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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gómez

On Status as a Driver for Change

Updated: 5 days ago

As I’ve taken a dive into culture, I’ve been thinking a lot about status. I’m currently reading Status and Culture by W. David Marx, and it's a fascinating and insightful read. I decided to dive into the arts—broadly film, art, and music—because I knew it was powerful. The recent MET Gala’s popularity over the Israeli war exemplified this. As TikTok commenters launched a campaign to “block” celebrities, most Americans gawked and gazed at the carpet looks. Most Americans don’t really have the time or agency to do much about the war, and most are focused on acute issues like the economy anyway—and political polls reflect these priorities. While the children of the upper class can risk arrest at elite universities, most Americans do not have that luxury. To be sure, not everyone who protests is privileged, but they often have less to risk because of their age, social relationships, or financial stability. When our immediate culture validates our beliefs and actions, we are able to be our authentic selves, but when it is pinned against us, we are more likely to instead look for belonging in those around us and stay silent.

This issue, however, in the larger American culture, is extremely risky. Speaking out means not only arrest but losing employment or being the target of harassment. However, taking a risk requires knowing what's at stake. But because of the way culture and power drive how media is reproduced, consumed, and processed, those stakes are largely out of the public eye. From Fox News to The New York Times, the media has been consistently shown to be biased on this issue, and that drives viewers to be highly biased as well. A recent flight I was on suggests that: as I was in and out of consciousness, my neighbors across the aisle were complaining about the college kids who clearly were not really sure about why they were protesting. A surprising conclusion they noted due to their elite education. One of the people noted that they too had ties to Ivy League graduates. It’s in this way that status can possibly drive culture, through the inconsistencies present in high-status backgrounds and "low-status" beliefs like the ones held by Harvard protesters.

While they sighed and I drifted back into my slumber, we landed in Phoenix. It was interesting to me that the man, in the same breath as he condemned their actions and called them foolish, was quick to associate himself with the Ivy League, even when the connections were quite weak. These are conversations happening across the nation and into the void, as most Americans stay away from the topic anyhow. The arts can serve as a distraction for the public away from issues that matter the most, but my hope is that it can drive political action as much as it drives inaction. To do this, the information itself has to catch the attention of viewers and then allow them to feel a sense of agency. I wonder what a Met Gala à la Hunger Games would have looked like. While many comparisons were made, no one thought to mention where our Katniss was, and how the arts could be leveraged to make a political statement. Historically, some of the most powerful movements have come through the arts precisely because of how difficult it is to regulate, as opposed to free speech or physical manifestations.

To understand why the Met Gala is so powerful, we have to understand it's not just a fashion parade; it is also highly coveted because of its exclusivity. Regardless of your level of wealth, not everyone is invited to the gala; instead, you must be invited, showing you have cachet in the current culture and attention economy. And so, status is not just about economics, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Many celebrities do not pay for their tickets or clothing; rather, they are gifted these items by magazines, companies, and other entities. While the expectation is that attention economics will lead to classical economics, the bets are often less clear than the tic-for-tac influencer brand deals.

Rather, social status can provide a free pass for those on the in and interest and attention from those on the out. A couple of years ago, I was at a welcome reception for a members-only club where this was highlighted: a man and his friend were visibly upset at their lack of access to the club. When I mentioned that I had been before, he shifted to a line of questioning veering on a police inquiry.

While the man was successful in business, his lack of status in the creative arts had barred him from access to the space. His visible frustration was not lost on me as my memory gaps failed to answer his inquiries about the exact location of items in the building, like the boxing ring. The club, like the gala, required approval from a council. David Marx says that this lies in the difference between knowledge application and creation. While people can be very accomplished in business, medicine, or law, apart from research, they are not creating anything new. Rather, their status comes from their unique and voluminous application of knowledge in specialized settings. Creative types, on the other hand, are creating a semblance of truth.

This is an essential differentiation between the broader creative class coined by Richard Florida. He highlighted the distinction between the super creative core, the types allowed into the club, versus knowledge-based workers that form the broader part of the economically desirable. Young people with money to spend and improve cities in the process. While the man and his friends might have been upstanding citizens willing to be paying members, they weren’t necessarily creating anything new. One member complained, noting that they were letting anyone in, even surgeons. And so status also somewhat lies on an axis of accessibility. The harder something is to conceptualize, practice, or become, the more it can be a signal of status. While traditional careers require long paths to success, they are mostly clear ones. Instead, becoming a culture bearer, like an artist or creative, is muddier.

