Authoritarian Personality: Power and Subversion in Popular Culture

Duran Duran: The Chauffeur.

Moral superiority is the preferred pose of those lacking knowledge and understanding, it seems. And today, in our neo-Victorian era, morality is all the rage. Facts, thin on the ground, are swept under the rug with the suggestion that the speaker — whether pundit, politician, or popular entertainer — is morally offended. Yet, throughout the last few decades, popular culture has offered us an alternative form of protest: the adoption of symbols of authoritarianism as an expression of outsider status.

While the powerful in society often claim a kind of powerlessness — that resonates with Christian and post-Christian values — claiming humanitarianism, human rights or democracy “forces” them to act, such subversives and outsiders pose, and flaunt themselves. Following Yukio Mishima’s logic, they see the mask as the most interesting aspect of the person, and masquerade as powerful actors, choosing their destinies, and forcing others to accept it for themselves. They prefer the force of nature — at least their own temporary nature — to moralizing.

We see this especially in art and in youth culture. Punk — an essentially Left-wing and anarchist-movement, inspired partly by Reggae and Rastafarianism — adopted extreme-Right-wing imagery and symbols. In Britain (with which it is largely associated), it was intended as a protest against the generation that had fought in World War II, only to tell the younger generation that their freedom meant the freedom to obey the rules.

Lady Gaga (left). Artwork by Patrick Nagel (right).
Lady Gaga (left). Artwork by Patrick Nagel (right).

Conservatives tell us that it is the behavior of subversives — and their ideological justification drawn, usually, from the radical-Left (though sometimes the radical-Right, such as the late Skinhead movement) — that destroyed family life, church-going, proper morals, and so on. There is never any consideration why these movements caught on. It’s simple. The youth saw that the older generations no longer believed in the values that the institutions claimed to stand for. Most of the time, they didn’t even know what those values were. Instead, they had come to worship the institutions themselves: the Church, but not Christ or his teachings; the police, but not justice; voting, but not questioning; capitalism and work, but not creativity; qualifications, but not education in the classical sense.

The fascistic image — especially the use of the peaked cap — has become almost a cliche of subversion. When not dressing up as a rubber nun or meat, Lady Gaga can occasionally be glimpsed in faux-biker-Nazi gear, replete with leather cap. The 2011 movie Sucker Punch also has the stars dressing up in black, half-slutty, half-military uniforms. I’m sure we can think of other examples.

Duran Duran: The Chauffeur.
Duran Duran: The Chauffeur.

Of course, not everyone gets the point. “Rihanna and Jessie J are but a few of the most prominent celebrities seen wearing the resurgent symbol [of the Nazi eagle that inspired the logo of fashion brand Boy London],” Daniel Marriott whined a few months back in an op-ed piece for The Huffington Post, “with Rihanna appearing on British television clad head to foot in the eagle.” Marriott goes on (and on): “One questions whether if she knew what she was actually wearing, would she really be comfortable wearing it? The same goes for the increasing popularity of the brand among gay men, would they really be content wearing these clothes knowing its association with Nazi ideology?”

Marriott probably shouldn’t worry. While it emerged along with the Punk movement, Boy London was associated early on with gay culture, not least of all because of its adoption by gay pop singer Boy George, and, later, with Madonna — who, though not gay, flirted with gay culture as an image that would shock. (The defining icon of gay culture prior to the widespread use of the rainbow flag (taken from the Wiard of Oz) was the pink triangle, taken from badge homosexual inmates of Nazi prison camps were made to wear — this wasn’t, of course, meant as a kind of “thumbs up” to the regime.)

Some have gone slightly further than Rihanna, of course. In the 1984 Soft Cell video for the single Down in the Subway, singer Marc Almond wears both a peaked cap and a t-shirt with the word “Skins” on it, above a photo of a Skinhead. This image of the singer may be, and partly is, a subversion of the Skinhead movement (originally inspired by Reggae culture, but later associated with neo-Nazism), but while it is a rejection of its later worldview, it is also a glamorization of the male power and outsider status associated with it.

Other authoritarian-inspired imagery is heterosexual. We’ve mentioned gaga and Sucker Punch already. The peaked cap appears in the work of artist Patrick Nagel (best known for his cover art for Duran Duran’s Rio album) as a symbol of sexuality, as it does in Duran Duran’s Chauffeur video, in which the initially male wearer, in surreal fashion, later appears in the form of a female actor. If homosexual use of authoritarian symbolism is a celebration of male power, heterosexual use appears to be a celebration of female power, albeit usually from the perspective of male fantasy.

But, there is also politics and social comment, not just sexuality. The appearance of the outsider posing as authoritarian is the appearance of comedy in a particular sense that has become lost to us over the centuries. Traditionally their were different types of comedy.

Comédie larmoyante (tearful comedy) was a French type that used sentimentality and even loss and tragedy to articulate moral ideas.

Likewise, for some playwrights of the late Renaissance period, such as Ben Jonson, comedy was meant to expose the audience to the human frailty, thus enabling those watching the show to face and transcend it. The play was in a sense, a religious act — and in this regard we should note that the initiation rituals of mystical secret societies of the next few centuries often involved the initiate watching a play that illustrated some religious or moral point. “In the earlier comedies,” says Richard Dutton in Ben Jonson, “vices were exposed and follies ‘exploded’, for the most part, with the tacit consent of the audience, who were scarecely called upon to do much more than admire the author’s just exaction of shame and repentence from his erring creatures.”

Soft Cell, Down in the Subway: singer Marc Almond wears peaked cap and "Skins" t-shirt.
Soft Cell, Down in the Subway: singer Marc Almond wears peaked cap and “Skins” t-shirt.

As a punch and Judy show, even later on, still laid bare the darker dynamics of society, the subversive lays bare the real motivations of the powerful — of the “system” — but he also allows us to grasp that there is an inner power, within us. Not yet grasped, nor understood as being inextricably tied to eternal law, it appears to us as an inner dictator or autocrat, a dark demigod, a destroyer. “The good of libertarian free will requires,” remarks the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “in short, the possibility of moral evil.” The subversive is not the doer of evil, but one who consciously refrains from it, sublimating it into expressions of culture, public statements about private moments, and so on, that challenge the status quo.

In short, the subversive use of authoritarian symbolism invites us into a hall of mirrors, in which the outsider can go beyond himself and imagine his inner self as outer reality. It is a kind of dreamworld — surreal, half way between modernity and the archaic, and beyond good and evil.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.


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