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“Freedom on four wheels”: Individuality, Self-Expression, and Authentic Masculinity in a Skateboarding Community
During the summers of 2002, 2004, and 2006, I spent much of my time in a small skateboard shop tucked below the street in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, amid a jumble of gear, boys gather regularly to meet before skateboarding sessions, to take a break from skating, to watch skateboarding videos, or simply to hang out. More a clubhouse than a place of business, the skate shop is home to a few worn-out lounge chairs, a 13-inch television/VCR, and a metal rail approximately 8 inches off the ground on which skateboarders can practice their tricks. Jammed in the shop’s exposed metal rafters are a multitude of worn-out or broken skateboard decks (the board without the wheels and trucks—the axles—attached). Each of the four walls is covered with handmade pictures, professional posters, and racks of skateboarding shoes and new skate decks, and the shop’s glass counter, which houses wheels, trucks, and ball bearings, is peppered with stickers issued by various skateboard companies. The area behind the counter is littered with shoe boxes, CDs, skateboards, magazines, and videos, and crowded racks of skateboarding apparel are gathered in the center of the room.
It is in this comfortable and stimulating space that the Ann Arbor skateboarding community is consolidated. Although to some degree skateboarding is still imagined to be centered in the sunny climes of California, skateboarders find both the time and the space to skate in locations across the country. Michigan skateboarders frequently battle cold weather, but as long as sidewalks, streets, or parking lots are clear of snow they are able to practice their sport. Still, sometimes weeks go by between sessions, and it is during those weeks that the skate shop becomes particularly important; if nothing else, the skaters can practice on the low bar in the middle of the shop on which they are meant to practice their tricks, grinding and sliding their boards.
Neither singular nor self-enclosed, the skateboarding community is characterized by movement: individuals move in and out from season to season, members enjoy differing levels of intimacy with one another, and individuals gather at varying levels of regularity. That is, within the large community of skateboarders who come to the shop regularly, there exists a variety of peer groups, cliques, and relationships. The shop operates as a space in which individuals who might not otherwise know one another meet and relate as skateboarders first and foremost. It is here that the community, as a corresponding culture, develops and articulates the norms of the culture, its primary values, and so on. Corresponding with one another and the media of skate life—particularly videos and skateboarding magazines—and exploring the variety of ways in which their sensibilities correspond with mediated images, the boys instruct one another and themselves about their culture’s norms of masculinity and the values of skateboarding.
The skateboarders who populate this shop love skateboarding, imagine it as central to their lives and identities, and consider it an everyday part of their lives. As 24-year-old Kiran told me, “It’s like addictive, too, you know. If I don’t skateboard for three or four days, I start going crazy. I’m just like, ‘Oh man, I need to skate!’” Through their discussions of the skateboarding community and the practice of skateboarding, it is possible to glean those values central to the skateboarders’ lives and in turn to examine the ways in which these values align with those produced in the media of skate culture. This chapter serves as an analysis of those values, and in subsequent chapters I discuss the media associated with the subculture.
This wide-ranging analysis of skateboarders as first and foremost a community—and only secondarily an audience—distinguishes my work from most audience research, which often defines its audience by either demographic variables or fandom of a particular media text. Although such work offers a great deal of insight in its own right, mine approaches audience studies more holistically, placing skateboarders’ media use in the context of their everyday lives, their multiply produced ideologies and values, and their interactions with one another. Examining how media and skateboarders’ lives correspond in the production of their identities, my research is not primarily a consideration of how skaters talk back to media but instead constitutes a discussion of the construction of male youths’ identity and the media’s contribution to that construction. What follows is an elaboration of the values and ideas central to skateboarders’ identity.
Without fail, skateboarders speak passionately and lovingly of their practice; they make it clear that skateboarding is deeply important to their lives—some even suggest that it has changed their lives—and their descriptions of the community and its practices are delivered with a sense of reverence that contrasts deeply with the irreverent images of young men we see in most media. Although mainstream culture has managed to paint skateboarders as an aggressive, highly competitive group of adrenaline junkies or as slackers and stoners, skaters are far more passionate about the value their culture places on freedom, individuality, and self-expression. That is to say, skateboarders imagine skate culture as a location of difference, an alternative to dominant demands that adolescent boys, as exemplified by “jocks,” should overvalue competition, physical dominance, and emotional repression. For skaters, the culture’s esteem for freedom and individuality seems to be an alternative to mainstream adolescent culture and an opportunity for various expressions of masculinity. Interestingly, however, it is this very reverence for freedom and individuality that places skateboarding culture firmly within mainstream America. What could be more American than a freedom-loving, individualistic group of young men?
