Most Tumblr users have seen washed out images of Doc Martens or portraits of a girl with pink hair show up on their dashboard, followed by linked captions that urge the viewer to FOLLOW FOR MORE SOFT GRUNGE. Sometimes the caption is adorned with emojis of hearts, dolphins or peace signs, but it is always linked back to a user’s blog. When clicking through the link, one is confronted with mass-curated images that embody Soft Grunge. The blog is often an aesthetic assault of sameness, where images are prioritized over the curator. With aesthetic aggregation blogs – as opposed to blogs with original content – the goal is to become one of, if not the main, marketplaces for aesthetic content and the anonymous invitation to follow is key. Unlike topical bloggers or artists, whose aim is to be known and individually validated for the unique quality of their content, aesthetic bloggers sacrifice individual validation for mass dissemination of their images by other aesthetic blogs who share this same goal. In this, the blogger and the audience are often the same, offering the same content and perpetuating a ‘follow for follow’ scenario within the aesthetic scene.
Soft Culture images, as the antithesis to the artist who values authenticity, are impossible to credit and are barely recognizable from their original source due to aesthetic edits and erroneous links that only lead to more Soft Culture blogs. Artist and blogger, Grossmary writes, “Soft Culture is also a system of content re-classification. Assimilation into Soft Culture occurs through the reposting of existing content and declaring it Soft/Pale/Pastel, or through basic edits.”
In her video, Follow for More Soft Grunge, Grossmary explores the phenomenon of content mutation in soft culture. The video features Cilla Wagén, Jessica Mai Walker, Orion Facey, Maja Malou Lyse, and Ayesha Tan Jones reenacting five famous performance art pieces – that, in itself, an appropriation – and then the interpretation itself was further glitched using data-moshing techniques. The performances, moved further and further from their original points of reference and, at points, literally indistinguishable, are an accurate metaphor for Soft Culture.
Grossmary rightfully points out that “Soft Culture tends to maintain a status quo, it’s not exactly a hotbed for ethical, reflective material to emerge from,” as well as noting the lack of divergence from images of white, normative bodies. Soft Culture is not subversive, nor does it aim to be; the cycling of content within soft grunge bloggers relies on aesthetic consistency and ‘prettiness.’
In contrast to Soft Grunge, and also operating in tandem, is Soft Ghetto. The Soft Ghetto community on Tumblr shares certain similarities to Soft Grunge, in that there are general aesthetic guidelines and blogs that are dedicated to that aesthetic, existing as content marketplaces. Urban Dictionary defines Soft Ghetto as, “It’s like regular ghetto but softer” and they offer the example, “Missy Elliot in all pink is soft ghetto.” Though instances of Soft Grunge and Soft Ghetto appeared around the same time – Soft Ghetto actually predating Soft Grunge by one month – Soft Grunge has made itself more visible to the general Tumblr community through the banality of its content and aesthetic appeal. In turn, it’s grown into a larger network of content curators. There are several reasons why Soft Ghetto has not taken off with the persistence of Soft Grunge: Soft Ghetto highlights individual content ‘moderators’ over aesthetic quality, Soft Ghetto operates outside of white bodied norms, and Soft Ghetto prioritizes content messaging over aesthetic.
Soft Ghetto, unlike Soft Grunge or other Soft Culture blogs, has a specific entry point and content wellspring. The Tumblr blog, The Soft Ghetto, positions itself as the face of the movement and displays the names of its creators on the sidebar. This goes against the anonymous, mob-mentality, of Soft Grunge bloggers. The creator of The Soft Ghetto even wrote an open letter to the Tumblr community that repeatedly asserted herself as the curator of the blog, although not the term’s originator. The moderators of The Soft Ghetto mainly reblog content from black Tumblr users who do not directly or necessarily associate with Soft Ghetto. The act of reblogging these images from the black Tumblr community is the act of ‘softening’ them, rendering them more accessible to other Tumblr communities. With a click and a caption, an image is transferred from one world to another. And through this image is the portal to the world of Soft Ghetto: CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOFT GHETTO
In contrast to Soft Grunge, Soft Ghetto possesses a subversive quality inherent in its positioning. If Soft Grunge is a softening of grunge culture which mutes the movement’s subversive nature, Soft Ghetto is subversive in its softening of aspects of black culture that have been otherized, labeled ‘ghetto,’ and historically rendered invisible in a white-privileged society; assimilating them into spheres of white culture. My first instance of coming across the tagline CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOFT GHETTO was actually through a white Tumblr user’s blog who probably thought the image of TLC in matching pastel blue tracksuits was simply ‘cute’ or would ‘look good on her blog.’ In softening the aspects of black culture that have been deemed ‘ratchet’ or ‘ghetto’ (characteristics that are traditionally undesirable, as witnessed in the omission of them in mainstream media and culture), Soft Ghetto has been able to infiltrate the average (white) Tumblr user’s dashboard. Soft Ghetto may provide, for example, an entry point for a blogger who is looking for content for their blog that is similar to the aesthetic that Miley Cyrus has co-opted – best phrased by Urban Dictionary, “like ghetto, but softer.” Or the way I would phrase it: like ghetto, but for trendy white people.
