At first glance, one might surmise that subcultures as utterly dissimilar as Asian cute culture and Balinese cockfighting could not possibly share a common theme. Though we might admit that these subcultures share obvious similarities as each subculture represents a collection of diversions and amusements, each appears to be the very antithesis of the other; Asian cute culture seems to revolve around sterile, harmless consumer goods, while the Balinese cockfight culture thrives on gritty violence. However, this sample essay will explain that it is not necessarily that cut and dry.
Subcultures as subtle resistance to social hierarchy
Two essays – “Towards a Critical Understanding of Asian Cute Culture” by Adrienne Lai, and “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz – call our attention to a common theme that unites Asian cute culture with Balinese cockfight culture: subtle defiance of hierarchy. In each essay, the author details how each respective subculture fits into larger social frameworks, and then reveals how the practices of each subculture subtlety subvert hierarchies embedded in broader society. The authors’ exposure of the defiant character of certain practices within each subculture is significant for a primary reason: it highlights the manner in which social practices may come to represent a kind of ritualized rebellion against widely-adopted norms, therefore heightening awareness of the possibility of deploying certain subcultures’ practices as a means to enact social change.
Adrienne Lai’s essay is an ethnography of Asian cute culture, or harajuku conducted in order to reveal the ways that “stereotypes about what young Asian women and feminists are supposed to look like can be disrupted” by means of adopting “contrary visual messages” in outward appearance (149). An example that Lai offers of this phenomenon is a feminist university instructor adorning herself with clothing featuring a cute visage of a cat. This image might appear to be contradictory, given that more traditional modes of feminist critique categorize cute culture as a means to re-enforce conservative gender and racial roles. Lai cites Brian McVeigh’s assessment of Japanese cute culture, which argues that cute culture “support[s] a normative discourse about gender definitions” (153). In McVeigh’s view, cute culture in Japan juxtaposes feminine powerlessness against masculine domination and control (Lai 151). As a result, some traditional feminists dismiss cute culture as a means of oppression.
Gender norms and cultural stereotypes
However, Lai disagrees with this assessment of cute culture. Instead, she turns to postfeminist cultural theory, which “attempt[s] to reclaim the contested ground prohibited by older generations” of feminists, and allows for theorization of areas of culture formerly seen as “trivial” (Lai 155). Asian cute culture is a prime example of the sort of contested ground for study that postfeminist scholarship embraces. Lai cites work by postfeminist scholar Angela McRobbie to begin building her claim about the subtly defiant characteristics of Asian cute culture. McRobbie’s approach entails a focus on “how ordinary people can appropriate the products of dominant culture in order to produce their own meanings” (Lai 155). In essence, postfeminism accepts that in some cases, individuals or communities must work with the objects of culture that are available to them to challenge typical gender convention and sterotypes.
Lai argues that this is what happens with Asian cute culture: females (and some males) adopt symbols that, in their “alliance with things childlike and girlish”, signal rebellion against the “male adult world” (156). As such, Lai draws on Homi Bhabha’s work on postcolonial theory to suggest that Asian cute culture is a kind of imperfect mimicry that satirizes patriarchy. She writes, “By running around in the (not-quite-right) personae of little girls, these adult women simultaneously reinforce and disrupt the patriarchal logic that seeks to treat women like little girls” (Lai 157). By flaunting that women cannot become the objects of docility that patriarchy would prefer them to be, Asian cute culture stands as a challenge against prevailing gender norms.
Clifford Geertz’s essay is a rich and multifaceted essay that uncovers the rural Balinese attitude towards outsiders, the complex rules and traditions that serve as the core of Balinese cockfighting culture, and the modes of ritualized interaction between the Balinese cockfight culture and the rest of society, which participates at the periphery of the cockfights. It is the latter that draws out the theme of defiance of social norms. Geertz describes how a significant portion of the betting that surrounds a cockfight involves “deep play”, or taking on stakes that are so high that they are no longer rational (71). In these instances, Geertz claims that “much more is at stake than material gain: namely, esteem, honor, dignity, respect…status” is what is truly being gambled with (71). Hence, the cockfighting arena becomes a microcosm of Balinese society. Geertz provides an exhaustive list of behaviors that surround cockfighting, all of which appear to point to the conclusion that each cockfight is in fact a “dramatization of status concerns” that are present within the Balinese culture at large (74). Every cockfight is an opportunity to display solidarity with kin and neighbors, to publicize pride in one’s village, and to settle rivalries.
