For Fear of Emo

It finally happened: I was truly offended by South Park. I must be getting old or something. This week’s episode about Goth and Emo kids hit me a bit hard because it reminded me of high school, and not in a good way. I guess the basic concepts are still prevalent today, but I’ll explain them for the uninitiated.

Goth subculture has been popular with teenagers since the 80s. It’s all about black and white, particularly when it comes to clothing, make-up, and attitudes. The culture is about despair and futility, coupled with a little bit of resentment for the system. Cynicism abounds. The whole movement is often associated with punk rock, but that part’s kind of optional at this point.

Emo subculture is a little more recent. It has been around for almost as long, but it never gained ground until the late 90s. The name is appropriate, because it’s all about embracing negative emotions, including depression and self-loathing. Much like Goth culture, it started with Emo music, another form of punk rock.

There’s a ton of subjectivity in the definitions, of course, and there isn’t much difference between the two groups. The fashion and attitudes are both quite similar. Of course, black has always been cool (and slimming!), so that explains part of it. Both groups greatly appeal to teenagers. The concept of teenage angst isn’t new, after all. It’s all a reaction to the establishment, which always includes adults. Whether you’re disillusioned with the world or yourself, it doesn’t matter. You wear the clothes and listen to the music and maybe even fit in a little bit.

I was a half-assed Goth/Punk kid in high school. Amongst the Goths, there were two insults: Poseur and Emo. Poseurs just pretended to be Goth but were really just trying to fit in. Emos were pathetic, weepy, and lame. Goths were supposed to stand tall in a shitty world without getting the least bit affected, so being called Emo was a horrible insult. It also meant that discussing negative emotions could get you labeled Emo. There was a fine line between contemplating futility and succumbing to it.

I remember when Good Charlotte’s song “Hold On” came out. It was an Emo (technically, Screamo) song about teenagers who committed suicide. I remember thinking that it was over the top and only appealed to Emos. I also remember thinking about how I had already attempted suicide at age 13. It struck a weird discord in my brain. The fear of being Emo got mixed in with the many misconceptions I had about depression, and I never talked about it once. Six years later, I attempted suicide in earnest, and the rest is history.

So where does South Park fit into all this? This week’s episode was supposed to show that Goths and Emos are the same: kids affecting sadness to fit in. In the end, it’s all just teenage angst. (Actually, the Goth kids in the show are supposed to be preteens.) Anyway, these Goth kids start becoming Emo for some reason, and their anger at the world turns inward. Now they engage in suicidal thinking and self-harm instead of lashing out at their parents.

I’m a huge fan of South Park. None of the previous 240 episodes have offended me. This one did.

First of all, it wasn’t funny. Where’s the humor in a room full of preteens cutting themselves? When did that become okay? Well, the show is satirical, after all. This is an exaggerated depiction of a subculture for humorous effect. But Molly Ivins said it best: “When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” Second, there was just no reason for it. What is the social ill being skewered here? What are Matt and Trey trying to tell the world? And who gives a fuck if Goth kids and Emo kids really are the same?

On the other hand, I do have a reason for being offended. This might seem hard to believe, but suicidal teenagers are still suicidal. They really do kill themselves. Furthermore, kids never cut themselves to fit in. They do it alone. In fact, all the cutters I knew kept it completely secret, because if other people found out, they’d have to stop. Those teenagers had so much trouble confronting their depression that they literally tore themselves open.

As for me, I remember one of the phrases that stung the worst at that age: “they only do it to get attention.” Whether it was repeated self-harm, a suicide attempt, or even just a suicidal threat, it was always “just for attention.” As for me, I never wanted the slightest bit of attention for my depression, and that’s exactly what I got. Here’s the reality: People who are contemplating suicide or committing acts of self-harm always need attention, but that’s never the real reason.

In short, teenage angst can kill. This is the very first time I’ve watched an episode of South Park and felt worse afterward. Forgive me if that sounds a little Emo.

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