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American society and culture experienced an awakening during the 1960s as a result of the diverse civil rights, economic, and political issues it was faced with. At the center of this revolution was the American hippie, the most peculiar and highly influential figure of the time period. Hippies were vital to the American counterculture, fueling a movement to expand awareness and stretch accepted values. The hippies’ solutions to the problems of institutionalized American society were to either participate in mass protests with their alternative lifestyles and radical beliefs or drop out of society completely.
The government and the older generations could not understand their way of life. Hippies were often portrayed as criminals, subversive to the morals and best interest of the public. Although misunderstood, the hippie had a great impact throughout the country, still surviving today in American culture. The term “hippie” itself became a universal term in the late sixties. It originated in a 1967 article in Ramparts, entitled “The Social History of the Hippies.” Afterward, the name was captured by the mass media as a label for the people of the new movement. (Yablonsky 28) Even before this, the word “hip” described someone who was “in” and “down”, wise to what was going on around him. By the 1960s, some of America’s youth created a gap between themselves and their parents. They grew their hair long because it was natural and therefore considered beautiful.
At first, the idea of men with long hair was absurd and society considered it a sign of homosexuality. When it became clear that the establishment felt so strongly about hair, the attitudes of young rebels changed. One young man responded after being questioned about his unkempt appearance: Growing hair does not mean that I am or am not a homosexual. It does mean that I am willing to stand up for my rights as a human being and that includes my right to be harmless to all people. It also indicates my unwillingness to get on the treadmill of killing for a vast machine-like government. If I am scorned and called dirty because I allow hair to grow on my face and my head, then so much the better, for by this I indicate the seriousness of my belief. I scorn the society that has created this monstrous robot-like conformity that feeds the war machine as Hitler found robots to feed his war machine. (Perry 188) In contrast to the short crew-cut style that every young man adhered to during the fifties, the hippie popularized a diversity of hairstyles with no single ideal image to fit.
The clothes worn by hippies were also chosen to express anti-establishment sentiments to the public. Their pants, shirts and dresses were made of comfortable, natural fibers like cotton and denim. Many articles of clothing were handcrafted, such as belts, shoes, necklaces, and headbands. As poverty spread, the hippie wardrobe grew increasingly shabby. They shopped at thrift shops and places like the Diggers’ Free Store. “Gray, dingy, torn clothes and broken shoes became the characteristic style of the hippies.” (Wolf 18) Spawned out of necessity rather than style, these clothes were another symbol of their retaliation against the system. The hippies’ approach toward life was much more relaxed and open-minded than the rest of society.
Sex was a major issue associated with the hippie culture of the sixties. Society had built up barriers against intimate contact between the sexes for decades. Throughout American history, pre-marital sex was offensive and unacceptable to society. “The hippies challenged these limits by practicing sexual activities spontaneously an openly. Their promiscuity left the nation in disbelief: having multiple partners and engaging in casual sex with little emotional engagement.” (Mills 112-113) The female’s sensuality was actually realized and flaunted. These girls did not dress in conservative, concealing clothes to hide themselves. Hippies realized the beauty of the human body; as a result they found no need to hide it. One hippie’s remark about the women he associated with was quite noteworthy, “See the girls in the miniskirts? See the beautiful legs. Yes they lead to the …! & these girls do not tease… they *censored*. Can you take it?” (Kornbluth 206). Of course, society strongly disagreed with this behavior. The deviation from the nuclear family ideal imposed upon them was a vital step for the hippies. “Through this gesture, they abolished the possessiveness and materialism associated with marriage.” (Westhues 41-42) Illegitimate children and unrestricted sex created a negative stigma, but it brought the hippies even more attention from the American public. Although many people did not approve of the hippie lifestyle and some turned their heads, they made a lasting impression on social boundaries. The possibilities of sexual freedom they presented to the “straights” took root and eventually widened their boundaries as well.
