Young Thug’s emergence on the mainstream hip-hop scene was met with some backlash. He is one of the most polarizing artists in the hip-hop industry because his persona, physical appearance, lyrics, and unique fashion sense. Immediately, I (like others) dismissed his music by closing my ears, eyes, and mind. His music and wardrobe reflects his impulsive personality: one moment, he’s wearing a tank top with black jeans, the next he’s rocking a leopard print skirt with a pink tutu. The versatility of his wardrobe has made him a target for slander, but if we critically think through the backlash Young Thug has received for his uniqueness, we see him challenging our views of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the dominant form of masculinity within gender hierarchy. In an interview with Bossip Magazine, Dr. Earl Wright II, a professor of Africana studies discusses Young Thug’s impact by saying he’s “forcing hip hop, and society in general, to reevaluate what it defines as ‘masculine.’” Historically, hegemonic masculinity accepts the dominant construction while socially excluding others who don’t fit the mold. Slowly, society is becoming more accepting of different forms. However as a community we need to openly critique our methods, perceptions, and protection of masculinity.
Masculinity isn’t inherent from birth. The sex organs you are born with determine if you are male, female, or intersex. Masculinity is a socially constructed spectrum of acceptable behaviors and attributes for males that vary in region, culture, history, and time. As males, we are taught behaviors, attitudes, and attributes within the current construction of hegemonic masculinity. Growing up, everything played into this process—your environment, friends, teachers, mentors, family, choice of activities, reactions, thought processes, even media, music, and images.
In youth, the expectation of male relationships with women is to pursue sex. We don’t understand the difference between the social construction of masculinity (what we are taught that we ought to be) and the actual experience of being a man. Imagine shaping your identity to fit into your biggest ‘suitcase’. The ‘suitcase’ (hegemonic masculinity) is the framework of your perception, and the size of it depends on your viewpoint of religion, gender roles, sexuality, morals, and general life, among other things. Ideologically it maybe achievable, but in reality, you have to make potentially harmful sacrifices to fit into it. As you fill the ‘suitcase’ throughout your life, you might arrive at a crossroads: should you fit yourself in the suitcase or expand it? Those who don’t fit are deemed outcasts. Commonly, we evaluate the wrong product. Is it the person or the suitcase that doesn’t fit?
Truly, every person is built with the potential to achieve what they desire. Our individuality is supposed to impact society, but the forceful one-size-fits-all method hurts individuality at every turn. This style of construction can lead to mediocrity, depression, lack of self-truth, and more. Individuality outside of the social standard is sometimes met with public condemnation, rejection, slander, taunting, and even physical violence.
Young Thug is unique, but he isn’t strange. People resent what they don’t understand, and he’s often ridiculed about his appearance for dressing outside of male hip-hop (and hegemonic masculinity) norms. Young Thug cross-dresses and calls his male friends “bae, lover, hubby”. He’s a man who, unapologetically, rejects the tiny suitcase society tries to force on males. The spectrum of acceptable behavior (and dress) is smaller for black males as compared to other races. Channing Tatum reenacted a Beyoncé song in full drag, with little social backlash while Dennis Rodman trying on wedding dresses created and/or reinforced a perception that the man has issues. Channing Tatum created a refreshing security of his masculinity while Dennis Rodman’s mental state was deemed unbalanced.
The social punishments are more severe toward black masculinity. Males’ fashion isn’t aimed at promoting the full expression of personalities and interests, rather it reinforces hegemonic masculinity. Our current framework for what males can be, what we can do, and how we can dress needs to be expanded. Young Thug, along with others, is showing different ways of expressing manhood and expanding our thinking around masculinity in the process.
Our aspirations for future black males are high, but as a society, we aren’t building our males to achieve fulfillment in their lives. It’s time to include all aspects of our personalities and experiences in our framework.
Historically, a man is measured by level of strength (physical, emotional, mental, and/or spiritual). From birth, we’re taught that “weakness” of any sort is the ultimate dishonor of a man, and males will go to great lengths to avoid being perceived as weak. In order to complete human wholeness, we need to accept attributes like expression of vulnerability, sexual exploration, non-aggressive emotions, and male to male expression. Our current construction of black masculinity is so limited that we exclude those who don’t fit into our own version of ‘man’: gay men, emotional men, passive men, and bisexual men for example. Is it any surprise that we can’t accept Young Thug, when we don’t accept our own family members, friends, classmates, or even ourselves?
As a community, we understand black males are struggling in numerous ways. Yet we’re afraid to have open-minded conversations about the construction of black masculinity and the ways it’s current construction is contributing to these struggles. From adolescence, black males are taught to repress ‘feminine’ traits such as showing pain, fear, compassion, or copious amounts of love. Any time a man violates the norms of hegemonic masculinity, his manhood is questioned. The current form of hegemonic masculinity is such a fragile construction that the slightest infraction shatters the illusion and removes the status of “man” from the offending individual. This hegemonic masculinity requires males to deny emotional aspects of themselves which are essential to creating a complete human. This creates internal scarring and manifests itself in our interactions with the outside world.
For years, we’ve divorced masculinity and femininity in our males. Masculinity and femininity aren’t ending goals, but the continuation of human development which we use to understand our identities. Masculinity cannot fully exist without its feminine counterpart, and vice versa. Every human being is born with both attributes, but through time we are forced to repress and condemn our feminine attributes. In relationships, we struggle with our emotional communication. We’re deemed weak when we show our vulnerability, but are also called weak when we can’t or won’t express our true emotions. If we are constantly being told and shown that expressing emotion is a sign of dishonor, how do we expect to have healthy emotional expression when it’s time to communicate? Masculinity can’t thrive without femininity like a bird can’t fly without both wings. It may get off the ground, but it can’t soar. Femininity (right-wing) and masculinity (left-wing) are instilled for us to develop as complete individuals.
Young Thug and others are being criticized, isolated, marginalized and having their masculinity questioned for expressing their personalities. People are using their behavior to categorize them as feminine, gay, weird, or weak, as if those terms are inherently insulting. If our culture can’t accept a rapper wearing tutus or a young man wearing skirts to school, how will black males ever be free to be our true selves? We cannot continue to abuse black males by denying them aspects of humanity in order to fit within a limited construction of hegemonic masculinity. If we don’t accept males who live outside of the spectrum of hegemonic masculinity, we don’t understand the variety of our people.
Young Thug’s unique fashion is a beautiful act of self-love and a rejection of hegemonic masculinity. He has forced me to critique the suitcase and perception of my own masculinity. Until we accept every form and contributing piece of black masculinity, we will never be able to grow fully into ourselves. Slowly, our society is embracing these different forms, but fear slows the progress. The process of development will involve time, discomfort, and emotional pain, and it will challenge you.
Are you being true to yourself? Can your masculinity exist without excluding people? Does your masculinity reject or uplift people? I’m confident that encouraging all forms of black masculinity will allow our community to thrive in incredible ways.