Masculinity and Asian gangs

Table of Content

This essay will explore the relationship between masculinity and crime in Asian gangs.

Throughout history, the concept of a ‘gang’ has typically been associated with males, particularly young males. Gangs are frequently connected to masculinity, youth culture, the working class, the underclass, and subcultures of urban youth. In contemporary British society, there is a newfound emphasis on placing blame on Asian gangs (Alexandra p4:2000). Following World War II, there was a notable influx of individuals from the Indian sub-continent – including Pakistanis, Indians, and Bangladeshis. The majority of these migrants arrived in search of improved economic opportunities and settled in various regions of England where manufacturing industries thrived; some examples include Bradford, Birmingham, Oldham and London’s east end.

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The way Asian communities in Britain were portrayed as law-abiding, unthreatening, and without issues ignored the impact of racial inequality, violence, and resistance on their identities (Brah, 1996; Sivanandan, 1981/2 cited in Alexandra p15:2000). The only criticism towards Asian communities came from black feminists who focused on the experiences of Asian women and topics like forced marriage, domestic violence, sexist culture, and patriarchal traditions (Alexandra 2000). Glavanis (1998 cited in Alexandra p16:2000) states that gender relations play a significant role in Orientalist and neo-Orientalist viewpoints regarding Asian cultures. This is particularly seen in representations that depict them as inherently patriarchal and sexist. These concerns were often kept private and received little attention. However, the focus on Asian young men and “the Asian gang” has altered perceptions of Asian masculinities from passive and hyper-feminized to being associated with violence and highly visible hyper-masculinity (Alexandra p16:2000).

Chapman and Rutherford (1988) cited in Alexandra (2000, p.16) suggest that Asian men have been relatively late in the pursuit of defining masculinity. Alexandra (2000) also argues that the field of masculinity studies has always focused on problematizing masculine identities and that Asian men are the latest inheritors of this tradition, being inherently positioned as a “problem.” The social changes and departure from traditional patriarchal authority in Asian cultures have led Asian men to redefine what masculinity means. Alexandra (2000, p.16) suggests that changes in family dynamics and employment have reshaped masculinity, with the most significant impact being the crisis faced by Asian masculinity. The redundancy of males has resulted in a culture of prolonged adolescence, where young male identities remain confined to their local surroundings such as estates, shops, and schools.

Rutherford (1988) argues that in a society without social value, violence, criminality, drug use, and alcohol consumption are viewed as means for men to gain prestige. Alexandra (2000) expands on this idea by stating that violence, criminality, and hyper-sexuality are presented as substitutes for fulfilling patriarchal duties and exerting control, thus representing authentic male power. This essay will explore the historical construction of masculinity in terms of gender relations and social practices, as well as its development and expression in relation to crime and violence. The second part of the essay will specifically address black masculinity within subculture.

The reason for investigating black masculinity is because there is no literature specifically addressing Asian masculinity, nor is there any published research. Therefore, the closest theory to understanding Asian masculinity in western society is by examining black masculinity in western society. The third part of this essay will explore the theoretical debates surrounding Asian gangs and masculinity, and finally conclude with a summary of the intended explanation and establishment of this essay.

Part 1: Definitions of masculinity include cultural accounts of gender found in all societies, although not all societies have the concept of ‘masculinity’ (Whitbread and Barrett 2001). According to Connell (cited in Whitbread and Barrett 2001), the modern usage of the term assumes one’s behavior. For example, someone who opposes violence may be considered unmasculine. This definition suggests that Connell views masculinity as negative and associated with violence, domination, control, and power.

According to Connell (2001), masculinity is not an independent concept but rather exists in opposition to femininity. It is defined as a cultural construct rather than a biological one. Connell identifies an authorized dominant form of masculinity that establishes itself by distinguishing itself from women and gay men. This form of masculinity is often portrayed in popular culture and has historically been linked to traditional gender roles and divisions of labor. Under this framework, other forms of masculinity and femininity are subordinate and define themselves in relation to power, labor, structure, and Cathexis (Ransom 2004). Connell suggests that masculinity can be understood by considering four different perspectives: essentialism, positivist social science, normative definition, and semiotics.

