Bourgeois Bohemians, Hipsters, and Social Order



by Travis Cooper

Not too long ago a friend jokingly suggested via a comment on an Instagram post that my endorsement of a particular quarterly magazine had “crossed the threshold into full on BoBo.” I immediately did two things. First, and if only to confirm my initial speculations, I looked this “BoBo” term up in the linguistic authority of quotidian jargon: The Urban Dictionary. Definition number eleven (ignore the largely unhelpful but laughter-inducing definitions one through ten) for Bobo follows:

French: Short for bourgeois bohème. Describes Parisians who are both upscale and artistic. Similar to the original meaning of the American “hipster,” but generally laced with a uniquely French “Je ne sais quois”.

Il s’agit d’un magasin de bobo (This is a bobo shop).

Second, my friend’s classification of me as a bourgeois bohemian led me to recall one of my favorite contemporary director’s films and the ways in which the filmmaker often plays with such descriptive, socially, and culturally loaded taxons.

Harvard educated screenwriter and director Whit Stillman’s movies are brilliant little social commentaries. Metropolitan (1990) follows a community of young “preppies” in Upper East Side Manhattan as they attend debutante balls and social gatherings. Barcelona (1994) tells the story of two disenchanted American expatriates living abroad in Spain. The Last Days of Disco (1998) returns to Manhattan in its depiction a group of fresh graduates from elite American institutions who frequent popular venues of a rapidly shifting 1980s dance club scene. Damsels in Distress (2011) depicts the educational, extracurricular, and romantic exploits of a collective of college girls attending an East Coast American university. Damsels, by the way, stars Greta Gerwig, filmic “hipster” par excellence, second only to Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls fame. Stillman’s films cater easily to intellectual audiences with frequent nods to philosophical and literary works, self-referencing, intertextually-linked scenes, and segments replete with witty dialogue and dry humor. Many of the movies also include extended conversational scenes on topics of class theory and social and cultural stratification.

Below are short dialogues from two of my favorite films. Note the characters’ deliberative uses of specific terms of social register and classification.

The Urban Haute Bourgeoisie Scene, from Metropolitan:

Charley: “Well, I don’t think ‘preppy’ is a very useful term. I mean, it might be descriptive for someone who is still in school or college, but it’s ridiculous to refer to a man in his 70s like Averell Harriman, as preppy. And none of the other terms people use—WASP, P.L.U., et cetera—are of much use either. And that’s why I prefer the term ‘U.H.B.’”

Nick: “What?”

Charley: “U.H.B. It’s an acronym for urban haute bourgeoisie.”

Cynthia: “Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms or French phrases to make ourselves understood?”

Charley: “Yes.”

Nick: “U.H.B. The term is brilliant and long overdue. But it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it—U.H.B.? Wouldn’t it be better just to pronounce it simply uhb?

Charley: “Well, I didn’t expect it to gain immediate acceptance.”

Nick: “No, no, I think it’s a useful term. The fact that it sounds ridiculous could be part of its appeal.”

Cynthia: “You see the world from such lofty heights that everything below is a bit comical to you, isn’t it?”

Nick, standing up and adjusting his tuxedo lapels: “Yes.”


And here’s the Yuppy scene, From The Last Days of Disco:

Berrie, a disco club owner, to Des, his (now) ex-manager: “You’re fired. And take this yuppie scum with you.”

Des, exiting the club with his cohort: “Yuppie scum? In college, before dropping out, I took a course in the propaganda uses of language. One objective is to deny other peoples’ humanity—or even right to exist.”

Jimmy, Des’s best friend: “In the men’s lounge, someone scrawled ‘Kill Yuppie Scum.’”

Des: “Do yuppies even exist? No one says, ‘I am a yuppie.’ It’s always the other guy who’s a yuppie. I think for a group to exist, somebody has to admit to be part of it.”

Jimmy: “Of course yuppies exist. Most people would say that you two are prime specimens.”

Des: “We’re not yuppies! You think we’re yuppies?”

Jimmy: “You’re seriously saying you’re not yuppies?”

Des: “No. Yuppie stands for ‘young upwardly mobile professional.’ ‘Nightclub Flunky’ is not a professional category.”

Jimmy: “Contrary to popular belief, junior level ad jobs don’t pay well at all.”

Des: “I wish we were yuppies. Young. Upwardly mobile. Professional. Those are good things, not bad things.”

Charlotte: “Where are we going?”

Des: “Rex’s” [a nightclub just down the street in NYC].

Charlotte: “Oh, no.”

