On YouTube, teenagers are doing the things that teenagers have always done, but for an audience – of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps even more – making it unsurprising that a classic teenage rite of passage has crossed over to the web. In a video entitled I PIERCED MY OWN NOSE WITH A SAFETY PIN AT 14, a pretty, round-cheeked girl with bangs the colour of verdant moss looks straight into the camera. ‘It me, making a mistake again,’ she deadpans, leaning in to wipe her camera before presenting a sterilised safety pin, a gold-plated nose stud with a pink Swarovski crystal, and a bottle of surgical spirit. ‘I’ve got to say,’ she says with the practised ease of someone who has grown up speaking to subscribers the way the teenagers of my era, long ago, spoke only to their immediate peers, ‘out of all the things I’ve done – piercing my ear, tattooing myself – this is the one that I’m most nervous about because I know how easily my nose could get infected.’ Tellingly, she cuts the camera for the deed itself, and although it’s easy to assume that she has done so because showing the audience her pain is far too intimate, I am convinced that it has more to do with the typical reason teenagers, as they have always done, do at-home piercings with a safety pin: to maintain the illusion of chill, adult toughness, swagger being as essential to teen life as pilfered booze or shameful crushes. Teenagers stick safety pins through their lips, noses, ears et cetera for the same reason they compete to see who can drink the most, get the highest, drive the fastest, or casually fuck the hottest girls or boys – to demonstrate that the looming terror of adulthood, with its ugliness and its responsibility, does not intimidate them.
Flipping through a host of other YouTube videos showing adolescents sticking safety pins into their bodies, most of them bright eyed and lightly dusted with pink acne, I thought about my friend Lizzie, who for the span of one summer as a teenager would give herself new piercings with a wine cork and a safety pin whenever she was bored.
Dry and quick witted with a slightly husky voice, her hair bleached platinum and her eyes ringed emphatically with kohl like wrong answers in a test, she was cool and funny and au fait with obscure indie music; she embodied what it actually meant for a fifteen-year-old to be an ‘old soul,’ which had nothing to do with a willingness to date middle-aged men the way that middle-aged men often say it does, and everything to do with a cool, preternatural air of jadedness. Already she seemed to have sussed out that the problem with the world was its inherent shittiness, and when she smoked a Marlboro Light and stared into the middle distance it was with the steely gravitas of someone twice her age – the steely gravitas, in other words, of someone who could stick a pin straight through her flesh without registering pain or discomfort. It may seem like a conceptual stretch, but I would argue that there is something in-between about the safety pin itself: between youth and experience, pain and nurture, innocence and kink. Think of the fact that concurrently with teenagers filming and then posting piercing videos there are clips on pornographic websites of submissives having safety pins pushed through their nipples or their testicles for punishment and pleasure; then consider the domestic function of the safety pin as, primarily, a tool for use in a cloth diaper, designed to prevent its sharp point from piercing the flesh of babies.
The result is that it has become an object that, for many, signifies rebellion, punk, and fetishistic sex, but the particular kind of rebellion, punk, and fetishistic sex that is now quite often seen as the preserve of bolshy, snotty adolescents. In the mid-to-late 1970s at SEX, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s seminal King’s Road punk boutique, many garments used the safety pin as both a decoration and a statement of intent: a tool to hold together their respective parts in such a way as to evoke a hurried bit of DIY, the spiky, unfinished nature of each item snarling look, but don’t touch. A series of t-shirts in which chicken bones, strung together with chains and safety pins, were used to spell out words – ROCK, for instance, or PERV or FUCK – feel as if they exemplify the early Westwood style, being at once funny and gross, naughty and a little goofy. Likewise, the iconic image of Queen Elizabeth II with a safety pin pushed through her lip produced by artist Jamie Reid in 1977, which served both as artwork for the Sex Pistols and as a design for a muslin bondage shirt produced by Westwood, has a teenage jolt of silliness behind it too, even if it’s also, as the critic Sean O’Hagan once suggested, ‘the single most iconic image of the punk era.’ It suggests a very simple, deliciously adolescent brand of rebellion against a very obvious symbol of authority, ‘the crown’ being quite literally the number one example of synecdoche by any usual definition: at first glance, it looks as if the Queen is pierced, but on a second look it’s obvious that her mouth has been pinned shut. (More teenage still, and infinitely dumber: one version of the image has the monarch’s eyes replaced with swastikas, a symbol that recurred in early punk as an inarticulate form of provocation, and which thankfully has not returned to fashion since.) The V&A museum, in its overview of SEX, described the shop’s then clientele as ‘prostitutes, those with “underground” sexual tastes, and young proto-punks brave enough to take a seriously edgy look out onto the street.’ ‘It brought clothes that were about sex to the street … the zips and buckles of Westwood’s bondage trousers were really suggestive and fetishistic, except that they were made out of cloth, lightweight for the summer and heavier for winter,’ the former Blitz DJ Princess Julia recalled in 2016, in an interview with AnOther magazine. ‘There was a real inventiveness going on, if you could only afford one Seditionaries item, you could make things out of sink plungers and plugs and chains and mix them all up.’
