The commodification of queer culture: identities through aesthetics and materialities
A tale as old as time: rainbow capitalism and the manufacturing of subcultures
To some extent, building a sense of identity around an aesthetic you create from what you consume (culture, products) is not new, but textbook consumerism. For queer individuals, it has always been an important aspect but also a pitfall, as it is easily manufactured. Indeed, marginalized groups’ cultures have regularly been stripped of their characteristics to be turned into something marketable, a simple consuming style. Those subcultures are simplified, homogenized, turned into aesthetics, and nothing more than that. The commodification turns the subcultures into a product, an image, a stereotype.
Queer subcultures have been a regular target of this process due to an old stereotype, the one of the “gay market” or “pink consumer”. It’s the idea that gays and lesbians in particular have higher incomes and a strong desire for consumption. It is then logical to try to appeal to queer customers, even if it means selling their cultures and aesthetics, watered down, back to them. It’s important to note that the idea those brands and corporations make of queer people is limited, limited to cis, white, and gay individuals, and this has a considerable impact on cultural dynamics and erasure of queer subcultures. It’s the stereotype of a white, college-educated gay man with a high sense of aesthetics and a taste for shopping, embodied perfectly by the TV show “Queer Eye” or Tiktok’s favorite nepo couple, Josh and Matt.
The commodification process reduces queer identities to marketing strategies: it’s quite simply rainbow capitalism. But if rainbow capitalism has been regularly bashed and now seems easier to spot, a rainbow painted over any big brand name, an object directly and overtly targeted to the queer consumer, a token queer character to open an otherwise very straight TV show to the queer audience, is it really? Is Gen Z really disillusioned by rainbow capitalism, or has capitalism managed to be more insidious?
From a queer aesthetic to queer aesthetics
From the singular voice of TV to the billion voices of the internet, communication has changed, and so did marketing strategies. The internet offers more targeted advertisement through the online presence of consumers, creating demographics inside demographics. The internet changes the ways subcultures emerge, and are thus commodified.
In 2007, Tumblr was born. The first image-oriented social media platform to go mainstream, Tumblr’s cultural impact cannot be denied, as it still influences newer social networks. Tumblr’s focus on expression through curation was unique and a fertile ground for the rise of aesthetic personalities. It was all about expressing your identity through a curated list of things you consume or want to consume, let it be cultural or material objects. This was a perfect opportunity for brands to insert themselves in those niche aesthetics, riding the vague to address younger consumers. Tumblr and later Instagram then Tiktok saw the rise of a multitude of aesthetics, with the emergence of lifestyle aesthetics, not simply reduced to fashion, thus opening the door to the commodification of identity on an even bigger scale.
This transposition widens the idea of what queer is and what queers want in the eyes of corporations. There is no longer one queer aesthetic, but a multitude of queer aesthetics. Not one queer consumer, but many sub-groups of queer consumers. Rainbow capitalism has become a shapeshifter.
Aesthetics, cores, lifestyles: I consume therefore I am
This is where we go back to cottagecore and dark academia. Aesthetics personalities took over social media and consumption practices. There isn’t a week where a new “-core”, a new lifestyle, a new aesthetic doesn’t emerge. Tiktok has even amplified its consumerist aspect, making it more about stuff to buy than pretty pictures to repost. The pandemic exacerbated all of it, as aesthetics' first use is often for escapism.
Cottagecore is a case study, a farm aesthetic combined with a desire for tight-knitted communities and a will for simple living. Lesbians have reclaimed what the trad-wife movements have been trying to exploit. On top of being an anti-capitalist criticism, it constructs lesbian realities far from its fetishized depictions. Yet this aesthetic, if anti-capitalist at its core, has been commodified through embossed rolling pins, floral dresses, and everything frog shaped. Its lack of diversity should also be mentioned: all those aesthetic personalities are not exempted from racism and classicism.
There is a lot more to say on how those aesthetics are created and popularized and how they are linked to intra and extra queer communities dynamics, but this may be for another article. The bottom line is, we have to be critical of these representations and the constant risk of caricature they present. For a queer aesthetic to be queer, each article of clothing worn or piece of culture consumed has a history, an intention. The commodification of queer identities removes all of that. Aesthetic personalities are a form of resistance against the dominant notions of identity that are yet incorporated into a capitalistic agenda.
- Yaksich, M. J. “Consuming Queer: The Commodification of Culture and Its Effects on Social Acceptance”. Elements, Vol. 1, no. 1, Apr. 2005, doi:10.6017/eurj.v1i1.8856.
- Lacy, Anne, "The Queer Blogger: Interrogating the Commodification of Identities" (2014). Cultural Studies Capstone Papers. 7. https://digitalcommons.colum.edu/cultural_studies/7
- Hennessy, Rosemary. “Queer Visibility in Commodity Culture.” Cultural Critique (1994): 125-156.
- Wooley, Sarah. “Cottagecore is the pastoral fantasy aesthetic taking over TikTok”. i-D, 2 décembre 2020.
- Sung, Morgan. “The 'queer aesthetic' is deeper than rainbow merch”. Mashable, 13 juin 2021.
- Fisher-Quann, Rayne. “standing on the shoulders of complex female characters”. Internet Princess, 6 février 2022.