According to the essentialist perspective, the core of masculinity can be defined by a particular feature. Sigmund Freud briefly considered this view when he associated masculinity with activity, in contrast to femininity’s passivity. Essentialists believe that masculinity is characterized by risk taking, responsibility, irresponsibility, aggression, and a Zeus-like energy. On the other hand, positivists focus on uncovering the factual reality of “what men actually are” through various means such as psychological scales and ethnographic discussions. These discussions aim to describe the typical patterns of men’s lives within a specific culture.

The positivist approach to defining masculinity raises concerns because Connell suggests that it is a cultural concept applicable to both men and women. Women can exhibit traits considered masculine, while men can display characteristics perceived as feminine. The terms ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ extend beyond biological differences between sexes and include how gender differences are expressed within individuals of the same gender. Normative definitions recognize these distinctions and establish a standard understanding of masculinity as an ideal for men to strive for. According to Connell, popular culture and cinema often portray men as embodying traits like masculinity, power, fearfulness, dominance, violence, and physical strength. This reinforces the notion that one cannot claim manhood without displaying these attributes.

Films like Rambo showcase a particular type of masculinity aimed at captivating audiences through the portrayal of a bold and formidable persona. This representation of masculinity is conveyed through John Rambo’s physical appearance and his reliance on physical violence to assert his manliness. However, it is argued that very few men actually embody the toughness and independence depicted by John Rambo. It is important to note that John Rambo is a fictional character, and the film itself is a work of fiction.

Connell argues that this conventional understanding of masculinity poses a problem as it establishes an unrealistic ideal that only few men can attain. From this perspective, Connell suggests that men cannot truly be considered masculine since they fail to live up to this idealized projection. Consequently, the standard definition of masculinity lacks significance in defining what it truly means to be a man (Connell 2001).

According to Connell (2001), the semiotic approach moves away from individuality and characterizes masculinity by using symbolic contrasts. In this approach, masculinity is defined as the opposite of femininity, drawing from the differentiation of speech elements in structural linguistics. Feminists, poststructuralists, and Lacanian psychoanalysis studies have extensively used this approach in cultural gender analyses and symbolism exploration. Connell (2001) claims that defining masculinity through this method has been highly effective in cultural analysis because it avoids the arbitrary nature of essentialism and the contradictions arising from positivist and normative definitions.

The concept of masculinity is challenging to define as it is a social construct with multiple associations rather than a specific meaning. To gain a deeper understanding of masculinity, it is crucial to grasp gender structures and social practices. In this section, we will explore the organization of gender and social practices. According to Connell (2001), gender is a system that governs daily behaviors and actions related to reproductive aspects such as sexual arousal, intercourse, childbirth, infant care, and physical differences and similarities between sexes (Connell p34:2001).

According to Connell (2001), social practices are not inchoate but creative, inventive, and responsive to specific situations. These practices emerge within established structures of social relations among individuals and organized groups in the reproductive arena. They are documented in most societies. The practices related to these structures are not isolated acts but rather configurations of gender practices. When we refer to masculinity and femininity, we are identifying these configurations of gender practices (Connell, 2001).

Connell explains that gender configurations refer to the historical development of sex and culture, where masculinity has positioned itself as the dominant culture in society. Masculinity is not just a personality or character trait, but also an ideology and culture. Post-structuralist critics like Wendy Hollway argue that gender identities are fragmented and changing due to various discourses intersecting in individuals’ lives. For example, heroic masculinities are constructed in epic tales, while medical theories construct notions of “gender dysphorias” or “perversions.” Connell suggests that the State, being a masculine institution with male leaders, structures its practices in relation to the reproductive arena. However, this reproductive arena refers to social similarities rather than biological reproduction.

The gender configuration of recruitment, promotion, internal division of labor, and systems of control are all characterized by masculinity. To understand masculinity, Connell says we must analyze the structure of gender and identify relationships of power, production, and cathexis. In terms of power relations, the dominant feature in the contemporary European/American gender order is the subordination of women and the dominance of men, which feminists refer to as ‘patriarchy’ (Connell p36:2001). This patriarchal structure has evolved over time within the realms of family, employment, and class.

