You can't trademark a feeling

'Hon' culture functions as a tribute of sorts to white, working-class women

December 21, 2010|By Mary Rizzo

Hampden has become center stage — again — for debate about the image of Baltimore. In 2009 we had "flamingo-gate," and now, in the waning days of 2010, everyone is talking about the Hon trademark controversy. Denise Whiting, owner of Café Hon and the HonBar and creator of Hampden's annual HonFest, has decided to trademark the word "Hon," to limit and control its public, commercial use. Many people are angry, feeling that Ms. Whiting is laying claim to something that she has no right to own. (Others argue that while "hon" is a popular term in Baltimore, it's hardly unique to Charm City.)

Here's the irony of the Hon trademark debacle: Denise Whiting is right — to a degree. She's the one who put the word next to the image of the beehived, rhinestoned and blue-eyeshadowed caricature that has become so prevalent in Baltimore. While "hon" had been used in the vernacular as a term of endearment, there's no real evidence that anyone ever referred to themselves or anyone else as a capital-H Hon before she made it the name of her restaurant. However, the reason why Hon has become so important to a certain subset of Baltimoreans is not for the tackiness and not for the kitsch but because it gives them an opportunity to collectively and publicly remember.

Hampden, Highlandtown and Dundalk were white, working-class areas for generations. Women — some of whom were diner waitresses, sure — were the glue of those places. Granted, the nostalgia tends to erase the negative aspects of those neighborhoods, like the insularity, the homogeneity and the racial exclusion. But what was positive was the sense of community, brought into being through the efforts of women who sat on their steps chatting with neighbors, who were part of the local bowling league and who got their 'dos done at the salon around the corner.

As a business owner, Ms. Whiting should learn the lesson of contemporary marketing: Encourage people to emotionally connect to your product and make it their own. Apple is exemplary at this. People around the world spend their time creating iPhone apps because they are looking for creative means of expression and want to make something that can be used by others. For most, the possibility of making a little bit of money is a side benefit. When Charlene Osborne won the Baltimore's Best Hon Contest in 2009, she wore an outfit that incorporated a handpainted screen of pink flamingos, referencing the famed Baltimore folk art and the lawn ornament supposedly beloved by Hons everywhere. Her effort in making that outfit bespoke her emotional connection to the image of the Hon and the city's history, as well as a personal desire for creativity.

At its best, this is what happens at HonFest: Strangers interact. They laugh and joke and take photos with women dressed up in silly outfits, which they've assembled from thrift stores and handmade items to express their understanding of Baltimore. By doing so, they engage in a process of remembering Baltimore's history, especially the role of women in that history. Rarely are working-class women ever publicly honored or memorialized. For the women who are emotionally devoted to it (and there are many), HonFest is the only place they can go to do so.

When Susan Hodges won the title of Baltimore's Best Hon in 2006, her first act was to lay the bouquet of flowers she had been given at her mother's grave. For Ms. Hodges and other women, dressing up at HonFest honors the strong women who raised them.

Ms. Whiting is right. She made the Hon what it is, but to try to control its use is also to bankrupt it. To trademark Hon is to eviscerate any sense of community that may have existed in the term and in the festival. Rather than a beloved-by-many cultural symbol, it will become a sterile, corporate brand, no more meaningful to Baltimore than Coke, Nike or Walmart.

Is that what Ms. Whiting — or any of us — wants?

Mary Rizzo, a historian and writer of essays about HonFest and the cultural image of the Hon, is associate director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Her e-mail is honfestresearch@gmail.com.

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