In the film ‘This is England’ (Meadows, 2006) the opposing extremes of the ‘Skinhead’ subculture are personified in the characters of Woody and Combo. The two previous friends are pitted against each other in a good versus evil style narrative, with Woody playing the moderate, style conscious, thrill seeking ‘good’ role and Combo the racist, nationalist and, some would argue, ‘bad’ Skinhead of the late 1970s (Mercer, 1987, cited in Back, 2004, p. 30).
Woody and his group were a different generation of Skinheads to Combo. It could be suggested that their manifestation of the subculture had been influenced by changes in wider society. A rise of profiteering and consumerism at the time meant the styles that had been appropriated by sections of society, such as Skinheads, were seized upon by businesses, the media and the music industry because of their commercial value. ‘Ben Sherman’ and ‘Dr.Martin’ had started to become household fashion brands and their shirts and boots were no longer mainly worn by Skinheads. Garrett (2004, p. 150) writes that the ‘mainstreaming’ of a subculture’s ‘secret’ identity was not just a way for big business to make money but it was also an attempt by the adult population to stem the growth of a subculture. In both instances, the young people involved are denied the opportunity to express their creativity and claim an identity for themselves. According to Garrett (ibid.), this inevitably leads to a major transformation in the subculture or the disappearance of it altogether. Applied to the characters in Woody’s group, it could be suggested that this ‘mainstreaming’ has had an influence on the way they behave as part of the Skinhead subculture. When confronted by the mother of Shaun, a 12 year old boy who is one of the lead characters in the film, for shaving his head as part of an initiation into their group, Woody’s response is unexpected. Instead of dismissing her protests in an aggressive manner, as may have been expected of a Skinhead, Woody is polite and apologetic. This moderate behaviour could be seen as an attempt by woody to be accepted, in the same way that the fashion of the Skinhead was being largely accepted by society.
It is also worth noting that the film was set in 1983, a time when Margaret Thatcher was in power and her party’s laissez-faire, free-market based approach had led to the rise of individualism and the stigmatisation of young people as problematic (Ridge and Wright, 2008). This promoted a type of solidarity amongst individuals and a feeling among young people, particularly from working class backgrounds, that they were ‘all in it together’. There is evidence of this in the dynamic of Woody’s group. It is made up of young people who dress the same, listen to the same music and enjoy each other’s company. To an extent, there is also a commonly held notion of what is right and what is wrong with their world; however it is also apparent that each of them has their own intentions and motivations. An example of this can be taken from the scene where the group enter a disused housing estate to vandalise the empty properties. Although they are all engaged in similar activities, the stimulation and enjoyment they are getting out of it is on a very personal level. The destruction they are causing is possibly a release of their inner frustrations or it could simply be a mind-less form of entertainment. What is clear is that they are all doing it for their own, individual reasons, something that Nehring (2007) referred to as ‘Collective Solitary Stimulation’ in his work on the British rave scene of the 1980s and ‘90s.
On the other hand, Combo’s sense of solidarity is from a previous era. In the period of time covered by the film, he had recently been released from prison, therefore it could be suggested that he had been removed from the factors that had influenced Woody’s generation. Combo placed his loyalties with England as a nation and it was his opinion that the best way to express this was to align himself with the right wing organisation ‘The National Front’ and subscribe to their racist views. Far from being moderate, whilst Combo shared the forms of expression used by the early Skinheads, such as the Jamaican forms of music, he also shared the ‘white power’ ideals of the Skinheads of the late 1970s (Mercer, 1987, cited in Back, 2004, p. 30). Having been removed from society whilst in prison, he was unable to assimilate the changes that were having an influence on the younger generation of Skinheads and upon his release sought the friendship of other, like-minded people. He was also able to cleverly divide Woody’s group and then exploit the vulnerability of four of its members in order to recruit them. But after a period of violence and aggression, he was unable to sustain their loyalty as they began to see through his propaganda; by the end of the film it was ultimately his inner turmoil and inability to adapt that lead to his demise.
Back, L. (2004) ‘‘Pale Shadows’: Racisms, Masculinity and Multiculture’ in Flynn, R., Roche, J., Thomson, R. and Tucker, S. (eds.) Youth in Society. 2nd edn. London: Sage, pp. 28-41.
Garratt, D. (2004) ‘Youth Cultures and Sub-Cultures’ in Flynn, R., Roche, J., Thomson, R. and Tucker, S. (eds.) Youth in Society. 2nd edn.London: Sage, pp.145-152.
Nehring, N. (2007) ‘Everyone’s Given Up and Just Wants to Go Dancing: From Punk to Rave in the Thatcher Era’ Popular Music & Society 30 (1) pp.1-18. [Online] Available at: http://ehis.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=c2bd7807-e68b-4e6d-b306-56c5be52ae95%40sessionmgr15&vid=13&hid=23 [Accessed: 25 Jan 2012].
Ridge, T. and Wright, S. (2008) ‘State Approaches to Poverty and Social Exclusion’ in Ridge, T. and Wright, S. (eds.) Understanding Inequality, Poverty and Wealth. Bristol: Policy Press, pp.283-310.
This is England (2006) Directed by Shane Meadows [Film] London: Optimal Releasing