Despite the many role reversals in contemporary British society, feminists have faced difficulties in breaking down the patriarchal structure due to the entrenched nature of masculine culture as an ideology. Additionally, production relations and the gender division of labor reinforce traditional gender roles, with tasks being allocated based on gender, often with great attention to detail. For example, a study conducted by sociologist Pauline Hunt found that in English villages, it was customary for women to wash the inside of windows while men washed the outside (Pauline Hunt, A English village cited in Connell p36:2001). Another aspect of patriarchal society is the presence of unequal wage rates, which sociologist Connell suggests are a result of a capitalist economy working through a gendered accumulation process.

According to Cathexis, sexual desire and emotional attachments play a role in shaping gender orders. In feminist analyses of sexuality, the strong connection between heterosexuality and masculinity defines a man’s position of social dominance (Connell p36:2001). Connell argues that gender is a way of structuring social practice in general, not just a specific type of practice. He also adds that gender “intersects” and interacts with race and class. It is not a statistical accident, but rather a part of the social construction of masculinity, that men control major corporations and great private fortunes.

Connell (2001) argues that the development of white men’s masculinities is affected by their relationships with both white women and black men. According to Connell’s citation of Hoch’s study, racial imagery in discussions about masculinity in Western societies reflects a history of white anxiety regarding the violence of black men during colonial and post-colonial periods. Furthermore, white men’s dominance over law enforcement, courts, and prisons in urban areas perpetuates black men’s concerns about terrorism from white men due to the legacy of colonialism. This research uncovers an intriguing revelation that masculinity is not solely a social construct but also influenced by fear and insecurity.

The concept of masculinity has been shaped by men’s social dominance and their fear of losing power or control over others, resulting in its historical construction. Antonio Gramsci defines hegemony as the cultural dynamics that allow a group to maintain a leading position in society. According to Connell (2001), hegemonic masculinity refers to the gender practices that solve the legitimacy problem of patriarchy, ensuring men’s dominant position and women’s subordination. Over time, these key elements have defined the concept of masculinity (Connell, 2001).

While researching the topic of masculinity, one example I came across is the existence of hegemony, which aims to control subordinated groups. Women are commonly subjected to domination by hegemonic culture, while homosexual groups are despised as subordinates. In patriarchal ideology, gayness serves as a symbolically expelled component of hegemonic masculinity (Connell p40:2001). Hegemonic masculinity categorizes men who are homosexual or even heterosexual as not being ‘true men.’ Verbal abuse is employed to differentiate hegemonic masculinity from feminine or homosexual masculinity, using derogatory terms like poffs, faggots, wimps, pussy, sissy, candy ass, mothers boy, jellyfish, etc. (Connell 2001).

The marginalization of ethnic minority men in western societies results in the development of a unique type of masculinity, characterized by hyper-masculinity. This form of masculinity is often expressed through criminal behavior and violence. Engaging in crime can serve as a way for men who are at the bottom rung in terms of race and social class to demonstrate their masculinity (Ransom 2004). According to Connell, race relations play a crucial role in shaping various forms of masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity within white communities perpetuates institutional oppression and physical violence, which then affects how masculinities are constructed within black communities (Connell p42:2001). The formation of black masculinity is now significantly impacted by unemployment, urban poverty, and institutional racism (Connell 2001).

Connell (2001) discusses two concepts in the analysis of masculinities. The first concept involves the relationship between hegemony, domination, and subordination. The second concept involves marginalization and authorization. However, Connell emphasizes that the terms “hegemonic masculinity” and “marginalized masculinity” are not fixed character types, but rather configurations of practice generated in specific situations within a changing structure of relationships (p42). Masculinity and violence have been extensively examined by criminologists and feminist scholars. The social construction of masculinity in popular culture often depicts real “men” as those who engage in wars and battles, perpetuating an image of a macho man. Violence encompasses various forms of harm, including emotional, psychological, sexual, physical, and material damage (Stanko, 1994, p38).

