Unkind Cut

We'd been enjoying emo for years before self-injury stepped into the spotlight

A confession: I like sad, introspective music by mopey boys who sing about their broken hearts, a.k.a. emo.

At the same time, I also like to make fun of the stereotypical emo fashions and emo kids' self-absorbed affected moodiness. I'm too grown-up to define myself by the music I listen to, so I don't fit the archetype for an emo boy, and hence wasn't offended by comic-book artist Stephen Emond's hilarious, just-released Emo Boy issue 1.

Truth is that emo is music by sissies for sissies, as well as being a hot fashion flavor right now (for nearly the last 10 years, actually). The stereotypes are legion: the Spock haircuts, the black-rimmed glasses, the too-tight children's tee shirts, boys wearing girls' jeans, Converse Chuck Taylors -- and they mostly hold true for the fashionista kids.

Emond (his real name, just a coincidence, though he admits to being an emo fan himself) understands the reality of the emo stereotype all too well, and his hero Emo Boy is a hilarious amalgamation. Drawn like a way-dorkier Conor Oberst, Emo Boy makes his way through several adventures in the comic -- forming a band, getting beaten up for his honesty, being interviewed by a TV journalist, and using his emo powers to explode girls' heads and blow up a fluffy white bunny (blasting his own clothes off in the process).

This isn't the first time emo's been in the spotlight recently. And while I can live with blown-up images of oft-true stereotypes, I can't stand gross inaccuracies. Emond's satirical take on emo contrasts sharply with the assertion made by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, in her online column earlier this year, that emo is the soundtrack for self-mutilators. In the column, which you can still read at www.townhall.com, Malkin, an often incendiary Fox News contributor, wrote, "There is even a new genre of music -- 'emo' -- associated with promoting the cutting culture."

That's fucking ridiculous, as I explained to Malkin in an e-mail I wrote immediately after reading her column on cutting. She didn't reply to that or to a later request for comment, but I wasn't the only one who called bullshit, as I saw later on her personal site, www.michellemalkin.com. She quoted a different objector there, but still asserted there was a connection, using a Google hyperlink with "emo" and "self injury" as keywords to back up her claim. Funny thing is, my own subsequent search returned links to either her own column or commentary on it, some from scared parents whose kids listen to emo. Check it out yourself -- Google "emo" and "self injury." (I guess now you'll also get this column).

Further irony: Emo shit, like Bright Eyes or Jets to Brazil or the Promise Ring, makes me happy when I listen to it. Shit like Limp Bizkit and Creed makes me want to cut myself. Emo kids are more likely to be sharing their feelings on www.makeoutclub.com than slicing their thighs like Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary. Emo is pretty much the provenance of boys anyway (at least in terms of performers), while cutting, like eating disorders, is usually cited as an epidemic among teenage girls.

Here's the bottom line: Emo, by definition, is all about pouring your emotions out. Cutters, I've learned from talking to some experts, don't have an outlet for their emotions -- an outlet like music. Like emo. So Malkin's argument just doesn't make sense.

I spoke to Dr. Sara Salek, a Phoenix psychiatrist who's headed to a fellowship in child psychiatry at Harvard this month, and she explains that psychiatrists look at self-injuring behavior as "a maladaptive way of coping with emotions. It's very diverse; you don't get one certain type. Psychiatrists will try to route those emotions in productive ways -- writing journals, poetry, listening to music, whatever way they can channel those emotions."

If anything, I'd assert that kids who cut ought to indulge in emo, which puts emotional expression in an artistic context.

So if there are any concerned parents reading this, listen -- your kid's a sissy, but that doesn't necessarily mean he mutilates himself.

I called Emond, the comic book artist, and asked him about Malkin's claim. He describes cutters as "people that have had bad childhoods or been abused or depressed, whereas if they were just kind of mopey and didn't have a good reason to be, they'd be emo. There's not much of a correlation; I think she just heard that term and threw it out there."

Emond gets it.

When Emo Boy forms a band, he can't write a decent song because he's got no experience with girls to draw from. When he meets Jenny, an emo girl who feels his pain, and experiences his first kiss, his emo powers erupt for the first time, incinerating her. Finally, inspiration! His band's first song's chorus goes, "But she's dead! Dead! Dead! Dead! Dead! She lost her head! Head! Head! Head! Head! Broke into a million pieces. This is my thesis."

From the pseudo-intellectualism to the hyper-tragic material in the song, Emond's got it nailed again. Much of the book has Emo Boy satirizing Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, which is pretty on-target (see pseudo-intellectualism and hyper-tragedy), but I hope in future issues he branches out with his targets -- what about bashing that dork from Thursday? Or giving Death Cab for Cutie a little kick in the Shins?

Emo Boy's band's first concert leaves the audience bawling as he observes that he "found a pipeline directly into roughly 200 open hearts." Another direct hit -- you don't find much dancing at emo shows.

But you don't see any thigh-slashing, either.

 
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