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Goths just wanna have fun – why there’s a problem with the depressed stereotype

Laugh, it’s Tim Minchin. Katy Walsh, CC BY

Goths just wanna have fun – why there’s a problem with the depressed stereotype

Goths are more likely to be depressed, we’re told in a recent study that was published in The Lancet Psychiatry. You’d be forgiven for a lack of surprise – the report seems to confirm a self-evident truth that popular culture has taken for granted.

The image of the Goth teenager as a depressed loner is a pervasive one. But it is not one that Goths tend to choose for themselves. Goth subculture produces images of itself that are variously glamorous, romantic, whimsical, melodramatic, erotic, mundane – and above all humorous.

Why ‘Goths’?

Lucy Bowes and fellow authors suggest in the study that those subjects who self-identified as Goths at age 15 were, at age 18, three times more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression and five times more likely to report self-harm in comparison with other teenagers. The authors are careful to state that their research cannot be used to identify a causal relationship between self-identifying as a Goth and becoming depressed or self-harming – rather they detect a correlation.

While they consider that “peer contagion” cannot be ruled out, they also point out that the Goth community, renowned for its tolerance of difference, may provide a protective function for individuals already predisposed to mental illness.

The report defines Goth as “rebelling against the norm (in clothing or ideas, for example), or in attempting not to conform to social ideals”. Bowes qualifies this in a podcast by explaining that Goth is a fluid term that changes over time, and given that the study took place over several years, her team did not wish to pin it to a particular music or clothing style. For the purposes of the study, Goth was primarily constructed as being “on the periphery”.

While Bowes’s team’s understanding of the fluidity and flexibility of sub-cultural identification is exemplary, it does raise a question about whether “Goth” is an appropriate term at all. Rebelling against the norm in clothing or ideas is a feature of any number of youth sub-cultures, as is thinking of oneself as an outsider. “Goth” in Bowes’s study is being used as a generalised marker of difference, and its specificity is diminished.

Goth stereotypes

Despite its nuance, the report confirms a stereotype of Goths as depressed loners that, when taken out of context, can become pernicious or harmful. While the authors encourage care for young people’s mental health, media presentations of this stereotype often encourage prejudice that may result in bullying or violence. In an extreme case, it even caused the erroneous identification of the Columbine school shooters as Goths in 1999.

Although there was scant evidence linking the killers with the Goth scene, an off-the-cuff comment reported on ABC News’s 20/20 show was seized on by the global media and spiralled into a world-wide moral panic about Goth’s dangerous influence on ordinary teenagers. While Goths were cast as the villains in the high school bullying narrative, they are more typically the victims.

Sophie Lancaster died after being attacked for dressing as a Goth. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

As a result, many Goths post-Columbine took definition of their sub-culture into their hands, writing accounts of being a Goth that emphasised its positive qualities, such as creativity, self-expression, tolerance and community. This process of answering back to the mainstream media found fresh impetus following the murder of self-identified Goth Sophie Lancaster in 2007. In the wake of persecution, Goths sought to defend their lifestyle choices and to explain themselves to a mainstream media that they had previously shunned.

Goth humour

In particular, accounts of Goths by Goths themselves often stress how much fun it is to be one. Dressing up, dancing, hanging out with like-minded friends – Goths enjoy similar leisure activities to young (and not-so-young) people the world over. As Liisa Ladouceur, author of Encyclopaedia Gothica, suggests: “If you’ve ever thought Goths take themselves too seriously, you’ve never watched them make up names for their silly dance moves or craft Goth-specific chat-up lines”.

Whitby Goth weekenders take it to the streets. Bryan Ledgard, CC BY

Similarly, self-appointed Goth agony aunt Jillian Venters states in her popular blog, Gothic Charm School: “Witty, sarcastic, and possibly a touch cynical, yes. Mean-spirited, sullen, and rude, no.”

Recent cultural representations of Goth embrace comedy and laughter. The “perky Goth” has become a recognisable archetype, most famously embodied in the character of Death, a cheerful Goth girl, in Neil Gaiman’s renowned comic The Sandman. Film director Tim Burton’s brand of Gothic whimsy has become synonymous with the sub-culture. Goth shapes the material and personae of stand-up comedians such as Bethany Black, Tim Minchin and Andrew O’Neill (O’Neill finding endless comedy in the fine distinction between Goth and his self-identification as metalhead) and is burlesqued by comic musician Voltaire.

Noel Fielding collaborates with Russell Brand as the “Goth Detectives” and in a memorable episode of Fielding’s TV comedy The Mighty Boosh, its heroes are saved by Goth Juice: “The most powerful hairspray known to man. Made from the tears of Robert Smith”.

These cultural representations, which deliberately and sympathetically engage with a Goth audience, are important, as they show the kind of stories Goths like to tell, or hear, about themselves. The laughter that they provoke is also dependent on community – on a shared knowledge that can be recognised and parodied. As such they offer an alternative viewpoint on being a Goth, one that echoes the celebratory and inclusive qualities of the sub-culture itself.