Sixteen-year-old Sonya Feinn usually wears black clothes, thick eyeliner and dark lipstick. She listens to Sisters of Mercy and Nine Inch Nails. She is accustomed to people glaring at her Gothic-inspired outfits, so she wasn’t surprised when journalists described a Marshfield, Mass., teen accused of plotting a school shooting as a Goth.
“I’ve rarely seen Gothic figures portrayed in a good light in the news, the media and the movies,” Feinn said. “We get such a bad rap.”
In middle school, Feinn’s classmates called her a “Satan worshiper” because she wore dark clothes. Ironically, Feinn left that public school to attend an all-girls Catholic high school that requires school uniforms.
More recently, Feinn’s high school classmates gave her friend Mike the nickname “Columbine” because he wears long trenchcoats, an innocuous article of clothing that became synonymous with school shootings five years ago.
Those notorious long coats and the term “Goth” made headlines in 1999 when two Colorado teens attacked their high school, shooting to death students and teachers. Authorities initially described the gunmen as Goths, because they often wore black clothes to school and dubbed themselves “The Trenchcoat Mafia.”
Media coverage of the Columbine High School massacre thrust Gothic subculture into the national spotlight, and almost overnight the G-word became inextricably linked to school violence, even though the Columbine killers shared no attributes found in the Goth subculture, with the exception of dark clothing.
Fast-forward to last month, when once again the media quickly classified a troubled teen as a Goth. When police in Marshfield announced that they had arrested a 16-year-old for allegedly plotting a school shooting, TV broadcasts and newspaper articles called the suspect a “Goth” and referred to another student there as a “skinhead.” Friends of the Marshfield High suspect say he doesn’t consider himself to be Goth.
These recent news reports bothered Goths such as Basim Usmani, a 21-year-old college student from Lexington, Mass. Usmani read with concern about the hit list and homemade bomb allegedly built in Marshfield, but wondered why the style of the suspect’s clothes was reported as a significant fact in the story.
“There’s no relevance at all. Music and fashion have little to do in violence in school,” Usmani said. “There’s no violence in [the Goth] subculture.”
The Goth subculture is not the first youth movement to be misunderstood by the public. Skinheads have been stereotyped for decades. Because news reports and TV shows typically portray skinheads as racists or neo-Nazis, many people are unaware that the traditional skinhead culture that began in the late 1960s had nothing to do with race and everything to do with working-class pride. This holds true today.
There are skinheads of all ethnicities, gay and straight, and organized groups of SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) that span the globe.
“Just because you have a shaved head and listen to Oi [a form of punk music popular with skinheads], does that mean you’re a neo-Nazi?” Usmani asked rhetorically. “Shaving your head and dressing in black is not evidence of racism or violent action. The public looks for easy answers.”
Gothic subculture surfaced in Britain during the 1970s as an offshoot of punk. Fans drawn to the haunting music of bands such as the Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie & the Banshees dressed in black clothes and wore dramatic makeup like the musicians. Cemeteries, gargoyles, vampires and castles–all of those stereotypical Goth elements from Gothic literature of the 19th Century and old horror films–influenced the sounds and fashion of the early Goth scene, such as the 1979 Bauhas song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
With time, the Goth movement has evolved into different styles. Some Goths emulate fashion from Victorian and Edwardian eras, while “cybergoths” get decked out in bright makeup and neon outfits, swinging glowsticks to the faster beats of industrial music.
The darker elements of the Goth scene usually are used in a tongue-in-cheek way. At ManRay nightclub in Cambridge, Goth nights have included comedy skits onstage and quirky events such as the Miss Gothic Massachusetts pageant.
“Subcultures like Goth are easy targets, instead of addressing the real reasons, like overworked teachers and lack of guidance and good parenting as the root cause of violence in school among adolescents,” Usmani said. “That’s what we need to look at, the more serious root causes [of school violence].”
Experts tend to agree. Goths are no more likely to lash out than any other group, according to Daniel J. Monti, a sociology professor at Boston University. “I think it’s simple-minded on the part of people to pay so much attention to one particular set of students because of the way they look and the way they dress,” Monti said.
Though many Goths are perceived as outcasts and loners, the Goth scene is actually a thriving community of friends, according to Eloni Feliciano, founder of the Miss Gothic Massachusetts pageant, an annual event that celebrates the lighter side of Boston’s Goth scene.
“I have never considered the scene to be a gateway to violence against my peers. In fact, quite the opposite; I always felt that the scene was a cohesive community that gave me support during tough times,” said Feliciano. “The Goth community itself is more like Jack Skellington from `A Nightmare Before Christmas’–gentle, inquisitive and a little odd.”