Cambridge and its wonderful yet dooming teenage subcultures Essay

Upon moving to Cambridge in September 2002, one of the first things I learned which intrigued me the most of was of the well-established teenage subculture system. By this of course I am referring to the ‘labelling’ or terminology of segregated groups of teenagers, based on the way they dress, the music they listen to and their attitudes to society.

In London the categories were vague and not well known – you were either normal or you were a ‘goth’, and most people would then ask ‘what’s a goth?’ Cambridge life I found fascinating because the typology was so advanced and specific, and so fundamental in the social workings of almost everyone there aged between twelve and eighteen. The little-known and often misused term ‘goth’ which I had had to make do with in London was replaced by the clearly defined terms ‘greb’ and ‘goth’ (this time with its correct meaning and usage); and the mass of ‘normal’ people were classed as ‘barries’ and ‘shazzas’, which are names exclusive to Cambridge as far as I know, as the general term in surrounding towns like Ely and some parts of London is ‘townie’. There are also skaters, and the immortal, universally known subcultures such as hippies and punks.

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All these labels are stereotypes, and if people are to claim recognition as members of a certain subculture they would of course be expected to fit all the criteria. So I think there are five main categories into which Cambridge teenagers have separated themselves, and these four then separate into two very distinct and rivalling subcultures. In the first group are the ‘barries’ and ‘shazzas’, (male and female ‘townies’) who are the normal people; the ones who are cool and want to fit in. In the second group are the goths, ‘grebs’ and skaters, who the ‘normal people’ see as weird and have reputations of being psycho – or satanic, in the case of goths.

From what I can see, it is the first group who consider it necessary to be cool, normal, and ‘with it’, and who wear clothes which are fashionable and acceptable. It is the second group who feel they have to be different, both from the normal people and from each other, and live by the clich� that they ‘don’t care what other people think of them’. For these types of people, weirdness and randomness in appearance come before attractiveness and certainly before fashion, and the types of music, though all immensely varied within the subculture, all tend to be the more obscure, non-mainstream and slightly more controversial kinds. Whereas the people who think of themselves as normal get their influence from the media and buy clothes from normal shops.

These are very generalised stereotypations, and I could go into a lot more detail in describing the many differences between kinds of teenagers, but…well I’m just not going to.

Even though when I moved to Cambridge it was almost immediately decided that I was a ‘goth grunge greb hippie punk’ or something along the same lines, I still maintain, or like to think, that I don’t have a label and won’t be categorised. This isn’t just another ‘I’m an individual I want to stand out from the crowd’ clich�. It is for a completely different reason, which is simply that much as I was impressed by Cambridge’s brilliant class system, I don’t actually think that one subculture is any better than the other. This may be difficult to believe if you know me, as you would most definitely put me in the weird people category. But as much as this is true I still like to be able to say that if you can get away with it, the subculture labelling should be completely arbitrary.

This is why. Both of the main groups have their bad points, which I won’t go into now, but the one which they both share is this. It has always been the case that with naming things – whether it’s simply a noun for an object or a stereotyping label like these – after a while the name seems to acquire more influence over the concept it represents than the concept first had over the name when it was assigned at the beginning.

It applies to the typology we are talking about here, in the sense that if a person decides that they think they fit into a certain category, they thus name themselves, and from then on stick to this almost obligatory stereotypation to which they have assigned themselves. This is the condition of adopting a name which is already in existence and has already accumulated a reputation. Categorising is all very well, and will be inevitable as long as people continue to communicate with ideas and words, but one of the frustrating side effects is the restraint it puts on people’s view of their own freedom.

I think that having things such as categories, stereotypes and subcultures is great fun, and is also in a sense necessary for small societies and society as a whole, but my warning is for those who may be tempted to believe that categorisation is necessary for each person as an individual – and we mustn’t ever let names influence our styles or identities, for if we did we would be forgetting that concepts always exist before their names, and never vice versa. Ask Plato. We should never feel restrained from buying a certain thing, or going to a certain place, simply because of the ‘type of person’ we have arbitrarily decided to label ourselves as. Manipulate your label around who you are, and not who you are around the label you have chosen to burden yourself with.

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