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Gender, consumption, and interaction among American youth, by Mary Bucholtz


The pretty-boy style involved baggy ironed pants, oversized basketball shoes, and neatly ironed oversized shirts over a white T-shirt. Heavily influenced by the hip hop fashions popular with African American students, Brand One and Willie’s style was rare among European American teenagers. In fact, the boys claimed that they had invented the style, a claim that could be heard as credible only if the origins of the style among African American youth were discounted or ignored. At the time the study was conducted, such styles were strongly racialized as black by both black and white students, and so Brand One and Willie may also be seen as locating themselves racially as white innovators rather than as wannabe blacks. This position was reinforced by their assertions that other (white) boys tried to imitate their style.

In Example 1, Willie is describing elements of his and Brand One’s style to me; I had previously learned about their “pretty-boy” style in a separate interview with Brand One. In the example, Willie responds to my question about style by naming the brand of his athletic shoes:


1 Mary: What--
2   How would you (.) describe your style?
3 (1.7)
4 Willie:: .h:
5 Well like Nikes,
6 h: u:h h:
7 I haven’t bought a other kind of pair of shoe,
8 (0.8)
9 since like fourth grade.

Brand One and Willie’s style is influenced not only by the clothing fashions of African American youth culture but by the linguistic practices as well; the emblematic use of recognizable features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) can be seen, for example, in line 7, in Willie’s regularization of the indefinite determiner in a other kind and his use of zero plural marking in pair of shoe. Here language enters into the same symbolic economy in which clothing circulates, as a resource for the construction of style. At the same time, these boys’ use of AAVE is tied quite directly to material economic processes. Their access to AAVE features was largely mediated by consumerism, for it was their consumption of commercial rap music even more than face-to-face interaction with AAVE speakers that allowed the boys to adopt emblematic features of the variety. Among European American students, such appropriation of African American clothing and speech styles was gendered insofar as it was both more common and more accepted among boys than girls.

Practices of branding arise at numerous points in this short excerpt. In lines 7 to 9, Willie offers a testimonial, a speech event characteristic of consumerism in late capitalism (Bucholtz 1999b): I haven’t bought a other kind of pair of shoe, (0.8) since like fourth grade. His testimonial of brand loyalty bespeaks an expert knowledge of the excellent qualities of the endorsed product.

Later in the same interaction, brand names surface again in Willie’s talk when he describes the kind of shirts he and Brand One wear:


109 Willie: .h And mostly like (.) shirts and stuff,
110   like name brand,
111 like (1.0) Tommy Hilfiger,
112 Nautica,=
113 =like this is Nautica right here,=
114 Brand One:=This is Polo.

The first descriptor Willie offers is not oriented to visual style but to the status of the commodity—name brand (line 110)—and he goes on to list the particular brands that he wears, all of them labels that in advertisers’ branding practices at the time were associated with a clean-cut, preppy, country-club image. These labels were appropriated and resignified by hip hop fans and performers in the mid-1990s as part of an urban youth style (see also Cutler 2003), an appropriation that is in turn appropriated by Willie and Brand One.

A knowledgeable stance is further constructed as the boys rapidly identify the labels of the shirts they are wearing and display them for me, an act that visibly illustrates their style. This meticulous attention to and keen awareness of corporate brands recalls Marjorie Harness Goodwin’s (2002) discussion of brand monitoring among preadolescent girls in California and is extremely widespread within consumer culture. These students’ brand consciousness can even be found in the self-selected pseudonym Brand One, a name that positions the boy himself as a commodity. Through the self-branding practices they engage in, Willie and Brand One jointly align both with the brand and with each other as discerning consumers; like the brand, the indexicality of AAVE allows the boys to construct a hip hop-influenced youth style. Such social meanings come to be built through the kind of discursive work that these teenagers carry out here.

Branding is not an inherently gendered discursive practice, and indeed its wide availability across social classes and identities within capitalist society permits it to be used for a variety of local interactional purposes. But the styles that young people claim through the use of these discursive strategies are closely bound to gendered youth identities (like male hip hop fans). Thus branding is a flexible interactional resource for gendered and other kinds of identity work in the local context of American high schools.

5. Conclusion

As consumption eclipses production as the economic context for social identities, it is increasingly necessary to bring together top-down and bottom-up approaches in the analysis of language, gender, and political economy. Interaction must be recognized as the place where such meanings are forged and negotiated in dialogue with larger economic structures.

Rather than granting priority to adult (i.e., outsider) perspectives on this situation, the approach I advocate here privileges the local interactional and social meanings that young people themselves invest in commodities through the circulation of talk about brands, products, shopping, and consuming. Although new techniques of marketing research and advertising have infiltrated youths’ daily lives, teenagers are not simply willing dupes of unseen hegemonic forces. Instead, in their talk about shopping, young people take up complex positions toward commodity culture that may variously resignify, reject, or reproduce dominant discourses of consumption. Through their stances toward commodities, speakers bring the economic world into their interactions in ways that are locally meaningful. In this way, they position themselves in relation to others in the commodity-saturated space of late capitalism.

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Mary Bucholtz
Universitat de Califòrnia, Santa Bàrbara

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