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Did hipsters start the gender wars? They foreshadowed the unravelling of sex roles

The end of man? (Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


May 6, 2022   6 mins

What could Florida’s legislation banning the teaching of gender identity to children possibly have in common with the skinny-jean devotees known as hipsters? Only that both movements are responses to the unraveling of settled gender roles that is one of the most transformative events of our lifetimes.

The fact that the unraveling is taking place is one of the few points on which the Right and Left can agree. Both sides take for granted the collapse of the traditional “gender binary” and its replacement by a novel and fluid suite of gender identities. The disagreement is over whether this represents freedom and progress or coercion and decadence.

Many on the Left argue that a teacher should be allowed to counsel children on their sexual identity and introduce them to academic gender theories. They argue that socialising young children to embrace concepts such as gender fluidity and “birthing person” is essential to the student’s civic education and personal development. Their opponents reject these efforts as a political intrusion into the domain of moral and sexual education that should belong to parents.

But the political and cultural debates, which focus on ideology and government policy, ignore the crucial role that technological and economic revolutions are playing in replacing the male-female dyad with a new virtual multiplicity of gender expressions.

In the first decade of the new millennium, amid the talk of terrorism, war, clash of civilisations, and global financial meltdown, there was an accompanying cultural preoccupation with hipsters. For at least a decade, this seemingly trivial youth subculture dedicated to vintage t-shirts, anti-consumerist “indie” consumerism, trucker hats, and a self-referential style, seemed to be a leading concern of America’s chattering class.

“What was the Hipster?” asked N+1, the premier journal of New York’s young intellectual scene in a 2011 symposium and subsequent book that provided a formal historiography for the subculture which, by then, appeared to be in decline.

In a more thorough analysis than most commentary from the time, N+1’s Mark Greif argued that hipsterism was not merely a set of fashions and aesthetic choices, but the product of an interaction between larger cultural and economic forces. In America’s urban cultural capitals in the early 2000s, Grief wrote: “The indie bohemians (denigrated as slackers) encountered the flannel-clad proto-businessmen and dot-com paper millionaires (denigrated as yuppies), and something unanticipated came of this friction.”

The emblematic hipster trousers, haircuts and bands that were popping up in Williamsburg, Silver Lake and Shoreditch represented a cultural evolution. The old skin suited to a factory-production-based economy and its attendant white-collar professions was being shed, and a new one adapted to the post-industrial knowledge economy was growing. Hipsterism was the cultural manifestation of a stratifying information society in which the caste of the professional class came to express its status through an ornate language of tastes and luxury beliefs.

“The postindustrial economy is indifferent to brawn,” wrote the journalist Hannah Rosin in her 2012 book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. “A service and information economy rewards precisely the opposite qualities,” Rosin continues. “Social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus — are, at a minimum, not predominantly the province of men. In fact, they seem to come more easily to women.”

The new economy thus laid a new material foundation for gender relations.

From the beginning, the hipster sensibility contained a reaction against the success of the women’s movement. Norman Mailer, author of the 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” and forefather of the modern middle-class hipster genre, was openly hostile to the women’s movement, which he criticised at length in books and public debates for being humourless, sexless, and refusing to grapple with the biological differences between the sexes.

A half century after Mailer’s essay, latter-day hipsters preserved the boyish, performative elements of his reaction against feminism but divorced it from any political content. Instead of Mailer’s philosophical critique, they popularised an amateur pornography aesthetic in photography and music videos and ushered in a campy revival of macho fashions such as mustaches, woodsman beards, and trucker hats. Certainly in America, anyway.

These anti-feminist fashions were, however, only one aspect of a sensibility that was less a platform for modeling a specific masculine ideal than a stage on which conflicting impulses and concerns about gender norms could be acted out and then obsessively analysed. “At the same time that hipsters were dressing like Seventies-model Stanley Kowalskis,” wrote Greif, “they were consuming culture that was considerably more anxious about machismo, heterosexuality, and maturity.” Other hipster looks such as skinny jeans also played against traditional ideas of masculinity.

Hipster artists could be criticised as closet sexists who hid their chauvinistic attitudes in layers of irony. Or they could be written off as dandys, too twee to make anything truly moving or lasting. In either case, hipster was not only a way of describing and critiquing a type of youth fashion, it was pointed to something different in contemporary manhood.

