Like all good satire, the television show South Park is often thought provoking. The recent episode The Ungroundable hit me’ where I work. In it, the school’s popular students embrace the current vampire craze (Twilight is directly referenced) to the point of wearing black clothes, plastic fangs and drinking Clamato juice as a blood substitute. No one is more horrified and disgusted by this than show’s well established clique of goths. They feel this is an appropriation and debasement of their style. For me, the show raised an immediate question with larger implications; how as a youth librarian, do you cater to both the vampire kids and the goths?
In a previous post I talked about subcultures, distinguished them from more nebulous youth trends, and discussed why it’s important to take subculture participants seriously. If anything I have become more steadfast in this belief since I became aware of the’ murder of Sophia Lancaster and other recent acts of violence against alternative youths. In many ways we have the same obligations to alternative youths as to other minority groups. We must serve them and make them welcome. If they become frequent users we cater to them more, and always we need to protect them from harassment. On the other hand minorities are, by definition, small groups, and we want to serve as many people as possible. Often that means we have to be populists. These two goals can sometimes be at cross purposes.
I haven’t had to deal with this problem in a teen services context until recently. At a previous, more urban branch assignment I had several young goths as branch regulars. At my current suburban branch I’ve barely seen goths until recently. What I’ve had instead are scores of Twilight fans. My Twilighters have been a clean cut lot, seldom even wearing the Hot Topic level of spooky clothing. Two weeks ago, I was shifting books to make room for my ever expanding graphic novel and manga section, when I spied a new face, one studded with pierced jewelry and framed with dyed black hair. We hit off immediately. My steampunk attire let her know that I was also an alterna-kid, albeit one with graying hair. She had never been in the branch before and was quite enthusiastic about the teen collection and the fact that someone with some â€œindividualityâ€ was in charge of it.
While we were talking one of my regular patrons, who is a very hardcore Twilight fan came into the teen section and wanted to say hi. I thought two teenage girls who’s tastes ran to things dark might hit it off, so I introduced them. The goth girl was pleasant but pretty dismissive to the Twilighter. The Twilighter and I tried to sell the goth girl on our Book Club. We had just finished the Twilight series and had moved onto Anne Rice’s first three books vampire books, again the goth was dismissive. I kind of already knew that a lot of goths don’t like Twilight (too mainstream, anti-feminist etc), but I figured now that we’ve moved on to Anne Rice maybe the Twilighter and the goth could meet in the middle and my dwindling book club could grow a bit. It didn’t happen. The two of them were like darkly tinted oil and water. Their superficial similarities just seemed to highlight the extent to which they were incapable of mixing. South Park had it spot on. For all my talk of serving youth in subcultures, I find myself stymied by this basic problem. Both the Twilighter and the goth felt comfortable with me, but how can I ever make them comfortable with each other? If I can’t, how can I find ways to cater to them separately when I already feel overwhelmed by programing responsibilities?
The need to simultaneously cater to both the mainstream and minorities is common to all public librarians, but I think teen specialists are put in the most difficult position by it. Forming an identity is one of the most crucial tasks of adolescence, so difference often out weighs similarity in teenage eyes. Yet we somehow must try to cater to all these differences.