Monday, November 14, 2016

Dog Town and Skater Culture: Commentary

Arianna McQuillen
Essay 1: Documentary

Subcultures have different values than the mainstream culture, but remain connected to the larger society. Different subcultures reveal different and morphing forms of alienation from the mainstream due to the continued relationship to the larger culture. The documentary covers the development of skateboarding out of surfing in the low income town of Dog Town. Interspersed with black and white interviews and old low-fi footage of skating moves, the documentary focuses on a few key skaters who developed a distinctive style. The Zephyr team was composed of several members who inspired each other to develop more unique styles, pressuring each other to translate surfing moves to concrete. The documentary reflects some of the concepts of aesthetic, economic class, racial blindness, and resistance in a particular instance of 1970s Southern California youth subculture.

Dogtown and Z-Boys focused on the aesthetic and competitive nature of the skate and surf culture. The skater subculture relied on masculinity. Masculinity bound together these young people, mainly young white men. They gathered together in order to enact their burgeoning masculinity, proving in escalating skating feats and escaping other looming masculine forces like the police or abusive fathers. The method of setting up courses to challenge each other created a binary way to measure adherence to the ideal of prowess while the discussions of style bring a subjective narrative of artistic merit. In addition to a competitive nature, the Dogtown Boys focused on pushing individual athletic limits and promoting each other as an ideal male hero who is able to innovate alone through innate genius. Jay Adams is referred to specifically as “the youngest and most naturally gifted.” The talk of warfare, genius, and rivalry all fit into hegemonic masculinity. These narratives are in conflict. The hero of warfare needs a nation to defend but the hero cannot accept a revolt from within his ranks. The tension of these narratives is clear in the shifting social focus on the groups between collective business, individual success, and teamwork. Following: most of the skaters are men. The two adults who run the Zephyr team are men and the one female member named in the documentary, Peggy Oki, is described as “skating like a guy.” To be a member of a subculture that prided masculine competition, her activities in the culture had to be defined apart from her female-sexed body. Despite the documentary’s focus on the spread of skate culture through the United States, gender and the lack of female members is an important sociological aspect.

The Dogtown Boys come from the same city, united in low economic class status. Skaters and surfers alike protect the dry pools and abandoned theme parks that became their cultural site. Locals resist encroachment from outsiders, especially those from higher economic class status. For example, poor skaters invading the private property of expensive homes to attain access to pools is a mark of concrete warfare. The skaters further antagonize the police, admitting that they couldn’t afford the fines that their trespassing would cost them and their family. The older men harken to their shared difficulties, coming from broken homes and non-valedictorian status. Both masculinity and shared experience of poverty bound the developers of skate culture together with a focus on developing a positive sense of style and identity.

Despite taking place in the 70s, the documentary makes no mention of political changes around race. While some skaters have racial markers, such as Tony Alva, a white passing man with dreds, or the Asian American skaters such as Oki and Jeff Ho, most are blond blue-eyed white men. The single black man shown in the documentary is Marty Grimes. The documentary overlays Jimi Hendrix’s “Freedom” over imagery of Jay Adam’s natural white talent, and does so with no trace of irony over glorifying supposed inherent white talent in a song commemorating the recent ending of segregation as sung by a self-styled black man who carefully controlled the racial aspects of his public musical character. The members who have this shared identity also make claims of legitimacy apart from race. To begin with, the documentary adopts the visual language of those it depicts: black and white photos, grainy footage, contemporary musical tone. These same claims to legitimacy are untenable for black participants as evidenced by their exclusion and the commodification of black subcultures outside of their political meaning towards race. The dreadlock is not merely a styling implement nor Hendrix a singer; these are potent symbols within 1970s black subcultures within America but their meaning is obscured by the flattening of color. The claim of legitimacy is that of racial blindness, carefully eliding racial upheaval and meaning in the background of skater subcultures in order to appeal to a presumed white audience.

The documentary covers the development of a new subculture, a resistance focused on a shared experience of poverty and athleticism. A subculture based on ignoring differences in social privilege in the larger culture is doomed for failure: with economic pressure the skaters broke apart for their individual gain. Future alternative or punk subcultures must tackle concurrent issues in order to create a sustainable base. Individual accomplishment or single-issue solidarity are not enough; punk rock ethos rely on whole hearted trust.