Dissecting a Media Scare

Shortly before I went on break, someone e-mailed me a segment from WDAZ News (Grand Forks, North Dakota) focused on the “newest youth trend” — “Emo” (or as the reporter helpfully explains, “emotional people.”) It struck me as a textbook example of the ways that youth subcultures get misrepresented on television news and the ways that adult anxieties about kids who don’t look, dress, and act “normal” get turned into hysteria by misreporting.

I have long argued that we need media literacy for adults far more urgently than we need it for kids, so I figured we might use this space to collectively dissect this video and the various ways that it constructs Emos* as a threat to public safety. So, dear viewers, let me invite you to join me in a game of what’s wrong with this picture?

1. Look closely — there were no actual Emos consulted in the production of this segment. The reporter spoke with a local police officer who emerges here as the expert on this youth trend (despite the fact that he knew nothing of the subculture before his daughter told him about Emos) and then went to the local high school, talked to a few “average” students about what they think about those “other” kids who are all “emotional” and stuff. This means one of several possibilities: the reporter couldn’t find any actual Emo in Grand Fork; the reporter has no idea what an Emo looks like; and the reporter couldn’t care less if there are any actual Emos who might have a point of view in this story. (Of course, given how subculture members most often get treated on news segments like this one, this may be a blessing in disguise!)

2. Literal mindedness is the hallmark of most coverage of youth subcultures. Subcultures adopt often hyperbolic style to express their resistance to dominant culture but it is not a simple matter to understand what that style means and one should be highly reluctant to ascribe any single meaning to the style. In this case, though, the reporter isn’t even responding to any actual subcultural practices: they are responding — let’s assume unknowingly– to parodies of the subculture created by outsiders who themselves know little about what’s going on. I took a look at some of the sites which flash quickly across the screen during the segment — Insta Emo Kit — for example and it is clear that they are as close to a checklist of what you have to do to become a good little Emo as George W. and his classmates red the Preppy Handbook to figure out how to get through Yale. We fill out check lists for a great many reasons. As a native Southerner, I am sucker for checklists that start with “15 reasons you may be a redneck” for example. But most of them are not exactly a guiding set of principles by which we organize our existence or rank ourselves. Subcultures don’t typically come with membership cards and instructional manuals and if you think you found one, I’d be looking for the little emoticons that demonstrate that more than likely the author is smiling at you.

Consider, for example, this passage from the site:

The height of achievement for an emo boy is to live to forty while mooching off his parents and clutching their inheritance. This will allow the emo boy to go to emo concerts in the future and listen to the same old derivative music that got its start in the punk movement back in the 70’s. Ah, we mean the 90’s. If any emo music you listen to has its roots in anything before 1998, then you’re old school and therefore not emo.

Does this sound like something that was written by a leader of the Emo movement? Or for that matter, by anyone even remotely sympathetic to the Emo subculture? Is it possible that the reporter didn’t bother to read the website that the story suggests is the key to understanding Emos?

3. The next step is to remove the subculture from any larger historical or cultural context. Maybe there were no Emos in North Dakota until a few months ago. Maybe the reporter is looking for that extra-timely factor that gives a story like this one a sense of urgency and might even push us towards a crisis mentality. Nothing like this has ever happened in North Dakota before and by jiminy, we’ve got to put a stop to it right away.

4. The next step is to link the subculture to some risky behavior — in this case, the reporter makes literal the old journalist story, “If it bleeds, it leads” by equating being an Emo with cutting. There is no actual evidence beyond a few sketchy websites to demonstrate any direct links between the two. There’s no attempt to figure out how common such practices might be within this community. There’s no recognition that cutting is a symptom of clinical depression which occurs across many different segments of the population. It is simply taken as given that if your son or daughter goes all Emo on you, there’s a high likelihood they are going to be looking for a way to cut themselves up.

5. Recanting is always helpful. Pay attention to the rather gothy girl in this segment who starts out trying to offer some sympathetic account of why these kids act the way they do and then uses every trick in the book to disassociate herself from being seen as an emo. If even your friends won’t stand by you, then there has to be something seriously wrong with you, or at least that’s the logic the newscasters are using. Note also the opportunistic use of quotations: does this girl really think that cutting yourself is just another form of creative expression or was that a slip of the tongue that the journalists are using here to create a through-line for their piece?

*I should warn you that I have had very little exposure to Emo culture myself but you don’t have to know much to see how badly they are being misrepresented here. A reader notes that they are usually called Emo or Emo Kids, not Emos. I have left the text as is so it doesn’t render the comment senseless but know that you probably shouldn’t trust me on the plural form. I haven’t gone back to check the video but I am pretty sure they do use Emos throughout.