Tumblr is a unique social platform in that different subcultures can exist almost invisibly to an outsider. A Tumblr user’s dashboard is uniquely curated based on their niche interests, expressed by who they follow. There is Black Tumblr, there’s Asian Tumblr, there are Tumblr fandoms, there is LGBTQ Tumblr, there is Feminist Tumblr, there are soft grunge communities, net art communities, alt lit communities, and so on. Each community exists as its own galaxy, separated by a lack of want, knowledge, or need for an entry point. Some communities intersect – such as feminism and LGBTQ, or alt lit and net art – but, for the most part, each community exists as its own mutually exclusive unit. Soft Ghetto acts as the entry point into Black Tumblr, a side of Tumblr that, until now, most white Tumblr users would have no reason to seek a point of entry.
Soft Ghetto blogs, in their function as image aggregators, post images that might have a crossover appeal to Soft Grunge blogs, as well as a casual Tumblr user whose aim is to reblog ‘pretty’ images. There are many blogs that claim the title Soft Ghetto that have very similar image aesthetics to Soft Grunge and Teen-Girl Tumblr Culture – the only difference being that Soft Ghetto blogs prioritize images of women (and men) of color. These blogs would include images such as the Urban Dictionary example of Missy Elliot in all pink, or LiL Kim on the red carpet circa the 1990s. Images like these fall within the scope of the Teen-Girl Tumblr aesthetic of 90s kitsch, which dominates a wide sector of Tumblr and much of the discourse around it. When these users follow Soft Ghetto blogs and reblog their content, it gradually widens the circle of Soft Ghetto’s content distribution. In this, the softened images of Missy Elliot or Lil Kim become the gateway to Soft Ghetto’s less aesthetic based content.
Because Soft Ghetto prioritizes an individual moderator’s point of view, there is more agency to deviate from an aesthetic sameness. Within the softened images of black fashion figures or R&B singers, there are politically minded posts that bear the same tagline of CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOFT GHETTO. There are posts that bring awareness to, for example, a woman of color who was physically assaulted, or unemployment discrepancies between black and white women. These text posts, which are rarely seen on Soft Grunge blogs, disrupt the flow of pretty images and are ‘softened’ by their context and the tagline CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOFT GHETTO. In the same way, The Soft Ghetto posts user-submitted selfies, mainly of women of color, regardless of aesthetic coherence. The tag #softghetto on Tumblr is comprised mostly, of these selfies, despite varying aesthetic quality. This action, of soliciting unique user content and reclassifying it as Soft Ghetto, creates a sense of unity throughout the community.
In terms of Teen-Girl Tumblr Culture, the selfie was seen as revolutionary, a reclamation of the Young-Girl’s body. But the most proliferated images – and the discourse around them – only included white normative female bodies. A user who was not linked to the Soft Ghetto community would rarely see images of women of color and now, choosing to follow a Soft Ghetto blog for its aesthetic content, their dashboard is consistently flooded with them. This asserts the black female body into spheres that had, unconsciously or not, prioritized white women.
As much as Soft Ghetto is a movement defined by image curation, it is a subversive force. It prioritizes black female bodies as well as radically inserts them into ever-widening spheres through its ability to intersect with existing aesthetic communities.
For the same reasons, however, the community has yet to expand in the monolithic way that Soft Grunge did and continues to do. Its disparate visual aesthetic and inclusion of text posts take away the ability for users – whose aim is image curation (i.e. ‘to have a pretty blog’) and act as an image marketplace – to interact with the majority of the content in the form of reblogging and content reclassification. But even if Soft Ghetto doesn’t expand beyond the few blogs that currently exist as aggregators and the reblogs of their gateway content, at the very least it is a platform for women of color to assert our image when, sadly, our images remain minimally visible and marginalized.