Still, for skaters the unquestionable dominance of individualism and freedom means that skateboarding culture can also allow for an emotional, cooperative, and artistic expression of identity that is clearly tied to their dissatisfaction with dominant notions of masculinity. Although this mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly heterosexual group of young boys occupies a clear position of social dominance, skaters nonetheless feel limited by social expectations about their identity. It is in this difference within dominance that skateboarders enact a critique of patriarchy that is not necessarily antipatriarchal and offer an alternative to masculinity that does not necessarily strip masculinity of its social power.
The complexity of skateboarders’ social position and their expressions of a personal mode of politics reveal the inadequacies of current theories of identity, power, and politics. Although conventional academic knowledge suggests that identities are constructed via binaries—male or female, homosexual or heterosexual, black or white, and so on—the skaters’ struggles with masculine identity make it clear that these binaries are multiple and complex. Although Kimberle Crenshaw and Valerie Smith have offered “intersectionality” as a theoretical and methodological approach complicating our knowledge of identity, it is not enough to consider gender along with race along with sexuality along with class along with nationality. In fact, we must consider the multiplicity of masculinities in relation to the multiplicity of whiteness and so on. That is to say, it is only through evaluation of the ways in which various masculinities are articulated with national ideologies and tracing the ways in which particular expressions of masculinity (e.g., the sensitive new age guy, the urban cowboy, the male cheerleader) traverse expressions, locations, and identities vis-à-vis power relations that we can understand the political implications of these identities and their mediated depictions.
In her analysis of gender relations among children in elementary schools, Barrie Thorne offers a useful model for understanding skateboarders’ expressions of masculinity. Thorne notes that the boys who were able to cross gender divides during playtime without repercussions (in the form of being socially ostracized) were those who otherwise displayed a high level of athletic skills and were popular. Describing one boy who volunteered to play on the girls’ teams and willingly participated in a dance performed by a school visitor, Thorne says, “His unquestioned masculinity as one of the best athletes and most popular boys in the school was like money in the bank.” In other words, by displaying dominant modes of masculinity (athleticism and leadership) in most aspects of his life, this student was able to “play” with gender norms without being mocked. In a similar manner, skateboarders disrupt some gender norms (by devalorizing competition, for example) without disrupting the dominance of masculinity. Skateboarders are neither radically different nor conservatively alike; they are neither challenging male power nor violently maintaining it. Rather, they are moving through youthscapes that operate as alternatives in a manner appealing to these boys while shying away from an explicit engagement with gender politics.
There’s something simultaneously progressive and regressive going on here. The skateboarders’ individualistic standpoint belies a lack of concern with issues of social equality and structures of power, but their passionate explanations of skateboarding’s appeal—its acceptance of difference (within particular parameters of gender especially), its space for self-expression, its cooperative nature—suggest that skateboarders harbor a dissatisfaction with traditional masculinity that should complicate scholarly notions of male identity.
The point to be made here is not that skateboarding operates as the only available culture in which adolescent males can challenge dominant notions of masculinity. Perhaps interviews with skateboarders’ proclaimed opposite—the jock as imagined through football players—would reveal similar dissatisfaction with competition and emotional reticence. The point is that in both their conversations and their media, skateboarders offer up a version of masculine interaction that contrasts with images of athletes competing for physical dominance or even rock musicians dominating stages.
Of course, a key caveat is that dominant identities—masculinity, whiteness, heterosexuality—rely on their multiplicity for their power. That is, it is precisely because dominant identities can shift and take on various expressions while keeping their institutional and social power that they are so easy to live in. However, I would suggest that in explicating skateboarders’ negotiation of the multiplicity of adolescent masculinity—in addition to the mainstream and niche media’s depiction of the multiplicity of this identity—we can elaborate on the routes through which adolescent boys both maintain and challenge power relations.
