In my doctoral dissertation, I researched how immigrant youth (especially men) in European countries were using hip-hop culture to form their identities and communities.
Stuck between their parents’ home culture and their new surroundings, these young people often turned to hypermasculine forms of hip-hop to give them confidence in an uncertain world.
The performance of these hypermasculine identities took the form of hypermaterialism, the objectification of women, homophobia, aggression, body building, and other behaviors that gave the young men social status, street cred, or dominance over others. In essence, they used hip-hop to shape the ways they thought of themselves as men in society.
Gender performance is heavily influenced by the forms of gender expression that we see growing up. Our family and peer group combine with media representations to present certain behaviors, clothes, and grooming choices as “masculine” or “feminine.”
The boundaries between “masculine” and “feminine” gender performance are policed by adults and other children around us as we’re growing up. In America, boys are expected to act certain ways (“Be strong. Don’t express emotion. Fight for what you want.”) that are defined in opposition to socially constructed feminine gender performance.
All this to say – we grow up with a lot of pre-programmed expectations about what it means to be a man.
It’s fine if young men decide they want to perform traditional gender roles and embody mainstream cultural expectations of masculinity. But I want them to recognize that they have a choice.
I’m tutoring a 12 year-old boy who is trying to find his place in the world. I can tell that he is being torn between an image of masculinity that values sports and physical strength and one that celebrates reading and critical thinking.
My goal is to show him that those images aren’t mutually exclusive. He can be strong AND thoughtful. He can love sports AND reading. And ironically, a successful avenue to help him integrate those identities was poetry.
We wrote a “found poem,” where he selected several different books he liked and chose lines from them to create his poem.
By physically combining different aspects of his life (comic books, sports magazines, young adult literature, etc.), this wonderful student was able to see how these different parts of him could work together to make something unique and powerful. Because he is a unique and powerful young man who has so much to offer the world.
It can be so easy to feel like we don’t have choices in how we perform our identities. But one of the most beautiful gifts we have is the ability to express ourselves in all our complexity.
So whenever you’re feeling helpless or powerless in a situation, ask yourself this question: “What would I do if I didn’t care what people might say?”
You might just find that the answer leads you to be who you know you truly are.
How have you chosen to perform your identity in ways that challenge your upbringing? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section!