Emo Culture: Confronting Stereotypes and Controversy

Emo began as a music genre that emerged during the 1900s as a form of hardcore punk music focusing on transparent, emotional expression through the use of honest and hard-hitting lyrics.

But unlike other music genres, emo translated into a lifestyle that included wearing dark clothes and makeup, distinctive hairstyles, and bearing an introverted and sensitive character. Consequently, they are viewed as the outcasts of society and suffer from stereotypes attaching to them like leeches. Such stereotypes include their practice of Satanism, persistent depression, hatred of the world and people around them, suicide, and, most of all, self-harm. But, sometimes, stereotypes are just that — stereotypes.

“I did like life when I was emo and I never cut myself,” said Rita Puhto, a student at Anglo-American University (AAU) and former emo. “Ironically, I also had like this big bag that said “Bad Attitude” and teachers would comment saying, ‘Oh you don’t have a bad attitude, you shouldn’t be carrying this bag,’” she continued.

“Emo is a combination of music, the way you dress, and how you express yourself through these things,” Puhto explained. “But I believe it goes beyond the clothes that we wear. It’s a mild form of rebellion but the main aspect of it, I think, is about being different.” An emo lifestyle extends into a person’s perception of the world around them and is the portal into accepting the negative aspects of life. The music that is typically associated with the emo subculture reflects the anger and rebellion through their lyrics. Puhto particularly referred to “Teenagers” by My Chemical Romance which blatantly addresses the struggles of teenagers living in a critical and pressuring society. For example, “They’re gonna clean up your looks…to make a citizen out of you. And keep an eye on you, son. So they can watch all the things you do.”

Damien (a pseudonym), a former emo student, provided a philosophical aspect to the culture saying, “The emo culture believes that time when viewed from a 4th-dimensional perspective, ceases to be linear and would be in a sense much like a record playing through each moment of time from start to finish. A circle where history can repeat itself.” Therefore, this belief provides the people of the emo culture with a sense of liberty. This allows them to act freely because if history repeats itself and today’s, tomorrow’s and a lifetime’s worth of actions reoccur continuously, nothing really matters.

According to Damien, it is the crippling social pressure to constantly cover up any negative emotions that the emo people defy. They are the ones who do not feed into these social expectations and openly express how they feel. “Emo people figure out that everyone feels depressed and angry most of the time. But they’re the ones who stop pretending, start expressing that and showing everyone that it’s okay to feel those things. It challenges people to really examine how happy they think they are,” he said.    

However, sometimes, an emo lifestyle serves a selfish interest. In some cases, the stereotype surrounding the practice of self-harm prevailing in the culture for the sake of attracting attention to one’s self is true. The feelings of being misunderstood and ignored by society are expressed, by some people of the emo community, in various forms of self-harm which symbolizes a cry for help. “It was also just of way of finding out who really wants to get to know you as a person,” Puhto explained. Most of the time, the stigma that is attached to the notion of being emo elicits a repellent reaction from the society. Therefore, the moments when certain people look past the stereotypes and give emo people a chance to speak for themselves are valuable and can form strong relationships.

Like with many other communities viewed as outcasts, such as homosexuals facing homophobia and non-white people facing racism, followers of the emo culture experience bullying. Puhto continued to explain the blatant disrespect and bullying she experienced in high school after making the choice of becoming emo. Describing her school as being “cliquey”, she immediately had been categorized as an outcast which made her an easy target. However, Puhto’s reaction to the bullying is one everyone can draw from explaining that her best approach was to “laugh it off” — a tactic that, even today, helps her handle unsolicited criticisms and comments.

To illustrate, Puhto recalled her school dance to which she wore what was traditionally considered emo, despite her friends choosing more conventional outfits. After uploading the pictures of the dance onto her Facebook, her dramatic red eye-makeup attracted derogatory comments asking if her eyes were bleeding. “I just remember liking the comment.”

For many people who have adopted the emo culture and lifestyle, it provides a gateway to self-expression and unity with those who can empathize. “There was that anger buried inside of me and I didn’t know how to express it in a way that was nice for me,” Puhto explained. “But then I discovered these people on Myspace that were talking about some of the things that I was feeling,” she continued. “3 of my friends died at the same time which left me thinking about how fragile life is. The philosophy behind the emo culture provided a sense of direction and comfort,” Damien explained.

Ultimately, people join emo groups for the same reason people join any subculture- to have a means of self-expression and a sense of unity and comfort with like-minded people.