Meanwhile, the rise of hipsters coincided with and accelerated the mainstreaming of postmodern themes in popular discourse. The professional classes, already prone to self-examination, could not help but notice around the turn of the millennium that amid the digital boom, their lives were becoming more curated and self-conscious, increasingly mediated through data and simulations, and suffused with ironic detachment.

There followed what you might call an irony panic. Every few months a new think piece appeared in a glossy magazine declaring the death of irony or heralding its rebirth. The suspicion of irony and relentless inspection of authenticity focused mostly on male artists, like the musician Beck, the writer Dave Eggers, and the filmmaker Wes Anderson.

It was possible to notice all this at the time without taking any of it seriously. “It’s easy to let this hypothesizing go too far, and you get into trouble when you try to charge hipsters with representing the ‘ethos of our age,’” warns a 2012 essay in The Atlantic. Hipsters were “just kids making their way from young adulthood to the rest of their lives”. Much of the hipster commentary was absurdly overinflated — wasn’t it ridiculous to make so much out of something so frivolous? But the young American intellectuals who saw it as their duty to analyse and interpret and, eventually, treat the culture, really did spend years concerned in all and high seriousness, with hipsters. And part of what drove that persistent fascination, I would suggest, is that the figure of the hipster spoke to fundamental changes in men and women and the relations between them.

There was something unreconciled, if not schizophrenic, in the hipster outlook, which both venerated personal authenticity and assumed unlimited freedom for individuals to construct new identities through their tastes and consumer choices. But in its own ridiculous way, the hipster phenomenon anticipated the burgeoning gender experimentations that would shape the social-media-driven youth subcultures of the 2010s, which, in turn, fed into the current political wars over gender and sex education. The strange political evolution of the past decade has seen the same anxieties about gender and authenticity once present in the ironic and whimsical poses of hipsters harden into articles of the most humourless, irony-resistant political dogmas.

Through a process of cultural evolution that was driven by networked social technologies, the same hipster’s subcultural gender performances of the 2000s were succeeded in the 2010s by a creed of speculative gender absolutism. Rather than demanding to know whether an individual’s self-expression was ironic or authentic, as had previously been the norm, the new style of gender activism presupposed that subjective statements concerning gender not just true but ontologically valid.

In the subcultural firmament that emerged on digital platforms such as Tumblr and spread rapidly through Twitter, the post-structuralism of gender theorists such as Judith Butler which had once been the province of academics and activists, was treated as ground-level truth. Involuted treatises presenting gender as a social construction with no innate characteristics flourished online and yielded an expanding array of virtual identities. The effect of these changes is neatly encapsulated in the ever expanding list of pronouns, such as the one in a curriculum recently adopted by a school district in Illinois, where teachers instruct first graders that they can choose from options that include “she”, “he”, “tree”, “ze”, and “zir”, among other choices.

Whereas the characteristic attitude in the adult world toward earlier youth subcultures, including hipsters, tended to be a mix of condescension and alarmism, this was reversed over the past decade as the online forums for gender experimentation fed into and were fed by the growing power of social justice activists.

In a progression that is still scarcely believable, post-structuralist theories that were first transmitted from academic theorists and activists to young people exploring their capacity for self-invention, were then adopted as mantras by the most powerful political figures in the United States.

It’s not simply that a phrase such as “birthing person”, used in President Biden’s 2022 budget proposal to refer to pregnant women, would have been unrecognisable to earlier generations. Beyond the change in language, the ideologically sterilised concept of maleness and femaleness it represents is a deliberate step away from biological and theological understandings of what it means to be human, and into a realm of totalling political authority.

Progress marches on and hipsters, once so determined to stay on the cutting edge, now seem positively rooted and organic compared with the era of online trolls and Tumblr identity fundamentalists who replaced them and in turn seeded a new sense of reality. Can anyone imagine a George W. Bush era Supreme Court nominee answering, “I’m not a biologist” when asked whether they can provide a definition for the word “woman”. That is exactly what happened when the question was posed to Biden nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has now been confirmed as America’s newest Supreme Court Justice. It was a trick question of course, but the fact that such a question can be a trick is telling. Countless media commentaries appeared in American publications assuring readers that Jackson is on the side of “the science” showing that defining a woman is righteously complicated.

Parents in Florida and elsewhere are under no obligation to investigate the gendered dimensions of techno-capitalism before deciding whether they are comfortable with their children being taught from handbooks that are designed to sever the connection between sex and biology. Yet, if they are curious about the deeper currents at work and why it is impossible — even if conservatives were to take control over every cultural institution tomorrow — to revert to traditional gender roles that have been wiped away by economic revolutions that most conservatives once embraced, they may find that, against all odds, the hipster offers an illuminating historical example.


