COSMIC DEBRIS: ANGST, MISERY.COM
Byline: Peter Braunstein
NEW YORK — “I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside,” sang the Eighties mope-rock band The Smiths. In music or fashion, capitalizing on the alienation, depression and rage that plagues teenagers is nothing new.
But, given the high-profile violence at schools across the nation, are some apparel merchants taking the marketing of teen misery too far?
One of the most trendy online purveyors of expressive teenwear is Cosmicdebris.com, a two-year-old e-commerce site that markets clothing and gear ranging in tone from quirky-cute to psychotic. The Web site’s self-proclaimed mission statement is “to pollute the world with cosmic debris: cheeky clothing with fun graphics and edgy and innovative designs.” But the concept begs the question: What are the social implications of selling teen angst?
The jewel in Cosmicdebris.com’s crown is Emily, a solitary, Christina Ricci-like teen who was conceived as a comic-strip figure in 1992, and whose popularity has since led to a profusion of Emily-inspired wear including T-shirts, wristwatches, mouse pads and sundry accessories — sold both online and at the Hot Topic chain of stores selling music-themed fashion. Emily is described on the Web site as “13 years old and wicked bad. Bad meaning good….She may happily put a firecracker in your tailpipe, but brother, you deserved it.” The popular line of Emily Goth-inspired T-shirts feature slogans such as “Danger,” “Disobey” and “My problem is you.”
Emily creator Rob Reger claimed that “[Emily] appeals to our darker side, to the devil in us all,” and in fact she has acquired a cult following among teens who feel they don’t fit in and cultivate solitude as a virtue. Emily’s online angst-mate is Oopsy Daisy, an attitude-laden being with a huge head, whose T-shirts boast slogans like: “I forgot to care,” “Thank god I’m not ugly,” and “Oops I killed a Princess.” A Cosmic Debris spokeswoman explained that the “I killed a Princess” T-shirt does not refer to any type of archetypal school “princess,” but to another cartoon character, Pretty Princess, who the spokeswoman described as “a total bitch and Oopsy Daisy’s enemy.” Since contacted by WWD last week, Cosmic Debris has removed the “I Killed a Princess” item from its online catalog, attributing this action to “new inventory.”
Then there’s Eleven-Eleven, which sells clothing, gear and accessories aimed at an older teen demographic, and whose mascot is a crazy-looking Devil Bunny that poses on T-shirts and posters with a bottle of Cuervo in one hand and an upturned middle finger on the other. Asked by WWD to explain the concept behind Eleven-Eleven, a Cosmic Debris spokeswoman replied “Eleven-Eleven is not meant to be explainable.” Typical Eleven-Eleven-inspired wear includes a black rubber-spiked bracelet entitled “Mr. Pointy,” skateboards named “Massacre” and “Dawgfight,” and adolescent shock-value T-shirts: one featuring a large hand grenade is called “Catch This,” while another, entitled “Hi there,” is a logo of a hand clenching a gun aimed at anyone looking at the shirt. When WWD asked specifically about these two items, Cosmic Debris subsequently removed them from its online catalog, an action the spokeswoman also attributed to the arrival of “new inventory,” even though the rest of the preexisting product line remained on display.
Cosmic Debris claimed to be cognizant of issues related to school violence, but the spokeswoman said: “We’re making fun of it more than promoting it” — even though few people find anything funny about it. “We have been known to put some designs in the trash out of sensitivity to these issues,” she added. “For instance, we once had an Oopsy Daisy with bullet holes in her head, and we pulled that.”
While Cosmic Debris’s own take on the social implications of its product line remained sketchy and evasive, experts familiar with teen-related issues disagreed about whether the marketing of teen angst was benign or irresponsible.
Janet Hethorn, a professor of consumer studies at the University of Delaware whose areas of expertise include youth clothing, social identity and appearance, argued that the marketing of teen dementia is nothing new. “We can’t just blame the marketers,” Hethorn contended. “Instead, we can pay attention to the kids, and use their clothing and gear as a topic for discussion. We can ask them what they think about companies that make money off of how they feel. To ban something just makes it more powerful,” she noted. “We have to develop some respect for a student’s right of self-expression.”
Dr. David Yamins, attending psychiatrist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, struck a similar chord. “The ‘fist raised in anger’ T-shirt has been ‘in’ since the Sixties, and a lot of today’s school administrators forget that they were probably the ones wearing it,” Yamins said. “Even the new Army ads, with their slogan ‘Be an army of one’, can be interpreted as catering to alienated sensibilities. Clothing doesn’t promote rage; it gives students some way of expressing it,” he added. “Banning it would just drive it underground and it will come to the surface in some other form.”
Dr. Gilda Carle, the TV personality who also served as “the Love Doc” for MTV Online, has written several books on teen issues, including the recent “He’s Not All That! How to Attract the Good Guys.” Carle argued that angstwear for teens illustrates a broader social breakdown in codes of conduct. “Just because teenagers wear a shirt with an in-your-face saying doesn’t mean they’re psycho, but the shirts still reflect a general disrespect for other people, human life in general, organizations like school and their teachers,” Carle said. “Banning them might be a good start, but it’s only a start. If kids aren’t taught to respect each other at school,” she added, “then when will that training begin?”