Thursday, May 10, 2007

Fairie Reflections

We took the kids last weekend to the May Day Fairie Festival at Spoutwood Farms in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania last weekend. It an annual event for them...and for us. If you've never been exposed to the fairie subculture, it is really something, especially when considered from a pop culture perspective.

On the one hand, it is an autonomous, self-contained subculture unto itself. They have their own magazines, as well as fashion, behavioral, and linguistic conventions. "Kubiando" the fairie folk's version of "shalom," a word used as a greeting, a farewell, an affirmation, an exclamation, and a secret handshake all in one. Wings, decorated translucent fabric on wire frames, are in the fairie community what hats are to church-going African-American women. Some are elegant in their bright pastels, while others are flashy and ostentatious.

But while it is its own community, it is also a fascinating synthesis of a number of quite disparate subcultural and mainstream elements. The first thing it always reminds me of is the parking lot or campgrounds at a Dead show. Lots of tie-dye and it is thoroughly infused with a real hippie, back-to-the-land, peace and love ethos with vegan and organic food vendors and lots of beaded jewelry.

The music takes the short step from Deadheads to folkies with a heavy emphasis on Celtic music with guitar, fiddle, flute, and bagpipes, but many of the performances infused with the inclusive sensibility of the contemporary world music scene. Ever-present drum circles combine African djembes, Irish bodhrans, Indian tablas, and Australian didgeridoos.

While it is very hippie-ish, for every "steal your face" or dancing bear t-shirt you see, you'll come across another for Slayer or Metallica. The dark and heavy sense of the metal crowd is also very much prevalent. Of course, it is not odd that the two would intersect here as contemporary heavy metal music derives from the British hippie scene which very much embraced the pagan, druid, pre-Christian symbols and mythos. Black Sabbath's "Fairies Wear Boots," and Led Zeppelin's Lord of the Ring references are indicators of the common origins of these subcultures.

These two also combined in giving rise to the Renaissance Fair movement from which the fairie subculture, no doubt, directly derives. Many of the fairie vendors are the same folks you see at the big Ren Fests. Both share the same sort of sort of romantic reconstruction of Medieval times.

But what is the most interesting thing to me is that where all of these other subcultures tend to be male dominated (Sociologist Rebbecca Adams, for example, says that in her samples, groups of Deadheads tend to run 60/40 male to female -- it would shock me if these other groups deviated from that significantly), the fairie subculture is female-centered. While there are plenty of men and boys participating, the majority of folks and those with the greatest standing are women and girls. The central focus on magic is very much removed from the sort of aggressive dungeons and dragons picture and much more nature and cooperatively focused. While the sort of 70s gender dichotomy talk has fallen out of favor with feminist theorists who worry deeply about essentialism (branding all women with certain properties that surely all women do not share and which are understood in terms of the categories and values enforced by the dominant social power of men), the fact is that this community's focus on a mythological women's world is in deep ways very different from its male-centered brother movements.

But, of course, it is not only responding to, but is deeply influenced by the mainstream culture. Here's where it gets even more interesting. The Disney Corporation, with its traditional Mickey Mouse centered approach failing to inspire brand loyalty developed a new marketing strategy that is gender specific. To boys, they have the action adventure figures of Woody the cowboy and Buzz the astronaut. For girls, they have two levels of marketing that is age-dependent. For the 8-12 market, they have princesses, bringing together an all-star team of uber-feminine Disney firepower with the veterans like Snow White and Cinderella and the outstanding rookies from their newer animated features. (This also allows them to avoid charges of Euro-centrism featuring Asian and Middle-Eastern versions of American princesses). But for those who are not yet of the princess age, they have fairies. Usurping Tinkerbell, they created a new set of fairie friends around her opening up a whole new niche for marketed clothing, books, games, and anything else that can be sold to kids.

Because you have the edges of the fairie subculture softened by its female focus, it will be less threatening to those in the mainstream. Combine this with the hard-core marketing of The Mouse to girls, it will be interesting to see how long this refuge remains autonomous, how long it remains unexploited and funky.