social attitudes, and opinions deemed cool by the cool” and who “shuns or reduces to kitsch anything held dear by the mainstream.”

Juno MacGuff: “When you’re used to listening to the raw power of Iggy and The Stooges, everything else just sounds, kind of like… precious.” - Juno

A lot of the hipster’s cachet is tied up in the idea that they are an arbiter of taste. They’re experts on high culture, and they love low culture, but only with an ironic detachment.

Almost as soon as this type had a name, the hipster character took off in film and TV both as an indie hero and a subject of satirical mockery. In the late aughts and early 10s, actors like Michael Cera and Zach Braff played hipster heroes whose fashionably alternative tastes seemed to connote superiority of the soul. Hip-to-the-max 500 Days of Summer was a love story that denied being one starring a hipster who (characteristically) refused the label. But it showed how the hipster’s trademark differentness and detachment could produce valuable insights; the script used a playfully ironic third person narration to critique its protagonist’s clichéd, unrealistic views of love. The actress who played unattainable love interest Summer, Zooey Deschanel, embodied the female hipster in almost all her roles of that era, but especially as Jess in New Girl. Jessica Day epitomized the adorkable girl, who revives seemingly uncool hobbies like knitting, crafting, and baking and channels a vintage ultra-femininity (which Deschanel also commercialized via her website HelloGiggles).

Alternative Hollywood A-Listers likewise profited from the rise of the hipster, as former indie darlings like Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. harnessed their hipster credentials into fronting major franchises.

Pepper Potts: “He’s got another buyer for the Jackson Pollock in the wings. Do you want it, yes or no?”

Tony Stark: “Is it a good representation of his Spring period?” - Iron Man

But at the same time as the hipster was being embraced, they were being mocked. When they weren’t being ridiculed, they were openly disdained, blamed for the gentrification of formerly working-class neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, or London’s Shoreditch. Hipster culture was associated with fakeness and lazy posturing by slackers who had no talent or work ethic. At the center of the hipster hate is a portrait of the figure as a hypocrite. The Guardian’s Alex Rayner wrote: “detractors might not know exactly what a hipster is, but they do know what they don’t like: a tiresome sort of trendy, ostentatious in their perceived rebellion, yet strangely conformist.”
In 2009, Paste’s Kate Kiefer charted various phases of the hipster’s evolution in subtypes like “the scenester,” “the twee,” “the mountain man,” and the “vintage queen”...touching on the hipster’s contradictory aspects like a desire for “working-class authenticity” and an attachment to their iPod. The common denominator in all these examples is not a fixed-gear bike or a can of PBR, but how the hipster shapeshifts to stay ahead of trends. This appropriation of a range of aesthetics betrays an upper-middle-class white privilege that’s central to the hipster.

In 2009, Paste’s Kate Kiefer charted various phases of the hipster’s evolution in subtypes like “the scenester,” “the twee,” “the mountain man,” and the “vintage queen”...touching on the hipster’s contradictory aspects like a desire for “working-class authenticity” and an attachment to their iPod. The common denominator in all these examples is not a fixed-gear bike or a can of PBR, but how the hipster shapeshifts to stay ahead of trends. This appropriation of a range of aesthetics betrays an upper-middle-class white privilege that’s central to the hipster.

Elliott Goss: “Between you and me, like, my parents pay my cell phone bill… and everything else that I need.” - Search Party

Drawing on French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, The New York Times’ Mark Greif argues that the hipster’s obsession with the idea of good taste is just another way of reinforcing class structures, writing: “Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit.”

The History of the Hipster

The “hipster” term was first coined in the 1940s by jazz musician Harry Gibson as a way to describe himself, and his fans. Beat Generation figures like writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — who were also avid jazz fans — epitomized the post-war hipster with their mission to live for the moment outside of conventional society.

Old hipsters and new hipsters share a parallel in both thinking of themselves as part of a wider counter-culture. But one thing that distinguishes the earlier hipster is that he was shaped by the aftermath of World War II. Norman Mailer defines the hipster mindset as a kind of existentialism brought about by witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb. Faced with this specter of sudden death — or of “a slow death by conformity” — the hipster rebels against “square” society. Over time, the hipster label came to broadly define young, middle-class progressives who emulated working-class styles and stuck two fingers up at mainstream culture. 1969 road movie Easy Rider depicted rebellious, hipster characters trying (and failing) to forge a sustainable path outside of capitalist American society. In Europe, French New Wave filmmakers also tried to embody an alternative mindset by marrying existentialist philosophy, left-wing politics, and stylish young actors like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

But while all these manifestations of “hipness” may heroically reject mainstream culture, there’s a bleakness to the stories they tell. By the end of The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock may have taken a stand against conforming to his parents’ will, but the victory is hollow, as he and Elaine will probably end up turning into their parents anyway The millennial hipster of the aughts retains his predecessor’s pessimism and also channels the malaise and sarcasm of 90s Gen-X slackers like Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer in Reality Bites and sensitive, sullen emo-types like Daria.

Troy Dyer: “At the beep, please leave your name, number, and a brief justification for the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma, and, uh, we’ll get back to you.” - Reality Bites

We can see the legacy of older hipster’s darkness and doomed search for purpose in modern hipster Dory on Search Party. The hollowness of her aimless existence leads her to seek meaning in the disappearance of a girl she only superficially knew. While her friends typify the status and self-obsessed notions of the millennial hipster, Dory, at first, exemplifies something deeper. But (SPOILER ALERT) after she gets into trouble and might be held accountable for her increasingly harmful actions, she leans into her privilege, counting on it to help her literally get away with murder.