Des: “What’s wrong with Rex’s?”

Charlotte: “You can’t dance there. And it’s full of boring preppies.”

U.H.B., WASP, P.L.U., Yuppie, Preppy, and even BoBo or Hipster: The terms proliferate. But do they mean anything? And as Des worries, why, if the descriptions hold some semblance of meaningfulness or function, are they nearly always etic or outsider terms employed in description of some group to which the person does not belong? What do such socio-cultural categories signify and what social purposes do they serve?

These labels do something; they serve indexical and classificatory purposes. The taxons delineate social order and distance some segments or collectives from others. The labels often carry with them negative valences (c.f. the more rural hillbilly, backwoods, or redneck terms). But the terms are also highly polysemous. Even though the terminological components of the yuppie taxon are not inherently negative—and may even be desirable, as in Des’s example above—taken together the acronym carries undesirable significance in terms of self-identification.

The popular site is not, after all, intended to compliment hipster styles and commend the sartorial and sumptuary practices of the (in this context, derided) sub-cultural group. No hipster, it appears, self-identifies as one. “I am not a hipster,” one anthropologist reflects, “at least, I do not think I am. This is not entirely helpful as most hipsters I have met don’t think of themselves as hipsters either.” Another commentator goes even further by denying that the hipster category actually exists in some statistically identifiable or objective sense: “‘Hipsters,’ really, are just boogeymen; they’re a catch-all that contain the cultural anxieties of the moment: about homosexuality (‘they’re all wussy!’), about class (‘they’re all rich and they don’t even work!’).”

“What actually do exist in Brooklyn,” he elaborates, “are young people who make art, who go to see art, who hang out together, work day jobs and night jobs, and/or try to live lives they want to lead as best they can. I know this because I meet these people and talk to them and socialize with them, professionally and personally. Some of them are from other places in America and the world, others from New York City itself.”

This writer, who lives and writes among those classified under the problematic taxon, not only resists self-identification; he wants to jettison the category altogether. The commentator both understands yet doesn’t quite seem to fully grasp that the hipster term exists because society exists and a prerequisite for society is taxonomic, systematic order. “Where there is dirt there is system,” an influential social-anthropologist noted some time ago. To engage in a bit of theoretical conjecture, one might posit that at an earlier time some sort of unnamed, proto-hipster existed as a nebulous and eclectic anomaly in the social system, impervious to taxonomy and pigeon-holing. The present irony is that for all of hipsters’ adamant categorical resistance, they appear to have been reduced to a semi-derogative social category. Hipsters don’t actually exist; hipsters are everywhere.

Such terms are not exclusively derogative, however. An elite group of well-educated urbanites, to return to Stillman’s fictional account, propose the U.H.B. term as a category of self-identification. The hillbilly taxon, a further example, has historically carried offensive meaning. In some instances Ozarks-area or Appalachian people have reappropriated or reclaimed the term in culturally celebratory fashions. In other words, the terms that we’re discussing are highly complex and multifaceted, retaining multiple and sometimes conflicting usages.

All of these dynamics, though, appear to reinforce an axiom of social theory that persons in positions of power (be it educational attainment, political status, socio-economic standing, etc.) maintain societal order through strategic ideological methods of persuasion. Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society (1989) argues helpfully along these lines. Discourse legitimates social and cultural authorities as it simultaneously classifies, defines, and delineates subordinate groups. Classifications—even the most seemingly lighthearted or satirical—play important social roles. Religious studies scholars have an especially important role to play in the study of discourse, myth, and taxonomy, and social rhetoric. Potentially condescending taxons such as fundamentalist or the less subtle but dated Holy Roller come to mind.

The role of the scholar in light of these social categories, however, is less clear. If as academics we study the mechanisms of social order and the processes by which social actors position themselves in their constructed orders, then terms such as yuppie and U.H.B. are tantamount to first-hand or folk (i.e., quotidian) linguistic strategies. We must examine the locations from which the taxonomies are deployed; who, for instance, is doing the labeling? And why? What is most interesting to me, in the end, is that as scholars we are also, not unlike Stillman’s elitists, embedded in complex relationships of power and privilege. Maybe, then, the distance between folk and scholarly categories is not as simple as we might envision it to be; perhaps BoBo and hipster are partly catalogues of our own creation.

Travis Cooper is a PhD student and associate instructor at Indiana University (Bloomington), in the departments of religious studies and anthropologyHis research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, embodiment, materiality, gender, media, critical ethnography, visual culture, and religious experience. Travis blogs informally about his academic work here. Find out more about his research and publications here.

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