The Masculine Challenge: Social Marginality and Gang-Related Violence

By Elisabeth Betz, email:

In her discussion of King hits: young men, masculinity and violence recently published in The Conversation, Raewyn Connell (2014) links young performances of male violence to a ‘masculinity challenge’ in which young males feel questioned or deprived of their masculine status. Connell explains that “especially for young men, masculinity is often in question or under challenge, and the presence of an audience is important”.  This became obvious in my research in which I examined the ways Tongan young people identify through hip hop. Despite participants in the hip hop culture being increasingly diverse in ethnicity, gender and age, hip hop continues to be a male-dominated social sphere in which masculinity is negotiated and performed. In Western culture, hegemonic masculinity is constructed as an ‘ideal’ manhood based on physical and social power (Carrigan, Connell and Lee 1985). Likewise, in Tongan culture men are supposed to be physically and mentally strong. Such masculine performances are marked by toughness and emotional stoicism embedded in competitions for authority and leadership over other men and women.

However, young males are often limited in the ways they can express this (supposed) physical and mental superiority. For example, unlike Tongan adult men who are able to achieve social recognition for their masculinity through professional life, in traditionally male occupations such as business or law enforcement, performances of masculinity for Tongan youth tend to be limited. There are few options for changing their social position or masculine status. One way of doing so is education. Yet, not all young Tongan males have the financial means to attend higher educational institutions and if they do, not all are able to keep up with expectations placed on them. Also, while educational success does (re)establish males as the ‘provider’, it does not resemble physical embodiments of masculinity. Considering Tongan culture and history, most males choose alternative ways to gain respect for their male performances – most young Tongan males engage in warrior-like activities.

Similar to the Hawaiians in Tokiharu Mayeda and Pasko’s (2012: 135) research, Tongan males emphasize “the body as an instrument of physical power”. Many Tongan youth try to climb the social hierarchical ladder through sport (see Tengan and Markham 2009).  Sport enables them to gain status and respect, based on increased reputation of themselves and their family. According to Connell (1995: 30) “the device bridging the contradictions around masculine violence and social control [is] organized sport, especially rugby football”. Anthropologist Niko Besnier (2012) argues that almost all young Tongan males play rugby and that in Tonga sport like rugby, “is deeply enmeshed with hegemonic forms of masculinity, embodying ideals of virility, fortitude, and controlled aggression and favouring the large body size and heavy muscularity that many Tongan men naturally have” (Besnier 2012: 495).

Nevertheless, not all young Tongan males are physically strong or successful sportsmen. Such young males have to find other ways of claiming their masculinity. For some, this entails engagement in violence. Yet rather than merely blaming individuals for violent choices, it is important to take a closer look at the social environments from which violent behaviours are derived. For instance, Connell suggests that violent behaviour is linked to social circumstances rather than biological factors. As “masculinities are patterns of conduct that have to be learned” (Connell 2014), it is important to look at the context young male violence derives from.

Like Connell, I do not believe that all young males are inherently violent, nor do I think that social factors such as the media or peer groups are solely responsible for expressions of male rage. However, based on my research, I do believe that role models and cultural scripts inform the responses some young males choose to pursue to solve their ‘masculine challenges’. Depending on individual life stories, social environment, attainable role models and available scripts, this can include violence. Drawing on Josh, a young gang member from my research, I argue that some disillusioned young males from disadvantaged neighbourhoods join gangs to (re)gain masculine status and power. Based on Josh’s social environment and life choices, I show that some socially marginalised young Tongans deprived of their masculine status draw on role models and cultural scripts embedded in hip hop to (re)gain hegemonic masculinity.

Josh’s Environments: New Zealand and Australia

The socio-economic environments of Australia and New Zealand where Josh has lived are important in understanding Josh’s masculinity.

New Zealand’s approximated population of 4,508,408 people is characterised by a culturally diverse social demographic (Statistics New Zealand 2014c). A total of 60,336 Tongans lived in New Zealand in 2013 (Statistic New Zealand 2013). Economically, New Zealand’s employment rate has recently been listed as 64.4 percent, with 6.2 percent of New Zealand’s population being unemployed (Statistics New Zealand 2014b). With 12.5 percent of young people ‘not in employment, education or training’ (NEET), New Zealand is just above the average rate listed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (Statistic New Zealand 2014a). By contrast, Australia’s population of 23,361,497 is not only much larger than New Zealand’s, but also different in its demographic (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014a). According to the 2006 census, the majority of Australians have been Australian born (about 74 percent) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014b). Generally, Pacific Islanders are few in Australia’s multicultural make up and particularly Tongans seem to only represent a small proportion of Australia’s population with officially counted 9,208 Tonga-born people in Australia in 2011 (Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2014).

Despite these figures not comprising all Tongans living in New Zealand nor Australia, it becomes clear that Tongans are few in New Zealand and almost invisible in Australia. Considering their small numbers, community is very important to Tongans. Communal settings enable a platform of cultural enactment and exchange. This is further reflected in housing arrangements. Most Tongans living in New Zealand and Australia live in some sort of family housing. It is common to have three or four generations living under one roof. This evokes communal life as a combined income provides the needs of living and intergenerational living facilitates inter familiar forms of learning, aged care and child rearing. Due to customary expectations, it is thus important for family members to contribute from an early age on. As costs of education are high and customary responsibilities priorities, many Tongans work from a young age on. Often, they work in low-skilled employment such as factory work marked by physical labour. But what does this mean for young males and their performances of masculinity?

