- Provocations on SneakersThe Multiple Significations of Athletic Shoes, Sport, Race, and Masculinity
This essay engages the sneaker in hopes of remedying the ambivalence that historians and cultural critics have had toward the shoe as an object of cultural production. As such, I hope to address the shoe as a marker of social identity, as well as interrogate how the sneaker functions within various humanizing and dehumanizing practices. Even though images and representations of footwear existed in modern expressions of Western art and culture since the late nineteenth century, historians and cultural critics have failed to explore properly the complex manner in which shoes have been recontextualized by youth subcultures to serve as objects that separate these cultural groups from outside social control and domination. Although sociologists have engaged the sneaker at the level of the social, historians and cultural critics have not been as forthcoming. As markers of identity, the social and cultural resonances of sneakers need to be taken seriously to fully interrogate sneaker culture as an open-ended critique of identity construction under globalized capital. [End Page 73]
On one hand, shoes are commonly perceived as mass-produced commodities within hegemonic systems of mass production and consumption. At the same time, as I argue in this essay, shoes have been habitually re-inscribed by the individuals who wear them. As such, sneakers and the subcultural groups that inscribe them with signification become an ideal vehicle to discuss collective identity and consumptive economic transformation in an expanding capitalist marketplace. Because the sneaker bears a strong historical connection to male consumptive practices, dating to at least the Victorian period, its investigation likewise helps to delineate contemporary masculine identity in a society based on consumption. Furthermore in Western historiography, footwear commonly served a role within Europe's colonizing projects of the past five centuries. This historic position allows us better to analyze contemporary society as the sneaker begins to function in an act of disavowal against the legacy of black and indigenous dehumanization.
Though rooted in historical and cultural studies approaches, my theoretical approach is interdisciplinary, highlighting the discursive interplay among the athletic shoe, race, history, and masculinity, as these are diachronically performed in the United States. This heterodox methodology is more specifically couched in both ethnic studies and visual culture approaches. Since athletics, often read as the racially based biological abilities of individuals, cannot be disentangled from larger discussions of masculinity and race, I concentrate my arguments on how sneakers mediate between their reception by pluri-ethnic subcultures and the marketing of these same commodities as a fixed trait of blackness and indigeneity. Through this essay, I will address a multiplicity of topics, migrating between popular cinema and linguistics, gender analysis and Marxist critique, Victorian fashion and art history, hip-hop and prisons, all as they relate to contemporary sneaker culture. By way of these multidimensional discussions, I will begin to re-vision sneaker culture and its implications for radical theory and practice. [End Page 74]
"My Adidas" and the Origins of Masculine Consumption
As basketball journalist and hip-hop theorist Scoop Jackson (2002) stresses, it is impossible to disentangle basketball footwear from the cultural practices that surround the sport. 1985 and 1986 represent watershed years in U.S. sneaker history. In 1985, Nike marketed the Air Jordan I, and the following year Run DMC released "My Adidas," their award-winning homage to the B-boy's shoe of choice, the Adidas Shell-Toe.1 This song was the third track on the album Raising Hell. Responding to the growing popularity of rap music, this album was a market success and peaked at number one on the Billboard charts. The success was due in part to the song "My Adidas," which functioned as an unendorsed advertisement for the (then) German shoe company. Although Run DMC would eventually get monetary compensation for their musical efforts, at this point it was unheard of for a corporation to see hip-hop culture as a viable source of influence in market economics. This would quickly change as marketing agencies began to see hip-hop as an emerging market.
A year before "My Adidas" was released, the first model...