After gaining access to a variety of these clubs, associations, and organizations, I’ve seen firsthand the perks received. From breakfasts to parties and galas, being regarded as a “creative” type has given me much more access than my time in the philanthropy and political advocacy sector. Thankfully, I have now seven poetry collections under my belt that give me credibility, although only once was I prompted to perform one at these spaces.

I did enjoy the fact that my passion for climate change suddenly became en vogue in 2019 until it got superseded by the pandemic, race, and the economy. While being charitable was and is regarded positively, “do-gooders” are not awarded the same professional respect as those who amass wealth like the business types, especially in America. However, neither receives the preferential treatment of the creative core. Neither morality nor wealth pays the dues of cool.

Brands are willing to give you cocktails, concierge dining and driving services, and even facials for a chance at themselves being regarded as having status in the culture and therefore becoming profitable. The self, or collections of selves, becomes a vehicle for which these brands can leverage status. They don’t need to do extensive market research but instead rely on the growing number of lifestyle brands that house these “cool kids.” The interesting part about this is the exclusivity and its divergence with technology.

In the '90s, individuals and brands that catered to them were limited. NYC and LA were the places to be, and status was hyper-localized. Chloe Sevigny could be scouted twice just hanging out on the Lower East Side. As technology begins to create phenomena like micro-trends, the hunt for cool has no barriers to growth. Everyone and their mother has become a camera for cool. Instagram and TikTok become ways for people to prove their status and also for others to try to replicate it through conspicuous consumption and habits.

In this way, status has become trickier and ever-fleeting. Something that a fashion influencer wears might be posted on Instagram, only to be made on the factory floor of Shein that evening and shipped to middle America the following week. But status can’t be accessible by definition, and so new ways of making things less accessible are popping up. Whether it's a vintage jacket from your grandmother or an exclusive members-only club, these forms of gatekeeping pass the social media test. Behavior is another way we’ve seen status hold its value. The “clean girl” aesthetic was not necessarily about hyper-consumption but rather the opposite. The “cleanest” girl went to multiple workouts, ate little food, and went to bed early. The archetype held status due to its inaccessibility to most of its viewers.

This way, individuals with status can continue to project themselves online to the masses without actually allowing themselves. While money can serve as an indicator to gain status, it is not a wholly reliable one. And in this same way, status retains power as it becomes challenging to challenge. Amidst the recent cultural push for equity, social status was nowhere to be found. DEI didn’t extend to the leper.

Another individual I know who had been described as someone who chased status often used this argument, namely her various marginalized identities, to try to challenge her exclusion. She claimed that she was constantly discriminated against in her pursuit of status. Were it for employment, I would have listened up—but these were house parties. The truth was that many saw her desire for acceptance, like the man at the club, as a reason to deny her entry. To be a part of the creative core, you must be making and creating things, ideas, or products that others hope to gain, not be the seeker yourself. And so to maintain status, this population core has to be extremely open to new experiences in order to continue surfacing new ideas, products, and habits to those around them. While trends might be diluted to the masses, they won’t exactly evolve themselves. Instead, people must travel either in person or digitally to find content to capture and share. I find status and trends as related but not necessarily the same thing.

While something might lose its trendiness because it fails to be new, its lack of access continues to be a sign of its status. The SoulCycle’s and Soho Houses of the world might not be what they were in the 2000s, but they continue to have cachet because they remain inaccessible to the general public. Goods can also gain tiered status as they become accessible to more people when the pursuit of profits present in capitalism threatens to devalue the status of the products in question, meaning that the experience or product gains a level of exclusion. For example, going to SoulCycle in the Hamptons, Soho House in Mykonos, and F1 in Monaco.

But in the ever-moving landscape of fitness, membership clubs, festivals, and events, I wonder how status can be used as a driver for change. The tracing of trends and status through culture and society can be regarded as rather innocuous, but they are broadly drivers towards the way culture is built, replicated through media, consumed, practiced, and codified through politics. Throughout history, we've seen royal figures, socialites, military men, and philosophers embed their ideas, beliefs, and practices into the broader culture, influencing society far into the future.

One thing I’m currently stewing on is the connection to the self and others as holding status in the present day. Related to #mindfulness, #yoga, and #breathe, the concept of healing the self and increasing connection to others has become privileged. As we move through the mental health crisis and epidemic following the physical one, we see connection being touted as a new status bearer. Not just through burgeoning non-industry-specific social clubs like the San Vicente Bungalows, Casa Cipriani, and Zero Bond but also through more intimate social festivals and the growing trend of run clubs. I’m hoping to learn just what this model is by going to events near and far to see if I can find a proof of social architecture that seems promising, and if so, how it can be replicated to the masses through technology. If social connection becomes the thing, I hope we can use it to bring us closer to each other and have more empathy for those around us and across the world.



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