Throughout the hipster’s history, there’s a theme of resisting the capitalism that underlies mainstream society, stamping out individualism in the name of making everyone good little consumers. But one of the criticisms of the millennial hipster movement is that it’s essentially capitalism in counterculture clothing — a commodification of alternative aesthetics.

Far from taking down the man, the privileged modern hipster serves to uphold existing hierarchies. Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” argues that the original hipster’s identity, too, was an appropriation of black culture (and especially jazz culture). 2017’s Get Out makes this ongoing cultural appropriation into horror with a story about literally transplanting white minds into black bodies, as white characters who want to be hip try to steal a young black artist’s perceived “coolness.”

The Sympathetic Hipster

The castigations of hipster culture always come down to the criticism that they’re actually hypocritical conformists. But what if a hipster is for real? Isn’t it admirable to earnestly seek an alternative life and not just mindlessly do what everyone else does?

Kat Monroe: “You just always seemed… like, how do I put this? In search of yourself? Like looking for constant purpose.” - High Fidelity

It’s more difficult to live differently, which makes it all the more worth it to try. And it’s important to have people in society who care about art and culture as much as the hipster does. High Fidelity’s protagonist Rob may be a music snob, but Rob’s also an idealist, with a deep love for music as an art form. This combination of passion and exacting standards contributes to the appreciation and preservation of great cultural creations.

The film director’s version of the hipster is arguably Wes Anderson, who’s been both revered and parodied for his devotion to his signature style. Because his aesthetic is so defined — from the Futura typeface to the meticulous symmetrical framing — it’s easy to write off his films as only style and no substance. However while some of his characters may appear pseudo-intellectual or pretentious, they are far deeper than that. Similarly, David O. Russell’s 2004 film I Heart Huckabees might play to some as twee or contrived looking back, but at its core, it is a film about a young person caring enough to examine the deep nature of existence, while taking a stand against the rising tide of consumerism.

Albert Markovski: “I’m talking about not covering every square inch of populated America with houses and strip malls until you can’t even remember what happens when you stand in a meadow at dusk.” - I Heart Huckabees

We can sympathize with hipster characters who feel lost, like life isn’t living up to their high standards. Jess Mariano, Rory’s hipster love interest from Gilmore Girls, is an outlier in Stars Hollow. But his interests aren’t all that different from Rory’s. It’s just that Rory has a path laid out for her to follow, and Jess doesn’t.

The hipster character may hide behind their irony or judgmental taste to paper over what they don’t like about their lives or themselves. But their happiness often comes in finding the courage to overcome their ironic detachment — to admit how much they do care about things, to put themselves out there and risk failing, and to pursue a life that really fulfills them — cool or not.

Conclusion

The hipster has journeyed from cultural outlier to mainstream agitator, to just mainstream. Their aesthetic has now become fully commercialized, with seemingly every restaurant and café embracing reclaimed wood and exposed bulb light fittings.

Hipster archetypes are a fixture of mainstream movie and TV worlds; hipsters have grown into stable adults and parents, and the traits once associated with hipsters are now viewed as synonymous with millennial culture at large.

So, who are the new hipsters? Some hipsters onscreen today finally represent more diverse perspectives and deeper experiences. The college students in Dear White People have a recognizable hipster aesthetic, but these characters are also politically aware and striving for a better America. Meanwhile, the trend-cycle continues on: Esquire crowned 2020 the year of the “shipster,” who would look more at home on a windswept beach than at a Williamsburg bar, while sea shanties have gone viral over TikTok. But rather than racing to keep up, the truly hip person today can zero in on what it’s really all about: searching for an alternative way of life beyond taste that lives up to your ideals.

SOURCES

Fox, Jesse David. “Good-bye Portlandia. Good-bye Hipsters.” Vulture, 22 Mar 2018. https://www.vulture.com/2018/03/portlandia-finale-and-the-end-of-hipsters.html

Greenfield, Matt. Hipstermattic. Allen and Unwin, 2011.

Greif, Mark.”The Hipster in the Mirror.” The New York Times, 12 Nov 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

Kiefer, Kate. “The Evolution of the Hipster 2000-2009.” Paste, 3 Dec 2009. https://www.pastemagazine.com/design/the-evolution-of-the-hipster-2000-2009/

Lanham, Robert. The Hipster Handbook. Anchor Books, 2003.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro (Fall 1957). Dissent Magazine, 20 Jun 2007. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-white-negro-fall-1957

“Not Just for Drunken Sailors: How Sea Shanties Took Over TikTok.” The Guardian, 13 Jan 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/jan/13/not-just-for-drunken-sailors-how-sea-shanties-took-over-tiktok

Plevin, Julia. “Who’s a Hipster?” Huffpost Life, 8 Sept 2008.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/whos-a-hipster_b_117383

Renwick, Finlay. “Why 2020 is the Year of the ‘Shipster’.” Esquire, 23 Dec 2019. https://www.esquire.com/uk/style/fashion/a30256309/shipster-fashion-trend/

Saward, John. “Here Lies the Hipster.” VICE, 14 Dec 2015. https://www.vice.com/en/article/exqkke/hw-here-lies-the-hipster-999