Sink plungers, plugs and chains, certainly – but if I think of a notable example of a fetish-lite domestic object bursting into the general consciousness in style and media, via SEX or otherwise, I think immediately of one particular use of safety pins. The bleed between the sexual counterculture and the mainstream that Princess Julia describes has more or less continued since the 1970s, reaching its luxurious apotheosis in a 1994 Versace collection inspired, as Gianni Versace himself admitted, by those early days of punk. Elegant in form and totally inelegant in their full-throated projection of wealth and flash, the collection’s most memorable pieces were a series of black evening gowns seemingly held together with gold-plated pins – gowns which only become more memorable when a certain Elizabeth Hurley, then a relatively unknown actress, wore one to the premiere of the British comedy film Four Weddings and a Funeral later that year. In a red carpet shot that has since become one of the most iconic of the 20th century, Hurley flips her smooth, expensive-looking hair over her shoulder and looks straight into the camera, her head tilted in a pose that makes the image almost painterly; her skin, lightly tanned and taut, is set off by the golden safety pins that hold her dress together. When Helena Christensen wore the original gown on the catwalk, her athletic supermodel body made the neckline mildly risqué, but on Hurley it is pure sex, practically obscene. The pins, even if the effect is illusory, appear to strain. Objects that suggest BDSM, Chris Kraus writes in Aliens and Anorexia (2000), ‘aren’t blank and waiting to be filled by the presence of the actors and the play. The objects here are meaning-cards, they hold all the information.’ What this means is that when we look at images of Elizabeth Hurley in that Versace dress, we think of SEX – the shop – or sex – the act – and Hurley trades on just enough sedition, just enough suggestion of a proclivity for being thoroughly pricked, to give her naughty cultural cachet, but not enough to make the mainstream think she is a pervert. The ‘safe’ in safety pin might be seen to imply that anyone who chooses to affix their garments with them remains safe from sudden exposure; still, exposure is a possibility, and that is one more sense in which the safety pin plays both sides of the game.
Under a video on the pornographic site xHamster entitled Slave is punished with safety pins in tits, some of the commenters are touchingly poetic in spite of, presumably, expressing themselves with one hand. ‘She howls in pain as the pins pierce her nipples,’ one suggests, ‘but at the end she’s smiling bravely, proud of what she’s endured.’ ‘Happy ending for all, she even smiled,’ says another. Reading through these comments, with their mixture of anonymous sadomasochistic lust and optimistic tenderness, I thought about a moment in cinema in which a safety pin is instrumental in an unusual, sometimes sexual relationship that ricochets between emotional self-harm and naïve, saccharine sweetness. In Spike Jonze’s Her, a film about a man who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, a safety pin becomes a symbol of devotion, an apparatus for connection between a flesh-and-blood human and a hot digital babe. Theodore Twombly, a moustachioed proto-incel, loves his operating system because she is able to offer him almost everything a guy like him might want: endless knowledge, a willing and pliant character, and an inability to age or change. To ascertain how best to design the AI in order to suit Theodore’s needs, the computer asks him one thing: How was his relationship with his mother? The electronic substitute that it produces, which decides to name herself Samantha, is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and her competence and husky gentleness allow Theodore to sink further and further into middle-aged boyhood, fleeing adult human women and regressing with his toy. When the two go on a sunlit date and hang out at the beach, he hitches Samantha high enough that her eye-lens can see out of his pocket with the aid of a large, silver safety pin. Soon, they are inseparable enough that she might just as well have been pinned to his skin; he is a slave to his new mistress.
‘Do you talk to anyone else while we’re talking?’ he asks one day after she goes offline. Samantha informs him that – because, duh, she is a commercially available operating system – she is in communication with 8,316 other users, and that of these users she is in love with nearly 650 of them. ‘It doesn’t take away at all from how madly in love I am with you,’ she sighs. ‘I still am yours, but along the way I became many other things, and I can’t stop it.’ In this moment, Theodore’s face as he sits dumbfounded recalls another of those xHamster comments: ‘The feeling of no escape and [being] at the mercy of another is indescribable.’ Of course there was something kinky about Theodore’s relationship with brilliant Samantha – it had just been an entirely different kink than the one he presumed it was, less to do with her lack of a body than with her limitless and ever-evolving power in comparison to his infantile weakness. In one shot, Jonze cuts in tightly on the pocket where Theodore keeps Samantha, and around the safety pin itself we see a plethora of other tiny holes, a kind of metaphorical scarification that proves Theodore’s devotion: in spite of being exactly the kind of starched, buttoned-up man one might call ‘pin neat,’ he wears his submissiveness on his breast at the same time as wearing his heart on his sharply rolled-up sleeve. An erotic love affair founded on mommy issues, played out as a romance between a wise woman (or wise ‘woman’) and a man-boy, and then suddenly subverted in a way that resulted in a pseudo-D/s elevation of one participant, and the humiliation of the other? Of course the safety pin was an entirely fitting emblem of their fucked-up love, which managed to be nonconformist without ever being entirely grown up.