The hippies openly advocated the use of drugs to enhance the monotony of daily life and to raise awareness. Marijuana and LSD were their most prevalent drugs of choice because of their psychedelic properties. The hippies used marijuana for numerous purposes, unable to find the negative effects that the government had been spreading for decades. David Solomon, editor of The Marijuana Papers stated comically in regard to weed: Like Spearmint, it aids concentration and helps you do almost anything a little bit better. It grows hair on the palm of your hands, introduces you to a nice type of black man, overcomes impotence, improves appetite, banishes excess bat, constipation, and headaches, and relieves rheumatism…. In short, it’s a miracle drug. A pot nation is a powerful nation. Possible side effects: a feeling of dreamy nonchalance, heightened sense of awareness, bursts of introspection, mellowing attitude towards one’s fellow man, especially if he’s stoned beside you. (Case of the Hypnotic Hippie 30-32 )
The continued use of marijuana, despite legislation and parental guidelines was another powerful means of rebellion. Many people were “turned on” to the hip “scene” by marijuana. (Yablonsky 242) Smoking grass soon spread into the suburbs and the rest of sheltered America. The popularization of LSD can easily be attributed to the hippies and the self-proclaimed leaders of the acid movement. Remaining legal until 1966, LSD gained great publicity from them and drew notoriety after it was criminalized. Timothy Leary’s studies were published and widely read, almost like bibles. His book “The Psychedelic Experience” and a translated version of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” soon became the guidebooks for passage through a successful trip. (Westhues 40-41) Through his writing, he spread the hippie motto of “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out”. The hippies believed that LSD had the power to raise them to a higher consciousness; it helped you get “on the bus.” Hippies used acid limitlessly, tightening the bonds with each other and widening the gap between themselves and society. Americans could reluctantly tolerate marijuana usage, but after seeing the creative and frightening effects of LSD, would not accept the chemical in society.
Individuality and identity are two very important ideals to the hippies. They feel that the establishment tries to control people through routine methods like organized work and leisure. “The idea of anything organized would instantly evoke boredom and restraint in the mind of the hippie.” (Cavan 162-163) They all agreed on the importance of brotherhood among people of all races and ethnicity. Preaching a motto of love and kindness, hippies tried to spread their beliefs into society. “By handing out flowers, singing songs, and making orations, these young people tried to make America hear its message of love.” (Kornbluth 250-253) People would share resources amongst each other, making sure everyone got a portion of the food, drink, clothes that the group managed to get. This was completely opposite to the government policies favoring sharp economic inequality, allowing starvation and poverty to continue. “The Diggers of San Francisco attempted to do their part, organizing free meals and handouts”. (Wolf 11) This charitable display demonstrated the kindness and gentleness of the hippies to the American public. They hoped that the rest of the population would follow in their example and help the indigent unfortunately they did not. The hippies, did however, gain respect in the eyes of the public as champions of the poor.
Many of these young people devoted tremendous amounts of time to “doing their own thing”. This could have been anything, ranging from creative endeavors like painting and poetry to merely sitting on the grass meditating. Doing one’s “own thing” brought the person a unique sense of identity. This gave them a different approach to finding careers than their parents tried to teach them “If you get a job or something, you’re even more conforming to the system, and if you don’t agree with it, where do you turn? So you see you kind of invent your own lifestyle” (Mills 79). The dehumanizing effect of joining the American workforce was met with the hippies’ decision to exclude them from it, avoiding its negative effects. This placed them outside of the economy, separating them from the rest of society. Of course, they were further misunderstood and even despised for their refusal to work.
Some hippies looked for solutions to the social problems plaguing the U.S. during the sixties. They staged massive demonstrations to draw attention and try to bring about change. Student activism reached a peak during the 1960s as bright, affluent college students fought against unfair legislation, abuse of human rights, racial discrimination, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam. These protestors were more than just hippies; they were the children of the upper middle class. The social status of these students ensured that their message was heard by the public and captured by the media. Images of angry hippies burning draft cards and giving speeches to huge audiences spread across the country. During the mid 1960s, anti-war demonstrations flooded the nation’s capital. Led by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), some protests drew massive crowds of twenty-five thousand protestors or more. (Young 150-151) The commitment to a common was a unifying force among the hippies, surpassing any individual differences. The protests were very important because they were nationally televised, placing the hippie at the center of the American home, in the living room.
