Do you know a hipster when you see one? Have you ever been in the company of a hipster and tried to bring up the subject?
Talking about hipsters in front of hipsters is more taboo than you might think. The term is rarely lobbed in the presence of those who would fit the label. Most often it is used to describe other men in a disparaging way –like calling a guy a “douchebag” or a “fag.” At the same time, hipster has a different ring to it. It is calls the authenticity of one’s masculinity into question.
When I was studying a young, straight, white group of men who frequented the same bar, I regularly encountered the term. I learned quickly that if men found out they’d been “hipster’d” when they weren’t around, they were deeply offended. Part of hipster identity seems to be explicitly about NOT identifying as such. Hipsters have a casual form of detachment about identity and tastes—a gendered nonchalance that I call “practiced indifference.”
Sociological investigations about hipster identity—like Kathleen Ross and Dayna Tortorici’s What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation—have primarily situated hipsters as identified by tastes. But, as Mark Greif wrote, “[S]truggles over taste… are never only about taste.” Beyond this, hipster masculinity is associated with a specific group of men: they’re young, straight, and white. But they are also different from other young, straight, white guys—at least they seem to want to believe they are. They have an evolving set of tastes that encompass an eclectic array of musical interests, hair styles, body types, grooming habits, clothing, literary and artistic curiosities, culinary and libation preferences, and more. As a group, hipsters have a reputation as counter-cultural, androgynous, intelligent, creative and independent but are also mocked for only superficially exhibiting any of these qualities.
Hipster culture is popularly presumed to be more gender and sexually egalitarian. In fact, both men and women can be hipsters. But the most recognizable image of the hipster is a slender white man in his 20s or 30s and a great deal of hipster style plays on a cultural nostalgia for masculinities of old—what I like to call “vintage masculinity.” These performances of gender involve an astounding collection of aesthetics taken from specific periods of American history. Hipsters don’t adopt these masculinities in complete form (or the gender relations from which they emerged). Rather, they borrow bits and pieces, like styles of facial hair or dress or very particular cultural artifacts. They’re into craft beer and microbrews, they deride others for their “pedestrian” palates, and they have strange hobbies that might have been professions a few generations ago. They seem insistent upon finding small—but significant—ways to stand out from the crowd. Perhaps ironically, hipster men might be best understood as standing out by fitting in (with other hipsters).
Hipster masculinities rely on a specific interpretation of their performances of gender. They rely on a sort of “when men used to be men” understanding. But, they also seem simultaneously interested in incorporating the form but denying the substance of the masculinities they perform with their clothing, beards, and interests. For all their posturing, hipster masculinities appear (at least symbolically) intent on being taken tongue in cheek. Yet, if we’re to believe reports of young white men going to plastic surgeons for beard transplants, it’s clear that whatever this new trend is, it may not be undertaken as casually as the hipsters might want others to believe. As Greif writes:
All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position—including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why ‘He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster’ is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves. (here)
Hipster masculinity is all about proof of authenticity. Similar to any identity category worth its salt, membership requires some kind of validation, sometimes institutional of some kind. Hipster identities are less “formal” than this. They are internally validated. Hipster masculinity seems to require proving that other men have failed in their attempts to be hipsters. While Greif does not mention gender, it’s significant that he uses the masculine pronoun. As an identity, hipster masculinity seems to simultaneously—if contradictorily—claim: “Real men don’t care about masculinity,” “I don’t care what people think of my masculinity,” and, more subtly, “This (practiced) indifference is why I’m more of a man than you!” If we take a moment, stand back, and look at them without their beards, bacon and beer, this sounds like a fairly traditional story about masculinity.
Hipster masculinity may be less “new” than popularly imagined, and borrowing more from the masculinities it purports only to cite than the hipsters themselves acknowledge.