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Topics for popular cultural analysis can spring out at you at the most unexpected times—in fact, that is one of the goals of cultural semiotics: to attune oneself to the endless array of signs that we encounter in our everyday lives. Take for example the catalog from a Minnesota-based outfit called The Celtic Croft that I came across quite by accident recently. A mail-order/online Scottish clothing and accessories emporium, The Celtic Croft offers its clientele not only traditional Highland gear but "officially licensed Outlander-inspired apparel and tartans," along with authentic Braveheart kilts. Which is where popular culture, and its significance, comes in.
I admit that I had to look up Outlander (of which I have only rather vaguely heard before) to understand what the catalog was referring to, but what I learned was quite instructive. Based upon a series of historico-romantic fantasy novels by Diana Galbadon, Outlander is a television series from the STARZ network that features the adventures of a mid-twentieth-century Englishwoman who time travels back and forth between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries as she leads a dual life among the Highland clans and the post-World War II English. Something of a breakout sensation, Outlander has recently been renewed for a fifth and sixth season.
To grasp the cultural significance of this television program—and of the clothing catalog that is connected to it—we can begin with constructing the system to which it belongs. The most immediate association, which is made explicit in The Celtic Croft catalog, is with the Oscar-winning film Braveheart, but the Highlander television and movie franchise is an even closer relation. More broadly, though set in the eighteenth century, Outlander can be regarded as a part of the medieval revival in popular culture that began with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and which led to the whole "sword and sorcery" genre, encompassing both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones with its emphasis on magic, sword play, and a generally romanticized view of a pre-industrial past.
The current controversy raging within medieval studies over its traditional focus on the European Middle Ages—not to mention its cooptation by avowed white supremacists—reveals that such a system is fraught with potential political significance, and it is highly likely that a complete analysis of the phenomenon would uncover elements of conscious and unconscious white nationalism. But, if we limit ourselves here to The Celtic Croft catalog and its Braveheart and Outlander-inspired merchandise, we can detect something that is a great deal more innocuous. To see this we can begin with a tee-shirt that catalog offers: a black tee with white lettering that reads, "Scotch: Makin' White Men Dance Since 1494."
Now, I can see how this slogan could be taken as a kind of micro-aggression, but it can also be seen as something similar to the "white men can't jump" trope: expressing what is actually an admiration for qualities that are not conventionally associated with white people—especially in relation to stereotypes of Anglo Saxon self-repression and ascetic Puritanism. What the dancing Celt signifies is someone who can kick up his heels over a glass of whiskey and who is decidedly not a stodgy Saxon.
This interpretation is supported by the larger context in which The Celtic Croft universe operates. This is the realm of Highland Scotland, whose history includes both biological and cultural genocide at the hands of the English, who themselves become symbols of brutally oppressive whiteness in Braveheart and Outlander. It is significant in this respect that William Wallace's warriors in Braveheart were conspicuously portrayed with the long hair and face paint of movie-land Indians, while the British of Outlander are depicted as killers, torturers, and slave traders.
So what we have here is something that might be called an "escape from the heritage of oppressive whiteness," by which white audiences/consumers (who do not have to be actual Scots: even Diana Galbadon isn't) identify with the Celtic victims of Anglo history, finding their roots in such historical disasters as the Battles of Falkirk and Culloden. Purchasing the once-forbidden symbols of the Highland clans (kilts and tartans were banned for years after Culloden), and watching movies and television shows that feature the heroism of defeated peoples who resisted Anglo-Norman oppression, is thus a kind of celebration of a different kind of whiteness, one that rejects the hegemonic variety.
In other words, rather than reflecting white supremacy, the Celticism (I think I just coined that) of The Celtic Croft and its associated entertainments expresses a certain revision of the traditional American view of history away from Anglo-centrism towards an embrace of its victims. At a time when differing experiences of historical injustice are rending our country, this is no small recognition, because it could potentially help create a ground for unity rather than division.
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