Radical feminists often receive criticism for claiming that all men are inherently violent, relying on essentialist biological explanations for male aggression (Stanko p39:1994). Stanko argues that the biological explanation is often used as a last resort to justify male violence. Brownmiller (1975), as cited in Stanko (p39:1994), suggests that men’s desire for power, combined with their biological capacity for rape, accounts for sexual violence. The construction of masculinity is built in opposition to femininity, which leads to violence becoming a form of communication. As men struggle with the societal construction of masculinity, they resort to physical means to negotiate power dynamics.

According to Stanko (1994, p44), violence is utilized by men as a means of negotiating power hierarchies. It becomes a tool for resolving conflicts and disagreements due to the construction of masculinity around reputation and status. This form of dominant masculinity is especially common among working-class, impoverished, and marginalized youths (Stanko, 1994, p44). Messerschmidt (1999, p196) further cites Connell (1995, p122) to suggest that physical violence can be seen as a characteristic of masculinity when it comes to resolving personal issues.

Messerschmidts (1999) conducted a study on masculinities, bodies, and violence, exploring how the construction of masculinity and violence evolves as boys grow into men. In industrialized societies, hegemonic masculinity is closely linked to aggressiveness and the ability to engage in violence (Messerschmidts p196:1999). According to Anne Campbell, as cited in Messerschmidts p196:1999, masculinity and aggression become central to boys’ understanding of manhood, particularly in working-class and lower-class communities (Luckenbill and Doyle, 1989; Bernard, 1990; Shover; 1996 cited in Messerschmidts p196:1999). The violence practiced by boys aiming to achieve the macho masculine status begins at school, where aggressiveness leads to bullying, physical fights, and verbal abuse targeting those perceived as weaker or more feminine.

In Messerschmidt’s (1999) study, two boys named Hugh and Zack exemplify the development of masculinity in both their family life and school life. They express their masculinity through various acts of violence, including physical domination and sexual violence. At school, they exhibit hyper-masculinity through bullying, physical violence, and verbal abuse. These different forms of violence that the boys engage in are considered traits of masculinity. For instance, Zach lacks recognition of his masculinity at school, but he is able to assert dominance and power through heterosexual practices within his home. On the other hand, Hugh’s understanding of masculinity is shaped by the social dynamics at school, which influences his physical and heterosexual performance.

Messerschmidts contends that the key factors in performing masculinity revolve around the physical body, whether it is capable or incapable of fulfilling these criteria, influencing the ultimate selection of a particular form of violence and victimization. Zach focused on engaging in private and solitary acts of sexual violence that repeatedly targeted his younger female cousins, while Hugh predominantly relied on public and social forms of assault that victimized strangers. It is important to note that Zach specialized in sexual violence, whereas Hugh, described as versatile in his criminal activities, did not partake in sexual violence.

Part 2: The Construction of Black Masculinity

Erikson (1959) proposed that during adolescence, establishing a cohesive personal identity is crucial, encompassing the commitment to a sexual orientation, career path, and independence from parental authority (Erikson 1959 as cited in Gibbs and Merighi, p71:1994).

The challenge faced by black men was their marginalized status in society, which made it extremely difficult for them to develop a strong and positive sense of personal identity. This was due to the negative messages they received about being part of a devalued minority group (Gibbs and Merighi p71:1994). In the inner-city, the construction of black masculinity is influenced by conflicts related to sexual identity, which arise from the lack of positive male role models. As a result, the main issue becomes confused sexual identity (Gibbs and Merighi 1994). The concept of hegemonic masculinity clashes with marginalized masculinity because of power dynamics and ethnic identities. Consequently, black masculinity adopts a distorted form of masculinity in order to challenge the dominant notion of masculinity.

According to Gibbs and Merighi (1994), the power dynamics and conflicts between different manifestations of masculinity led to the emergence of a conflicted and morally-charged form of black masculinity. This form of masculinity was built upon opposition to racial hatred and, most importantly, the challenge to dominant forms of masculinity that assert superiority. In response to factors such as limited education, marginal employment opportunities, and the inability to financially support their families, black males began to adopt exaggerated behaviors known as ‘pseudomasculinity’. These behaviors included congregating on street corners and in bars, engaging in transient sexual relationships with women, dressing in a hip style, and developing distinctive ways of walking and talking that characterized black masculinity (Gibbs and Merighi p75:1994).