Jacob Siegel is Senior Writer at Tablet Magazine

Jacob__Siegel

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polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

“Both sides take for granted the collapse of the traditional “gender binary” and its replacement by a novel and fluid suite of gender identities.”
Then both sides are as mad as hatters.
There is of course the scene from Life of Brian where it is agreed that Reg should have the right to have babies, even though he couldn’t have babies. So this claptrap was floating around fifty years ago.  

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

If I remember correctly, the nuttiest stuff floating around fifty years ago was ‘childrens’s rights’. However, these were conceived as personal autonomy and political rights. I suspect the far-left envelope-pushing of rights was what Life of Brian was satirising. I think they used the right of Reg to have babies as an element of absurdity because it was so obviously outside the envelope. No one (except perhaps the most far-out) suggested that the radical extension of rights included pretending objective reality doesn’t exist. However, there is certainly a direct line from the constant pressure to destabilise social norms fifty years ago and the attempt to deconstruct our objective world today.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I am sure that you are right Judy. Your memory is better than mine!

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Not really that pompous.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

‘Gender identity’ reinforces oppressive and sexist behavioural stereotypes. However, instead of saying that girls should wear pink and high heels it says that anyone who wears pink and high heels is a girl. Feminists, rightly, oppose both.
Girls and women are female human beings. Like other female mammals, they play the female part in the reproductive process. Any purely human behavioural norms, relating to dress, naming conventions, jobs, housework etc are social constructs in a particular society at a particular time. No one has to observe them but it doesn’t change their sex if they don’t.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

Indeed in an Islamic world where covering oneself in a black garment is the correct norm were a man to do the same he does not thereby become a woman.

Robert G
Robert G
2 years ago

They are not entirely social constructs. Behavior is influenced in many regards by biological factors. But I agree with the larger point, which you stated very clearly and persuasively!

Michael Askew
Michael Askew
2 years ago

“Both sides take for granted the collapse of the traditional ‘gender binary’ and its replacement by a novel and fluid suite of gender identities.”
No they don’t.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago

This must be one of the least convincing of explanations. Gender theory is rooted in an effort to substitute old religions of the West with a new religion, which is “of the mind”-you are free to imagine what you like. Vis. That if I jump from the Eiffel Tower, I’ll grow wings(if I believe it enough).

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

Hipsters were a little late to the party to cause the shifting of gender toles. It’s not like June Cleaver woke up in 2011 and suddenly discovered that, while she was busy making meatloaf dinner, Wally had changed his pronouns and was now a non-binary. trans-woman named Wanda.
The decline of men has been going on since the industrial revolution. A world in which success and physical work are uncorrelated is not a world conducive to men. “God created men and women; Smith and Wesson made them equal.” Bessemer, Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Moore and Gates all had a hand in it too.
The metrosexual hipsters just happened to show up at the point that 150 years of inertia was coming to fruition.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
2 years ago

Strangely only happening in Western societies

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
2 years ago

“Only that both movements are responses to the unraveling of settled gender roles that is one of the most transformative events of our lifetimes.”
“Both sides take for granted the collapse of the traditional ‘gender binary’ and its replacement by a novel and fluid suite of gender identities.”
Really? I live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, one of the most liberal places in the United States. The gender wars have had no effect on me, my family, or my community, let alone a transformative one.

Jamie Ken
Jamie Ken
2 years ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

No, but the groundwork is being laid to fundamentally change human societies.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

At one stage, Western scientists believed the Colltaz problem (“hailstone numbers”) was invented by the Soviets as a distraction, the scientists would be too busy trying to prove such an addictive and seemingly simple mathematical conjecture that they would forget about semiconductors, nuclear weapons, early-warning systems, etc. I think the same was said about Tetris, at least it had such a distracting effect on my classmates in Physics. I don’t know about these examples, but (half-) seriously, I do think Gender Theory was invented in (i) either a CIA psych lab, to distract the masses from the iniquities of Capitalism or (ii) an FSB lab to fatally undermine the West from within. If (ii) is true, then Putin has blundered, a few more years of gender wars and the West would have been on its knees (zher knees?).

