Walking down Queen Street West, you will inevitably find yourself among them: bearded hipster men clad in skinny jeans, eating organic quinoa. They occupy neighbourhoods, colonizing them with independent cafés and vintage boutiques. Maps have been made to demarcate their territory, and websites obsess over their idiosyncrasies.
By virtue of the conversation they inspire, derogatory or otherwise, hipster men can be considered a unique subculture. Today’s social critics sometimes go so far as to call hipsterism the final descent of culture, a regression into ironic nothingness. The description is flattering — when was the last time that cyberpunks or skateboarders were subject to that level of hyperbole?
Defining hipster men
It’s easy enough to sketch a rough image of a hipster male. Discarded cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, conspicuously stylish glasses, and a wardrobe raided from Goodwill all come to mind. However, beyond basic preliminaries, giving a proper account of this phenomenon is difficult. That is because there is more than just one type of hipster, and so to talk about them in a general way means describing something that is necessarily vague. A subculture dedicated to irony leaves room for vast disparities of interpretation, from the faux-redneck to the Mad Men-inspired hipster. Does your hipster model himself after a lumberjack or Kerouac?
Describing the significance of hipsterism therefore means abandoning any pretense of precision. Speaking broadly, we can at least identify a few basic themes: a whimsical nostalgia for the pre-computer age, a desire for a bohemian lifestyle balanced by a fear of actual poverty, a compulsion for the ironic, and a re-examination of masculinity.
While each of these is integral to an understanding of male hipsters today, it is the last theme that may be the most important. It is the exploration of their masculinity that has thrust male hipsters into society’s sneering spotlight.
Hipster masculinity is a special and obscure sort, one that manifests itself in two main ways: as a self-conscious caricature of traditional men, and also as metrosexuality.
The second of these manifestations is not particularly interesting, specifically because it is neither ironic nor original. Metrosexuality has many historical precedents; having existed across various cultures and eras. Groups of men have traditionally rushed in earnest to fill developing gaps in society’s changing understanding of gender. In some cases, a hipster’s effeminacy can be traced back to an earlier “emo” phase. The addition of soy lattes or organic produce doesn’t suddenly make metrosexuality novel or exceptional.
Irony and identity
When a hipster wears skinny jeans, it is banal; however, when he crafts an image for himself along the lines of traditionally masculine figures, such as lumberjacks, it gets interesting.
Consider how this type of masculinity is expressed externally. We see it all the time: flannel, beards, tattoos, and beer. Hipster masculinity is expressed through a mosaic employment of classical “male tropes.” It is a particular kind of masculinity that wants to be rustic and earnest, yet is often painfully self-conscious. It is inorganic because, frankly, hipster men cannot stop gesturing at themselves. The way in which hipster men choose to express their gender identity is fundamentally ironic. For that reason, there is something distinctly premeditated about the way that hipster men express their identities — the details are not considered haphazardly.
PBR, for instance — one of the most recognizable symbols of modern hipsterdom — took hold within the community specifically because it has traditionally been considered a blue-collar beverage, enjoyed by the gristled men of America’s working class. It is therefore naturally incongruous with the bohemian sensibilities of hipsters. The beer’s presence within hipster culture is therefore, in itself, an ironic wink and nod. The same principles apply to flannel clothing, beards, and tattoos. Each of these character affectations is curated to best demonstrate the hipster’s dedication to and awareness of social irony.
Gestures that might have otherwise been direct expressions of how a man sees himself instead become vain and pretentious cultural commentary. Gender may be a social construct, but that does not mean that all expressions of gender identity are similarly manufactured. Compared to other interpretations of masculinity, the hipster form is rather counterfeit, constantly keeping a critical eye on itself. A hipster will buy a log of wood, not out of necessity, but as a character accessory, alluding to a lifestyle to which he has no real access. The inherent problem with hipster expressions of manhood is that they are too refined, too polished, and too overacted.
Sources of insecurity
A hipster man’s decadent expression of manliness is arguably motivated by an underlying insecurity in his role as a man. Otherwise, there would be no incongruity between themselves and their calculated affectations. That insecurity necessitates a romantic conceptualization of “manhood,” in order to better understand and assimilate.
Classical representations of masculinity and manhood are rooted in the language and images of violence. Manliness, as it has been portrayed and celebrated throughout history, is closely related to stories of combat, domination, and aggression. Perhaps that is why, historically speaking, stories of war and bloodshed are rife with references and allusions to an idealistic concept of “man.”
Cultural heroes, from Gilgamesh to Batman — while complicated characters — are artists of aggression. However, for modern men, there are fewer channels available through which to express their inner warriors. There are few opportunities for a modern hipster male to indulge violence or express aggression. However, he cannot escape a society descended from barbarism, including its antiquated gender norms. For that reason, the hipster is uncomfortable.
There is also the problem of what the hipster does for a living. War is not always literal combat. We subjugate the Earth; we reap its natural resources for our own purposes. The brutal effort involved in phyiscally altering our environment is satisfying. Perhaps that is why the manufacturing and agricultural industries have usually been considered to be intrinsically more masculine.
Hipsters, however, generally make a living by working in cafés and offices; their familiarity with factories often ends with industrial loft apartments. They deal with aesthetics, and the management of invisible data. They sit on chairs all day, and their generation is chronically under-employed. As a result, hipster men are forced to go without the satisfaction that comes from self-sufficient living, which is also often considered a hallmark of masculinity.
A necessary niche
All of these factors compound to make for a man who is deeply anxious about himself. According to the criteria of his forefathers, he cannot be a man. He feels threatened, and with little recourse, the hipster pantomimes the manliness of old, filtering it through his own essential irony.
Hipster masculinity, by way of exaggeration, becomes theatre playing theatre, a mask cast from a mask. This performativity exists perhaps because some feel the need to reconcile themselves as men with a history that holds their lifestyle and gender as illegitimate. At some subconscious level, some hipsters feel the phantom smirks of their war-hardened grandfathers — of steelworkers, or of cowboys, for instance.
Hipsters exist at the flawed but crucial vanguard of a more gender-fluid world. By challenging the expectations of what it means to be men, they move society forward, enabling people to be more than just emblems of their genitals. The so-called manly-men are just going through the necessary growing pains.