"You Are Your Own Alternative": Performance, Pleasure, and the American Counterculture, 1965-1975
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“You Are Your Own Alternative” examines influential countercultural groups in the 1960s and 1970s. In opposition to historians who dismiss the politics of the counterculture and blame the counterculture for contributing to the collapse of social movement activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this dissertation highlights the intensely political and productive aspects of the counterculture. With case studies that focus on the Los Angeles Freaks, the San Francisco Diggers, the New York Yippies, and the lesbian feminists of Olivia Records, “You Are Your Own Alternative” demonstrates that the counterculture offered powerful political and performative challenges in this period. Countercultural activists valorized free expressions of sexuality; outlandishly adorned bodies; complex music; theatrical celebrations of community; and free access to collective resources like food, clothing, and health care. They staged participatory performance-based protests intended to seduce passersby into experiencing new paradigms of human interaction and expression. In joining in to act out, countercultural activists argued, new converts would discover, through performance and pleasure, their authentic selves. But while “You are Your Own Alternative” emphatically argues that each of the four countercultural groups it examines was radical, progressive, political, and thoughtful about the way it conceptualized the dominant order and the performance-based methods of activism that could be used to resist that order, it also critiques these countercultural groups for the limitations of their vision; for their problematic politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality; and for their failure to move beyond narrowly advocating for what I call “alternative norms,” which countercultural leaders suggested were simultaneously authentic and universal. The result is a set of arguments that casts new light on the counterculture and the changing nature of political protest and cultural resistance in the post-1960s era.