Emre 0
Emre 0
2 years ago

If you like a conspiracy theory, my favourite one would be, that a good deal of this was invented by Foucault to get legal and socially accepted sexual access to children – as he publicly asked for in 1977. We know now about his trips to north Africa for this where he could avoid the law as well. Why Foucault became a part of the foundation for the Left is though an interesting unanswered question.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Actually I suspect, if anything, that it’s China helping this one along. Nor is this idle speculation: China is openly financially involved with our major educational and research establishments, and it is impossible to believe that the amount of money involved doesn’t provide the CCP with influence and authority within the institutions in question. In other words, if Critical Race Theory and gender politics is dominating in our universities, that is only happening with the consent of the CCP.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Thank goodness we have someone to blame. I used to lie awake at night worrying about the gendered dimensions of techno-capitalism, and now all is clear.
Not.

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 years ago

Beards just came back into fashion. You’re overthinking it, mate.

Emre 0
Emre 0
2 years ago

In a progression that is still scarcely believable

Call me cynical, but I think the roots of this go back to the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. Establishment Democrats were able to topple the left-wing populist candidate Sanders in part due to the power of the superdelegates (who came overwhelmingly in support of Clinton), establishment Republicans lost to Trump.
This meant, all of the establishment put their collective power behind culturally left concerns under the Democrat party roof in an attempt to tilt the political climate.
Were it the other way around, and Bernie Sanders got the nomination (and likely the election against whichever Republican candidate), there would be an oppressive conservative push in American politics the other way towards conservatism instead.
Yet it all seems to be backfiring. The winds are blowing the other way, and only so much can be done to move public opinion.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“The fact that the unraveling is taking place is one of the few points on which the Right and Left can agree. Both sides take for granted the collapse of the traditional “gender binary” and its replacement by a novel and fluid suite of gender identities.”

Really? I am not persuaded of that at all. Non-binary genders remain a daft obsession of a minority of adults amongst the chattering classes, and a means by which adolescents, who now can be as old as their late twenties instead of merely teenagers, seek to piss off their parents.

Almost nobody is stupid enough to actually believe, sincerely, that there has always existed a spectrum of genders hitherto undiscovered until a self-appointed enlightened elite chose to reveal them all to the rest of us. Nobody really believes that sex is not binary and not determined at the point of conception. These new “ideas” are not sincere convictions, but merely a means by which progressive activists attack norms and conventions for their own cynical reasons, that’s all.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

I was at a discussion meeting once; a sort of trade union group and one of the party, after listening to a lot of waffle, made the comment: ‘Sure, we can decide that the sky is purple if you like.’ Sort of rings a bell with the nonsense that one hears bandied about.

Sorry to digress but that last sentence reminds me of Bob Monkhouse: ‘Oh, you didn’t know I was from from Kent. I hear people muttering it as I pass by.’

Have a good weekend.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Well, how would a George W Bush-era Supreme Court nominee have answered when asked whether he or she can provide a definition for “woman”? What would the good nominee have said?
“Come again.”?

Vince B
Vince B
2 years ago

Interesting take.
I am reminded of “Pajama Boy” who President Obama used in an ad to try to sell ObamaCare. He was a late ’20s hipster in thick-framed glasses, sitting in a plaid onesy holding a cup of cocoa in his hands, looking out onto the world with the smug, ironic smile of detachment which was the mark of the hipster. The ad read something like “Talk to your family about getting health insurance.”
I admit I was one of those who had an immediate, visceral loathing for this little twerp and everything he stood for. Not for the insurance program, but the flabby, soft, permanent boyishness he represented. I couldn’t imagine him being a truly helpful neighbor, or useful father or husband, or having any connections with anyone or anything that could possibly rely upon him if the going got rough. It seemed like he rejected everything about traditional, strong, sturdy, conventional maleness as passe’. I hate Pajama Boy.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

The West is now full of this pushing the envelope stuff. And childhood is a short time. The very young have for a while now no longer been walking on sunshine: much less so as the analogue age becomes ever more distant (an age in which phrases like ‘endless summer days’ were commonly heard).
Instead, increasingly, the very young have been walking on 
 eggshells. Much more so as the digital age is increasingly stamped on society (an age in which there is no time to seem endless: time must be fully occupied. There is no surplus time in the digital age).
And the world increasingly becomes miserable and vexed.

Robert Eagle
Robert Eagle
2 years ago

I must apologise. I misread the title “Did hipsters start the gender wars?” as Did hipsters start the genital warts?
Which was rather worrying. Until I saw the truth in my error.
Not the bit about hipsters (who will soon be gone anyway), but the realisation that gender wars and genital warts are equally dangerous and undesirable.