Thursday 29 May 2008

We Hate the Kids pt1: the madness of young men.

Hypermasculinity, like hyperfemininity, is a pose of the powerless. There is a reason you don't see gangs of City bankers stalking Moorgate and Maylebone with long knives and hoods pulled down over their heads - and it's not because they've been better brought up.

It's because they've no need to. When you've got money and status and class and education and power, you don't need to act out physical prowess and aggression because it's not all you've got - although the hard-working ladies at Spearmint Rhino might well testify to the fact that city lads too are prone to the odd bout of gibbon-like strutting and howling.

Finer minds than mine have discussed this function of the culture of young male violence. The pronouncement of US anti-violence educator Jackson Katz on gang culture amongst young black males in the States can be applied equally to disenfranchised boys of every race in London:

“If you're a young man growing up in this culture and the culture is telling you that being a man means being powerful… but you don't have a lot of real power, one thing that you do have access to is your body and your ability to present yourself physically as somebody who's worthy of respect. And I think that's one of the things that accounts for a lot of the hypermasculine posturing by a lot of young men of color and a lot of working class white guys as well. Men who have more power, men who have financial power and workplace authority and forms of abstract power like that don't have to be as physically powerful because they can exert their power in other ways.”

So you're fifteen, and the whole world is against you. Teachers and pop songs tell you you can do anything, should be anything, anything you want to be, but poverty and class and race and prospects and precedent say different. Telly and magazines bleat trite nonsense about love lasting a lifetime when your family is bitter and broken and as poor and messed-up as you are; pills from the doctor and packets from your dealer are the only thing keeping all of you from despair, you've got no models for being a man without meanness and posturing, all you've got is raw, raging energy, your muscles and your mates.

Of course you want to fucking kill something.

Manhood. Sounds tough and meaty in the mouth, a word torn off with the teeth and lips. Promises something constructive from self-loathing. Just because nobody's carrying placards doesn't mean this isn't social rebellion. After all, nobody knows better than the British left how much easier it is to attack each other than to fight the system.

It may come as a surprise, but society is not a set of matched binaries. Although women incontestibly have it harder, it's not only girls but boys, too, who face discrimination on the basis of their gender and of their sex. The expectations and cruelties of western masculinity are not equal but equally devastating to the young people brought low by someone else's idea of identity. In this horrifyingly unequal culture, young men as well as young women can find themselves powerless, albeit in smaller numbers. And in exactly the same ways, the most visceral and primitive elements of the received gender role, the parts that afford the most personal power and pride in a world bereft of pleasure and opportunity, are the ones you seize on when you've got no other system left for self respect. For girls, that's often chauvinistic porn-culture; for boys, it's violence, posturing and gang-membership.

And it's been played out for years, in the suburbs and the backstreets of the richest and most glamorous cities in the world. But this month, two nice white kids have been killed: cue a moral panic and campaigns in the Hate and the Sun. And suddenly the biscuit-eating public is frightened again. Mums and dads of the baby boom generation: get real. Violent hypermasculinity doesn't happen in a vacuum, it's a symptom of poverty and desperation and hopelessness, and you made us.

*And yes, this is a race issue as well as a gender issue. It was a race issue long before the acronym-happy BNP GLA member posted this piece of filth on the Telegraph's new blog page. But the racial and gender prejudices inherent to this consuming fear of teenage violence can't be separated. Far be it from me to deny that Her Majesty's Constabulary does genuinely sometimes just like to beat up black kids, but that isn't the only issue here: black males, and especially young black males, are to many conservative whites the epitome of that terrifying, disenfranchised hypermasculinity lashing out because it has nowhere else to go.


  1. Awesome post. Gives me few new sides of society to look at a bit closer.

  2. I think I can hear the sound of several nails being whacked squarely on the head. It seems to me so easy, so trivially easy, to explain the cause of the behaviour we see repeated in towns and cities across the country that I often wonder if I've failed to grasp a larger, unknown, point.


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