According to staples (1982 cited in Gibbs and Merighi p77:1994), there is a connection between crime, economic deprivation, and masculinity. The marginalised groups, who adhere to a masculine ethic of success, resort to illegal activities when the dominant culture limits their access to socially accepted methods of achieving cultural goals. Frankin (1986 cited in Gibbs and Merighi p75:1994) proposes that black males in American society are expected to conform to three sets of role expectations: a societal male role emphasizing competitiveness, aggressiveness, and independence; a black male Afrocentric role emphasizing cooperation, group cohesiveness, and survival; and an amorphous black male cultural role emphasizing sexism, irresponsibility, violence, and dysfunctional elements. The construction of Black masculinity distances itself from the historical victim model and promotes a more violent expression of masculinity aimed at dismantling white hegemonic masculinity. To challenge white institutional masculinity, the marginalised minority violates the laws constructed by white masculine men.

The use of violence as a means of expression in contemporary society presents a danger to black masculinity. The display of hyper-masculinity and public performance by black men signifies their refusal to submit to white hegemonic masculine institutions. According to Alexandra (2000), Asian males face similar challenges in terms of masculinity, race, sexual identity, and white male dominance. Due to factors such as lack of education, racism, poverty, and the breakdown of traditional Asian patriarchal structures, Asian males find themselves in a crisis regarding their masculine identity. For those at the bottom of racial and class hierarchies, crime becomes a significant way of asserting their masculinity.

Based on Alexandra’s (2000) ethnographic research, we gain insight into how Bengali youths have adopted collective violence as a means to express their masculinity and create their own version of masculinity. This parallels the experiences of African-Americans who also face marginalization and form groups to emphasize cooperation, cohesion, and survival. In both cases, there is an amorphous cultural role for black males that emphasizes sexism, irresponsibility, violence, and dysfunctionality. Asian young men in contemporary British society have replicated this role.
According to Connell (2001), hegemonic masculinity among whites perpetuates institutional oppression and physical terror that shapes masculinity in black communities. Asian males, unable to fulfill traditional patriarchal roles as providers, heads of household, and authority figures, resort to a compensatory hyper-masculinity centered around sexuality and violence. They live through fantasies of “Black Macho” as a way to compensate for their perceived inadequacies (Alexandra p235:2000).

In her ethnographic research, Alexandra discovers that Asian men imitate the African-American ghetto subcultures and violence. The way they dress reflects the style of black men in America, and their mannerisms are constructed to align with black masculinity. The collective display of violence towards other men symbolizes their struggle for power. Territory disputes serve as a demonstration of the expressive nature of the adopted masculinity, as they fight for their identity and survival. Interestingly, the determination to stand up for themselves contradicts their usual perception as perpetrators and aggressors. This tension implies a broader ideological portrayal of weak and feminized Asian masculinity, which has recently been reinvented through the adoption of hyper-masculinity represented by ‘the Gang’ (Alexandra p105:2000).

Regarding the idea of men being masculine and women being feminine, it lacks a solid basis, similar to how gender is a product of societal construction. Masculinity, in particular, is formed within specific social and historical contexts, signifying a cultural rather than natural phenomenon. The associations and attributes linked to masculinity are entangled in issues of power dynamics and dominance. The manifestation of masculinity within the black and Asian communities involves what can be termed as ‘doing masculinity’, which is often expressed through acts of violence and criminal behavior. The instances of Asian and black gang violence on the streets of urban areas serve as illustrations of marginalized forms of masculinity engaging in power struggles against hegemonic white masculinity.

The concept of men being ‘real men’ is a fabrication and a product of culture. Within contemporary British society, class and ethnicity exhibit a rebirth of masculinity in its aggressive manifestation. Both women and homosexual men suffer from the culture of masculinity; masculinity views femininity as an inferior essence and disputes the idea of femininity as a subordinate state. In Asian gangs, violence becomes the avenue for expressing masculinity as it is the only means to communicate frustration, while the inability to exert control and dominance results in power struggles outside and inside the home.

The demonstration of violence and crime in marginalized masculinity serves as its sole means of expression. This public display of criminality and hyper-masculinity is utilized to strengthen the dominance of masculinity and indicates a power struggle among hegemonic institutional masculinity.

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