The repertoire of his styles and gestures owes much to various archive of post-1945 youth culture. The hipster is a new edition of a male figure – women hardly feature in hipster discourse – described by the writer Norman Mailer in the late 1950s as the White Negro. White guys with college degrees pretending to be black outcasts. Like the beat poets. This is initially about an appropriation of black sexuality by whites. Outwardly, the hipster also claimed his proximity to white trash – the US underclass. With his recognisable signs, trucker cap, flannel shirt and forearm tattoos, he thus engages in a kind of ethnic and social cross-dressing.
In his remake of the 2000s, he also wants to present a non-conformist masculinity. How is this to be understood in the context of contemporary gender politics? Is the hipster a queer figure? With its rather unobtrusive gender quotations, the hipster initially presents a diversified post-phallic style. The roughness of an imagined working-class masculinity is turned into playfulness. His sexuality is domesticated and can only be guessed at. To pass as an intact staging of masculinity, his turned-up skinny jeans are too stylistically broken by the combination with oversized T-shirts. The set pieces of his appearance have lost the power to promise authenticity in the repeated rounds of subcultural recycling.
The hipster is a fashion figure. Is the reference game of his signs thus a critique of a culture that otherwise succumbs to the fascination of masculinity? Does the hipster, seen in this light, signify gender-political progress?
But the hipster not only flirts with the mobility of his gender, but also insists on his “naturalness”. He is a contradictory figure. He demonstrates his claim to masculinity neither with pumped-up muscles nor with macho posturing. The hipster does this in a simpler but effective way. No matter what he wears, the inevitable mark of the hipster is the beard. What relationship of masculinity and fashion is being designed with this?
Gender studies and queer theory provide the tools here to understand how the representation of masculinity and masculinity works in the case of the hipster. Crucial here is the distinction between sex as biological gender and gender as social gender. But how exactly to think about the relationship between sex and gender has been a central question of first a feminist and then a queer project since Simone de Beauvoir.
At first glance, it seems that sex operates in a different way than gender. If we use masculinity to refer to biological sex and masculinity to refer to social sex, masculinity functions as a marker of a physical materiality, the primary (penis) and secondary (muscles, beard growth, voice) sexual characteristics. In contrast, masculinity in the sense of gender shows up as a repertoire of attitudes, habits and styles that work with the materially given characteristics, but are by no means reducible to them. Thus, stylistic elements of gender can be summarised as habitus (Bourdieu), through which a body repeatedly enters the scene in social contexts.
However, the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick has already pointed out the difficulties of separating sex and gender – the distinction between which is always threatening to collapse, especially in the German language with the word “gender”. Insofar as both are the result of regulative attribution processes, gender and sex cannot be categorically distinguished. Where does sex end and gender begin?
Gender is proclaimed
This form of critique, which understands both gender and already sex as coded, has been popularised above all by Judith Butler’s analysis. Here, gender is not only understood as a cultural interpretation of a biologically given sex, but the coherence of “biological” sex itself is already understood as a cultural achievement: From the moment of its attribution of meaning – it’s a boy! – sex is always already gender – masculinity is always already masculinity.
With Butler’s analysis, the sequence of sex and gender is reversed. Gender is not an expression of sex, but sex is an expression of gender. The promise of freedom of gender studies and queer theory depends on this logic of constructivism, which is supposed to encompass not only fashion and gestures but also the materiality of the body itself.
So how does this theory help us understand the hipster?
The hipster presents a less intrusive masculinity. He shows himself tired of the gestures of aggressive masculinity. With his cool carelessness, he seems ready to renegotiate his manhood. With his reference to various cultures of masculinity – the lower class man, the black man – the hipster offers a form of masculine masquerade. These citational appropriations work towards a habitus that does not invariably affirm his gender. His performance can thus be deciphered as post-phallic. But does this destabilisation through style already irritate the notion of sex, the “biological” gender that underlies this figure?
Natural and casual
On the one hand, the unobtrusive nonchalance of the hipster does break up the closed nature of the principle of masculinity. At the same time, however, the value of the hipster is established through a notion of naturalness: the coolness of the hipster only works as long as the nerd glasses remain framed by the beard.
So if we take the category of sex as masculinity – the materiality of the body and its signs – into the analysis following Butler’s analysis, it seems that in the case of the hipster, the promise of a post-phallic, mobile gender identity that he offers through his fashionable gestures is ultimately cancelled out by the reference to the naturalness that his beard is supposed to indicate. The reference to “natural masculinity” is made as an insistence on sex as biological sex and thus as a limit to gender enactment.
Yet it is precisely not ideal-typical masculinity whose naturalness is invoked here; rather, the naturalisation strategy – the obligatory beard – is applied to a diversity of imperfect bodies: the untrained body or even the underprivileged body. It is precisely under the condition of non-conformist masculinity that the hipster allows himself to naturalise it. Or vice versa: the certainty that vulnerable forms of masculinity are ultimately secured by stable masculinity makes them possible in the first place.
Experiments in masculinity
Under the pretext of a hip post-phallicity, a “natural masculinity” comes into play unhindered. The performance of gender can be as postphallic as one likes, one could say, as long as it is simultaneously secured as “naturalness”, these stagings remain risk-free. If the naturalness of sex itself is not at stake, masculinity experiments can be accepted with great composure. Indeed, it is precisely this serenity that continues to work towards the “naturalness” of the male sex.
A large part of pop-cultural images of men that have been in circulation since the 2000s function in this way. The lumbersexual, who with a demonstrative full beard and a less eclectic style of dress can be considered a hypernaturalised version of the hipster and in some respects has now replaced him as a lifestyle trend, can also be understood mainly in this way. The idea of masculinity not only remains intact here, it is celebrated.
What we have here is a butch turn, a symbol-political backlash. In terms of gender politics, the hipster is a conservative figure.
However, one could also say that the signs of gender for establishing a stable notion of masculinity have already worn out or evaporated to such an extent that in a post-industrial world that offers few cultural spaces for securing masculinity – sport, for example – the “man” will have to fall back on the signs of sex as biological gender in order to still symbolise a halfway effective masculinity. The beard – proudly worn not only by hipsters but also by the fantasy heroes of “Game of Thrones” and “Vikings” – would thus be one of the last weapons to assert masculinity within a culture that otherwise finds its gender productions less and less convincing.
An article by Peter Rehberg. The author was an affiliate fellow at the ICI in Berlin, where he completeed the work on the book project “Hipster Porn: Queer Masculinities and Affective Sexualities in the Fanzine ‘Butt’ “.
This article was first published in the Geman daily newspaper TAZ and translated from German.