Is it cool or naw? That is the question. That is also the cool way to ask the question.
We saw that the meaning and routes to cool went through three stages: from hierarchical to oppositional to pluralistic. Well, at least that’s how I’ve learned it. I, however, like to call the stages like I see them. Young, teen, and mature.
The definition of cool is ‘fashionably attractive or impressive.’ Through the years the way we define cool may have changed slightly, but it always remained the same description. Cool has been described as fashionable, stylish, hip and trendy. Furthermore, cool has been often dictated by the youth of today. If a teenager says something is cool, chances are everyone else will feel the same.
Back in the early ’50s or so, cool was represented by leather, shades, and toughness. A different route to cool developed. Some would have described this as “Rebel Cool.” Beatniks, hippies, and social activists revolted against the traditional status hierarchy, and the dominant power structures and norms of society. Cool was gained not by climbing the mainstream status ladder, but by showing how much you diverged from and disdained it. Being a rebel without a cause.
James Dean became the epitome of cool. Cigarette smoking was on the rise. Sunglasses became a must-have for any cool outfit. Hair grease sales went through the roof. Denim jeans became the standard dress code for any and every cool person alive. At that time, I’ve heard tell of it being the greatest time a teen would have wanted to be alive. Then, we just got cooler, and cooler, and cooler.
In the ’50s and ’60s, being cool meant rebelling against the mainstream culture. Over the next several decades, society became so diverse and fragmented there began to be no true mainstream culture to speak of, nor to set oneself in opposition to. The last breaths of Rebel Cool could be found in the “alternative” grunge culture of the 90s. Now, with politics on its current downward turn, rebelling against anything mainstream, is yet cool again. Everyone is doing it. Young, old, male, female, white, black. You name it. If it’s government related or simply mainstream ideas, we are totally against it. The re-rise of the rebel without a cause.
The rise of Rebel Cool and the dissolution of social norms and mainstream morals paved the way for the creation and acceptance of more and more diverse lifestyles during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. This type of cool made it’s way into inner cities as well as suburbs and created alternative end routes to cool. Instead of gaining status either by climbing the traditional hierarchy, or by being opposed to it, you could find both collective esteem and individual recognition by belonging to any number of different subcultures and social niches — punk rockers, preppies, Rastafarians, skaters, outdoorsy folks, Dungeons and Dragons players, emo kids, and so on.
This pluralistic status system or the mature melting pot has continued into the 21st century. But the Millennial generation has shaped it in new ways — creating different emphases in both how to achieve and how to signal one’s cool.
The word “cool” continues to imply status and to be used in the modern day, but its meaning has significantly shifted over the last few decades.
In the ’50s and ’60s, being cool meant rebelling against the mainstream culture. Over the next several decades, however, society became so diverse and fragmented, there began to be no true mainstream culture to speak of, nor to set oneself in opposition to. The last breaths of Rebel Cool could be found in the “alternative” grunge culture of the ’90s. It was cool to be a dummy. School was for squares and the un-cool. In order to be cool, you had to hate school. This was a part of being cool I did not agree with. I often acted like I didn’t like school just to look cool. But on the low, I was a good student and undercover thugger.
I got my first pair of shades when I was about eleven. I was the coolest kid for days. It was like I was the black Fonzerelli. All I needed was the leather jacket. And a motorcycle would have helped. That was the idea of cool in my neighborhood. We didn’t have any cool images that looked like us, so, we were a bit confused as to what exactly cool looked like. Other than white, with shades and a leather jacket. So from that one image, we extracted all the coolness, and added it to our own culture. Society taught us what cool looked like. We took it and ran with it. And never gave it back. We let the whites borrow it from time to time. But, for the most part, we made cool a black thing. We gave Arthur Fonzerelli a black name and family. We took the leather jacket and made it a staple in the inner city. We traded the motorcycle out for a BMX bike. And because we couldn’t really afford the leather jacket, we took leather pieces and sewed them onto the jeans and made a style of our own.
The images of the past may have been white. But, they were slowly fading to black. Arthur Fonzerelli used to be the epitome of cool. Amongst other white men. Now, men like Jay Z and Denzel Washington have given cool a brand new look. Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama made the list. But at the top of this list, of all time. Has got to be Billy Dee Williams. Billy Dee has been the epitome of black cool for decades, now. And of course, Billy Dee Williams gave me my very first real impression of a cool man other than the Fonz. Billy Dee showed me what it was to not only be cool but, to be a man. Billy Dee dressed the part differently than the Fonz. He had a style and air about him that gained the attention of not only young blacks. But he broke into the white houses, as well.
One has to suspect that Billy Dee was definitely one of the black celebrities who put cool envy into the caucasian race. Cool brothers like Billy Dee made it cool to be black. This coolness caused whites to want to mimic the dress and styles of the black man. Ever since the plantation, it seems as if the white man has been jealous of black man. Starting with our strengths both mental and physical. Our stamina, in and outside of the bedroom. Our character. And, yes, the myth is true, our penises. It’s cool being me.
The role of men is changing in the 21st century. Want to keep up? Get the best stories from The Good Men Project delivered straight to your inbox, here.
Photo Credit: Getty Images