Another group of hippies thought the answer was merely to “drop out” of society completely. They chose to live together communally, generally in rural areas, and attempted to become self-sufficient. On these communes, they participated in food and clothing production, child rearing as well as devoting plenty of time to “do their own thing.” (Cavan 155) These hippies quickly learned that survival was very difficult without the aid of civilization. A commune could not function without a great deal of effort on behalf of the members. As they soon found out, organization was necessary to keep these communities running smoothly. Because most hippies came to the communes escaping the establishment, organization was not easy to impose upon them. (Westhues 194-195)
The most famous hippie community was not a farm; it was the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. People flocked from around the country to experience the phenomenon of merely being there, of “being in” (Perry 29-30). The brotherhood and kindness present in the community was hidden from the American public by the appearance and lifestyle of the inhabitants. Tour buses carried visitors through the neighborhood providing them with a superficial and confused view of the community: We are now entering the largest hippie colony in the world and the very heart and fountainhead of the hippie subculture. We are now passing through the ‘Bearded Curtain’ and will journey down Haight Street, the very nerve center of a city within a city…Marijuana, of course is a household staple here, enjoyed by the natives to stimulate their senses… Among the favorite pastimes of the hippies, besides taking drugs, are parading and demonstrating, seminars, malingering, and the ever-present preoccupation with the soul, reality, and self-expression such as strumming guitars, piping flutes and banging on bongos. (Yablonsky 200).
The creation of hippie communities gave them a foundation in American society. Whether the public liked it or not, the hippies became a permanent part of our culture. The controversial messages of the hippies and their socially unacceptable lifestyle made them targets of very much negative publicity. They were all portrayed as drug pushers, prostitutes, and thieves by the media. (Mills 76-77) The belief that their subversive ideas could destroy society’s structure and values caused people to fear them.
Following the 1960s, as many of these hippies grew older, they returned to normal society. They eventually bought into the establishment they once fought against, by getting married, moving into suburban homes and buying family cars. Some stubborn individuals never lost their hippie appearance and lifestyle. Many of these interesting individuals can still be seen in San Francisco and the East Village in New York. A large number of these hippies are even conveniently located in beautiful Ithaca. Their appearance is still the same, but now hippie gear is mass-produced for the department stores. Regardless of how their lives had changed, the impression that hippies left will last forever. They demonstrated the power of America’s youth as they fought to bring about change. The hippies taught people to appreciate nature and the beauty of the human body. Most importantly, hippies broke social boundaries, setting an example that others would follow.
Cavan, Sherri. Hippies of the Haight. New Critics Press. St. Louis, 1972
Kornbluth, Jesse. Notes from the New Underground. The Viking Press. New York, 1968
Mills, Richard. Young Outsiders, a study of Alternative Communities. Pantheon Books. New York, 1973
Neville, Richard. Play Power: Exploring the International Underground. Random House. New York, 1970 Newsweek. "Case of the Hypnotic Hippie". December 15, 1969. p. 30-32
Perry, Helen. The Human Be-In. Basic Books Inc. New York, 1970
Westby, David "Class and Politics in the Family Backgrounds Student Political Activists". American Sociological Review. Vol. 31, Oct 1966
Westhues, Kenneth. Society's Shadow: Studies in the Sociology of Countercultures. McGraw-Hill. New York, 1972
Wolf, Leonard. Voices from the Love Generation. Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1968
Yablonsky, Lewis. The Hippie Trip: A Firsthand Account of the Beliefs and Behaviors of Hippies in America By A Noted Sociologist. iUniverse. 2000
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"The Impact of the Hippie on American Society." 123HelpMe.com. 14 Feb 2016