Guest Blog : Akile Ahmet on Talking about Masculinity Today

We’re really pleased to post this guest blog from Dr Akile Ahmet, a Knowledge Transfer Fellow at Brunel University, who is seeking to connect the research findings of the CelebYouth project to day-to-day youth work practice. In this illuminating piece she explores the differing ways of being a young man today, a still neglected aspect of work with both young men and young women. In doing so she points towards the challenging and amusing conversations we could be having with young people about masculinity.

one direction
Thanks to

Contemporary Masculinities: what are young people saying?

In a recent article about male pop group One Direction, Gender and youth scholar Mark McCormack argued that the group embrace a more ‘inclusive masculinity’ characterised by tactility, open displays of emotion and a pro-gay attitude, so much so that a Sunday Times journalist reported how “They tousled each other’s hair and jostled and caressed one another like a bunch of frolicking puppies”‘. In many ways, One Direction and other young male teen stars like Justin Bieber do seem to represent a marked shift from the ‘hard’ masculinities of 1980s and 90s music idols like the chiselled and ‘pumped’ Marky Mark or the swaggering and warring Gallagher brothers of Oasis.

So what do young people think about these new celebrities and the ways of being a young man they are seen to stand for? And what can this tell us about continuities and shifts in contemporary masculinities more generally? In a recent article in Sociological Research Online called ‘“Justin Bieber sounds girlie”: young people’s celebrity talk and contemporary masculinities’, writers from the CelebYouth project respond to these very questions.

Both Justin Bieber and One Direction generated a lot of discussion among the 148 young people in England they spoke to in their study. In particular these celebrities were targets for both expressions of disgust and hate, and laughter among the young people they interviewed. As the research team argue, we need to take seriously these expressions and performances in young people’s group talk about celebrity. As they argue, ‘celebrity talk is more than just celebrity talk’. Rather celebrity culture provides a set of resources, stories and characters through which young people make sense of the world and their place in it, the ways in which they build and understand their identities. As such, the team argue that the ways young people talk about male celebrities can tell us something about youth identity and gender today. In particular, they draw on theories that look at the performative work of disgust and humour – where in saying we are disgusted by something or by laughing at something, we are saying something about ourselves and social norms: who we are and who we are not. In expression of disgust we invite others to exclude the disgusting object; expressing humour can be subversive allowing us to challenge norms, whilst at the same time reinforcing them.

In this blog post, I discuss some of the paper’s findings, asking: What can young people’s talk about these celebrities tell us about the possibilities and limitations of these more inclusive and modern forms of masculinity? How far do humour and disgust in young people’s group talk provide a space to subvert the sexism and homophobia that have policed masculinity and how far do they reinforce them?

Justin Bieber, One Direction, #hating, #loving

Justin Bieber was ‘hated’ by many of the participants in the study, as was One Direction. . “Oh I hate One Direction. I hate them so much’ was a line that was heard repeatedly in the interviews. For example, the following is an extract from one of the group interviews conducted:

Interviewer: Right. Maybe we should stop there. Anything else you want to say before I turn off the recorder?

Ben: We all hate One Direction.

In group interviews few participants said they liked these celebrities and when they did, they were often ‘told off’ by their peers. There appeared to be a consensus being enforced in which these male celebrities were seen as the wrong types of celebrities to like or be a fan of. So why were they hated so much?

Masculinity was central here, as the team explain in their article. Participants made comments about these celebrities being ‘girly’ or questioned their sexuality. For example, participants ridiculed Bieber for his ‘high pitched voice’, others stating “don’t get me started on how much I hate Justin Bieber, he’s a girl”.

These celebrities were also seen to be outside of of ‘appropriately’ adult modes of masculinity, denoted through their perceived ‘brat’-like behaviour and the embodied physicality of a ‘puny’ and child-like body. Bieber was especially criticised for his failed attempts to pass as a ‘bad boy’, unable to break from the shackles of his child star image. This sense of ‘fakeness’ in relation to performances of masculinity was entwined with accusations of inauthenticity related to their association with ‘manufactured’ pop music.

As the team argue, in this talk participants expressed anxiety about these celebrities’ rooted in a perceived ambiguity in relation to gender norms. Through their proximity feminine they are expelled from the circle of ‘proper’ and legitimate masculinity.

In this brief excerpt we have argued that there is a policing of masculinity through the use of disgust and hate in young people’s talk about celebrities. However, there is also another way to maintain – and play with – the boundaries of what is deemed ‘acceptable’ ways of ‘doing man’: humour and laughter.

It’s the perfect way to pick up women”

Disrupting this pattern of collective hate and disgust expressed about these celebrities, some male participants in fact positioned Bieber and One Direction as being the ideal male celebrity and expressed positive feelings towards them. In the paper the team look at how expressing such positive feelings towards these celebrities and the masculinities they stand for was made possible through laughter and humour.

One example of the use of humour in young people’s talk about these celebrities is when ‘Will’ a male participant, the interviewer observed him drawing a love heart around ‘One Direction’. The following is an extract from the group interview where ‘Will’ was one of the participants:

Male: Like Will Smith. I’m sure he rocks.

Interviewer: You think Will Smith is sound. Right?

Male: He’s probably a decent guy, right.

Will: He’s sexy. I mean.

Interviewer: Is he? So you like Zac Efron and One Direction. Yeah (group laughter)

Harry: Is there something that you want to tell us? (group laughter)

Will: From a guy’s point of view I think Will Smith is just.

Interviewer: Right. So Okay, who else do you think? So Will Smith is sexy? Who else is sexy?

Will: Tom Daley. Apart from the old socks (group laughter).

Male: Why are you choosing all the guys? (group laughter)

Will: Well it would be weird if you wanted to be a woman wouldn’t it?

This extract shows the moments of laughter and joking in order for Will to express a level of desire towards the male celebrities he has named. The expression of desire towards the same sex from Will is quickly diffused via laughter.

In another instance Edward a male participant said the following: “I know this is going to sound bad here, considering I am a guy. But the ideal celebrity right now is Justin Bieber, alright. Cos’ he’s, he’s getting what he wants, end of discussion. He knows that the guys are going to hate on him”. Edward’s use of ‘I know this is going to sound bad’ attempts to ward off any criticism and stay within the realm of what is acceptable. He jokingly is able to say that he actually quite likes Justin Bieber. Edward uses disclaimers that he likes Bieber because he “gets the girls”, which allows him to align himself with traditional forms of masculinity and heterosexuality.

Celebrity is a space of imagination and allows for a discussion of masculinity among young people. In this short discussion of findings discussed in the article, I have tried to explain how hatred and laughter in young people’s talk about celebrity are ways of controlling and maintaining predefined gender norms but also possibly ways of playing with these. By taking seriously young people’s seemingly ‘trivial’ talk about celebrity, we get a fascinating insight into what it means to ‘do’ masculinity today.

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