Gangs and Hegemonic Masculinity:  Josh and Tupac Shakur

Coming of age as a young Tongan in the outer suburbs of South Auckland, Josh’s life and expectations differed from those of his parents. After migrating to New Zealand years ago, Josh’s parents continued to have strong emotional ties to Tonga. Josh refuses to keep such ties and disagrees with a lot of his parents’ behavioural choices. Josh dislikes Tonga’s social stratification and particularly questions the role of the royal family. As Josh phrased it: “the king is a stuck up snotty nose arsehole, like some poshly, tea-drinking arsehole ruling England, you know, and he thinks those arses are gold – I don’t think so!” According to Tongan customs, Josh is expected to send money to Tonga to support relatives, the church and the country. However, as he has never lived in Tonga himself, Josh does not understand why he has to live in poverty to support people he has never met before. He told me that when he was working in his first job, his mother would take half of his wage away from him to send it back to Tonga. He questions such behaviours, asking himself why he has to work so hard to earn little money. He said: “I did not break my back for you [his mother] to take my money and send it to some monkeys over there that I don’t even know”. Living at home, Josh felt trapped in customary beliefs and practices he did not share. Growing up in New Zealand, he experienced a different life. Frustrated with his situation and feeling out of control, he wanted to escape from the pressures at home.

To overcome his emotionally distressing family situation and to gain power over his life, Josh started living on the street. He joined a gang. Josh became part of a criminal network in which violence and physicality plays a major role. Violent expressions of masculinity became part and parcel of everyday performances of being in a gang. Years after he joined his gang, I visited Josh in his home in South Auckland. The small house was nearly empty. The floor was covered with boxes and apart from the couch that I was sitting on, hardly any furniture was left. Josh was moving. After many years in prison, he wanted to support his partner and their children. Like many other Tongans before him, he decided to embrace better opportunities and to move to Australia. Josh had relatives in Sydney’s outer suburbs that he and his family was able to stay with until he finds a job and a new family home. I wondered if he wants to move to get away from the gang culture in which he is entangled, but that was not the case. He said: “I left the gang, but I am still a gang banger every day”, he continues: “I will always be a gang banger”.

Talking to Josh while he was packing his belongings, he showed me a book about Tupac Shakur. “This guy … inspires me”, he said. Josh is not the only young person inspired by Tupac. Greg Dimitradis and George Kamberelis (2009) identify Tupac Shakur as a multifaceted role model characterised by a “complex divided soul”, who embodies “internal struggles between ‘good’ … and ‘evil’” (2009: 131). Josh feels a deep connection to the former hip hop icon. Considering his own divided embodiment of a caring father and a fierce gang member, Josh’s affiliation to Tupac is not surprising. Both Josh and Tupac grew up at the margins of their social worlds – Tupac in America and Josh in New Zealand. Their lives are marked by embodiments of exclusion. In light of racism and cultural expectations, they both struggled to gain upward mobility. As their families experienced similar forms of social exclusion, both Josh and Tupac had ties to revolutionary movements. Tupac’s mother was part of the American Black Panther Party (Dimitradis and Kamberelis 2009: 130) while Josh had family ties to a similar civil rights movement in New Zealand – the Polynesian Panthers. For Josh, Tupac represents what Dimitradis and Kamberelis (2009: 147) call “a validated kind of self”; an identity that despite social judgement and everyday struggles, manages to perform a hegemonic masculinity.

Indeed, Tupac’s lyrics provide Josh with performance guidelines he can follow. Let me draw on Tupac’s lyrics to explain this. In his song ‘Words of Wisdom’, Tupac describes the marginal position of young African Americans in US society. His lines – “This is for the masses, the lower classes; The ones you left out, jobs were givin’, better livin’; But we were kept out” – describe the limited access to educational and professional opportunities young African Americans were confronted with in U.S. society. Despite a desire for better education, many African Americans were unlikely to achieve educational upward mobility. Likewise, Josh wanted to be University educated. While he has been educating himself at home, he lacked the financial means to become the motivational speaker he wanted to be. Knowing what he wanted to do yet not being able to pursue his goals made Josh feel inferior. This influenced his decision to join a gang. Equally, Tupac first proposed to counter feelings of marginality through education –“Conquer the enemy on with education”. However, voicing the limitations young African American face in this respect – “Made to feel inferior, but we’re superior” – he changes his strategy to physical actions – “Well it is my turn to come; Just as you rose you shall fall; By my hands”.

What does this tell us?

Listening to Tupac’s lyrics, I wondered what kind of access Josh has to educational opportunities, or jobs, and how this feeds into social exclusion. This plays back into Connell’s discussion of ‘king hit’ violence. If we listen to and take seriously Tupac’s words – “This is for the masses, the lower classes; The ones you left out, jobs were givin’, better livin’; But we were kept out” (Words of Wisdom) – it becomes obvious that to avoid increased performances of youth violence, it is important to provide young people with opportunity within socio-economic structures and mainstream society. While Tupac particularly refers to the situation of ethnic minorities (African American) in the context of US society, this is also applicable here. To limit performances of violence it is important to provide adequate opportunities for social inclusion through education and employment. As Raewyn Connell (2014)  asked in her discussion of ‘king hit’ youth violence: “Is our society giving them secure jobs? Worthwhile work to do? Models of positive relations with women? Occasions for care and creativity?” In light of Australia Day approaching this weekend, I would like to extend Connell’s critical viewpoint by further adding questions about ethnic inclusion and opportunities of belonging in this respect: is Australian society providing young ethnic males with an ability to identify and belong to the Australian collective socially or economically? If not so, what can be done to encourage feelings of belonging?

Elisabeth Betz is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at La Trobe University. Her research focuses on how Tongan young people in Tonga, New Zealand and Australia use hip hop to identify and belong.


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About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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