Hipsterdom: The New Sexism
Spot the man: a crowd of baggy flannel-wearing, grimacing individuals passes by, grumbling about their latest obsession, which is either classic lit (more likely Cormac McCarthy than Sylvia Plath) or an indie musician (more likely James Mercer than Anais Mitchell). Can’t tell based on this short description? Answer is: their genders are mixed; they’re not all men, but they all aspire to masculinity.
Every flash of inspiration has its muse. Famous fashion designers in New York and Paris don’t get their ideas from thin air: they peruse books, movies, visual art—they pay attention to the clothes of those kids that nobody else is watching. Oftentimes, means of borrowing are problematic. America has learned to love the clothes of black and Hispanic inner city kids, but not the kids themselves. One Western trend has gendered implications that no one seems to acknowledge: it’s the phenomenon of the hipster.
The hipster, for those who have lived with closed eyes and plugged ears for the last decade, is defined by Urban Dictionary—a website designed by hipsters—as “a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.” Hipsters are known as the group that is everywhere and nowhere: they are omnipresent, but no individual wants to admit to being one. Of course the hipster phenomenon isn’t relevant to every corner of the Western world, or of America, but it is also true that even singular hipster traits have managed to infiltrate a wide variety of communities.
Each aspect of the hipster, from attire to attitude to hobbies, exudes conventional masculinity. Just for a start, let’s continue to examine fashion. Many social commentators have already pointed to clothing standards as a site of sexism. American women didn’t wear pants at all until the late 19th century, and not en masse until the 1970’s. To this day they have an association with maleness, and in a society still ruled by the patriarchy, this means that they have greater cultural capital than garments associated with women, like the dress. Wearing pants makes a woman seem more powerful, whereas a donning a dress makes a man appear weaker.
Hipster fashion has taken this idealization of masculine attire to a new level. While hipsters’ style cannot be homogenously characterized, they often wear the following: muted colors (because bright or pastel colors signify “effeminate” flamboyancy); loose shirts that play down the curves of a female body; sneakers or big boots. Dresses, skirts, and purses are not entirely absent, but are rare, even on women.
If only clothing was the sole offender. But hipster sexism is insidious enough to influence even the personality traits our culture glorifies. Hipsters are known, after all, for being “chill.” They are defined by their apathy. Hipsters don’t particularly care one way or the other—in fact, they don’t feel very much at all. Of course, humans are unable to actually avoid emotion, but hipsters give off the impression that they can perform the impossible. Rather than—god forbid—expressing passion, sadness, or exuberance, they believe it to be cooler to exist above the world of feelings. This distance also empowers the infamous hipster irony.
Emotion, like most things, is gendered in the eyes of society. Boys are taught to hide their feelings in the name of avoiding “weakness,” whereas girls learn to embrace them. Most modern scholars agree that gender is a construct created by self-perpetuating stereotypes; therefore, to an extent, women are more openly sensitive. If, according to hipster rationale, it’s not cool to be emotional, then it’s not cool to be feminine.
Hipster hobbies are also suspect, shunning any potential feminine component. When hipsters drink, it’s beer, the manliest alcoholic beverage. Sugary or colored drinks should be avoided… no one wants to be that person who orders the Lemon Drop. Like the rest of us, hipsters listen to music, read books, and watch TV. But when they listen to music, it’s typically a male-dominated band (take, just for one example, Digital Music News’ March 2014 male-dominated list of “The Top 25 Most Hipster Bands”). When they read, it’s generally a book written by a man, about a man (see: Goodreads’ digital shelf of “Popular Hipster Books”). When they watch TV, it’s a show starring a man (series like Sherlock, Flight of the Concords, Freaks and Geeks, and Doctor Who top Ranker.com’s list of “The TV Shows Most Loved by Hipsters”). There are exceptions, of course, and no one’s taste can be reduced to sweeping generalizations, but female artists undeniably remain underappreciated in hipster circles. This is true of larger society, as well, and yet it is more abhorrent amid this group of people who take pride in the idea that they are devotees and defenders of art.
Because one can gain cultural capital by seeming more masculine, it’s likely that the hipster trend originated with women as a (potentially subconscious) attempt to gain power. As for the reason that this particular version of masculinity is idealized (a sort of disheveled lumberjack, as opposed to, say, a punk rocker or country redneck), I’m not sure, although there are myriad other think pieces devoted to exploring the roots of the hipster phenomenon. What is certain is that this glorification could never have happened to a female archetype.
Perhaps you wonder if all of this conforming-to-maleness is really just a sign that our society is moving further toward equity. If gender is becoming less differentiated, doesn’t that mean that equality is on the way, at least in hipster circles? And indeed, the goal of many branches of feminism is treating men and women exactly the same, until the lives of most women parallel those of most men. Other branches focus on acknowledging and appreciating the ways in which women’s lives are different from men’s. Feminist international relations scholars point to the fact that women perform most of the world’s unpaid reproductive and family care labor, work that isn’t considered in economic analyses. Feminist historical revisionists remember that the lives of ordinary women shaped all aspects of history. Feminist political economy advocates for the insertion of the female values of care and altruism into the public sphere.
This is the kind of nuanced thinking so often lost in analyses of social issues. Gender is constructed, but not false: it has created real patterns. So, the fact currently remains that it’s cool to be like a man, and less cool to be like a woman. We must acknowledge gender differences and celebrate them, as opposed to imposing upon all people a gender-neutral-but-actually-male model like the hipster. Next time you’re at the bar and feel inclined to order the Lemon Drop, go for it.