Awareness and social change
Yet all of these interactions that occur during cockfights are solely symbolic. As Geertz notes, “The cockfight is ‘really real’ only to the cocks”, as it does not “alter the hierarchical relations among people, nor refashion[s] the hierarchy” (79). This is because of the “radically atomistic” nature of cockfighting, where the end of each match proceeds immediately to the next, as if the former had never happened at all (Geertz 80). Because each cockfight occurs within a vacuum, the cockfight does not foment real change. However, Geertz claims, the “flat-out, head-to-head (or spur-to-spur) aggressiveness” of each cockfight “makes it seem a contradiction, a reversal, even a subversion” of general social life in Bali (81). Therefore, the cockfight subculture is a mechanism for Balinese to signal their opposition to the prevailing social order (if only temporarily and symbolically).
The most significant contribution that each text makes in terms of defiance is that each text exposes subtle and nonobvious forms of ritualized rebelliousness, which if reflected upon may foment social change. Lai identifies the activities associated with Asian cute culture as a potential avenue for resisting patriarchy, while Geertz highlights how cockfighting exposes Balinese social structures and norms to its participants. By reading Geertz in light of Lai’s arguments about everyday resistance, we can develop an appreciation for how everyday rituals like consuming or gaming provide a groundwork for social change by increasing awareness.
At the beginning of Lai’s essay, the conspicuous consumption of cute cartoon characters and associated products appears to be nothing more than an empty expression of consumerism, and a restatement of patriarchal norms. Yet by the end of the essay, Lai has made a convincing case for the recognition of Asian cute culture as a sort of ritualized deviance, whereby the emblazoning of cute images on the self entails an ironic denouncement of traditional gender norms. Though Lai does not believe that the most effective and radical changes to social structure will occur because of Asian cute culture, she lauds it as a mechanism of “everyday resistance” (158). In spite of the fact that consuming Sanrio kitsch fails to be revolutionary, it can be an easily accessible means to expose, and therefore resist bankrupt patriarchal norms by creating new meaning. At the point where participants in Asian cute culture can recognize the irony of their obsession, the potential for positive social change persists.
We see a similar pattern in Geertz’s essay. Although Geertz stops short of commenting on the manners in which cockfighting (and the associated gambling) might be used to actually produce change, he presents an extensive account of how the cockfight confronts the Balienese with a representation of their own social structure. The Balinese people are intensely shy towards open conflict, and attempt to avoid it at all costs (Geertz 81). Hence the “natural colors” of the Balinese hierarchy’s fusion of Polynesian and Hindu norms are revealed “only in the cockfight”, which “provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks” (Geertz 82). Therefore, if the Balinese pay attention to the interactions that go hand in hand with the cockfight, they will see an image of their own society.
We should remain keenly aware that Geertz has a no particular social agenda in mind when providing a deep description of Balinese cockfighting. His project is one of description (which happens to address a subtle ritual of resistance), whereas Lai’s essay both describes a cultural phenomenon, and assess the way in which it can be actively used as a form of resistance. Thus it seems plausible that by reading these two texts together, we can use Lai’s arguments to inspire manners in which the Balinese could cultivate a conscious awareness of what the cockfight ritual represents, and then deploy that awareness in order to cause social change. Admittedly, Geertz’s essay is now quite dated, and it seems likely that other forces such as globalization and modernization may have already significantly changed Balinese society. However, the general concept of this argument still holds: when rituals associated with certain subcultures are carefully deconstructed, they may reveal facts about social order that can then be used to enact social change.
In spite of the wide gap between the topics that Lai and Geertz consider, both share a common theme in that they assess a subtle form of resisting the prevailing social order. By reading Lai’s essay beside Geertz’s, we can begin to realize a possibility that Geertz fails to address: the use cockfighting culture as a stepping-stone towards social change.
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Daedalus 134.4 (2005): 56-86. Print.
Lai, Adrienne. “Towards a Critical Understanding of Asian Cute Culture.” Youth Subcultures: Exploring Underground America. By Arielle Greenberg. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.