Power is not simply something that white men continually exert over everyone else (though one can quickly conjure up numerous instances of such exertion). Following Michel Foucault, power is part and parcel of the production of knowledges; it moves through every relation and exerts itself on all expressions of identity. Skateboarders’ enactment and negotiation of masculinity serves as both challenge to and protection of power, as both critique of and subscription to dominance. Skateboarders are clearly dissatisfied with the status quo but only with the limitations placed on their own lives. Their dissatisfaction does not extend to the limitations that women, homosexuals, or people of color may face on an everyday basis. Still, I believe that the development of masculine emotional capacities, self-expression, and cooperation are part and parcel of the progression of power relations, that is, they serve as a modest beginning, a location of some promise, a glimpse into the possibility that young men can operate for social progression.
Skateboarding’s Appeal and the Construction of Adolescent Masculinities
As Fred Pfeil noted in 1995, feminist scholars frequently think of masculinity as monolithic without taking into account the variations in power afforded by class, race, sexuality, and so on. Critical race and queer theory have begun to explicate masculinity via its intersections with other axes of identity, and a mere glance at the title of R.W. Connell’s oft-cited Masculinities, published in the same year as Pfeil’s White Guys, reveals that at least some scholarly work on male identity has taken into account its multiplicity. In his extension and critique of scholarly discussions of the 1990s white male backlash, Sean Brayton argues, rightly, that “rather than conceiv[ing] of masculinity as some homogenous category of manliness, it is more useful to recognize a series of masculinities.” Still, scholars continue to struggle with analyzing male identity. What to do with such multiplicity? How to pin it down? How does one make a claim about male identity when it seems to be constantly shifting? One strategy is to examine how masculinity is negotiated by men—how they justify and respond to their particular expressions of masculinity—and then align these expressions with men’s particular expressions of or encounters with power. That is, rather than assuming that masculinity equals power—or even that straight, white, American, middle-class masculinity equals power—we should first explicate how that masculinity is expressed and how, in turn, it does or does not manifest itself as various demonstrations of power.
In discussions of their identity as skateboarders and their devotion to skateboarding culture, skaters reveal that masculinity poses a problem for them. In reverent descriptions of the experience of skateboarding, the adolescent boys I interviewed disclosed a yearning for the opportunity to express themselves and a space in which to feel a sense of freedom or transcendence. Although at first glance it may seem as though white middle-class boyhood is entirely focused on freedom and self-expression, in the minds of the skateboarders male adolescence and even adulthood are characterized by institutions that serve to stifle such individualized joy. Work, school, family, and, most important, organized team sports all operate as personifications or institutions of patriarchy that place limitations on the type of transcendent, inspirational, and boundless sensation imparted by skateboarding.
The expression of such desires—and the suggestion that they are limited by work, family, school, and home—hovers dangerously close to legitimizing an evasion of responsibility that frequently leaves women, in particular, alone to contend with financial constraints and familial demands. However, when read with the demands of patriarchy firmly in mind, the skateboarders’ desires reveal a nascent critique of dominant modes of masculinity; a movement toward expanding the possibilities for male emotional, spiritual, and bodily expression; and a sense that things are not as they should be. In other words, the skateboarders’ descriptions of transcendent pleasure and self-expression, individualistic though they may be, stand just outside the norm and give the lie to the caricatured angry or emotionally reticent male teenager who can express himself only through violence, competition, or sex. More than “sensitive new age guys”—and certainly not simply adrenaline junkies or slackers—skateboarders seek sustenance in the transcendent experience afforded by their boards.
This ever so small step outside of dominant norms suggests that the possession of societal dominance, as afforded by masculinity, whiteness, middle classness, heterosexuality, and American citizenship, does not necessarily bring about an absolute adherence to hegemonic standards. It is nothing new to define hegemony as an ever shifting process by which new or alternative ideas are subsumed by the mainstream; however, the boys’ negotiation of masculinity suggests that even while a community may challenge one ideological entity it may do so while holding fast to another swathe of dominant ideas. Although skaters may challenge masculine norms ever so subtly, they are doing so in a community that places great value on larger American norms such as individuality and independence. As such, their experiences do little to challenge the status quo.
Skateboarders’ dominant identities do not entirely safeguard them from being restricted and policed, and so they are aware of the experience of being targeted as troublemakers by the authorities. However, their own encounters with the limiting effects of institutions have not been translated into a sense of empathy for groups outside their community. In fact, as they seek freedom in the skateboarding community skaters actively (though not always consciously) exclude women, gay men, and people of color. Their exclusionary practices stem in part from a desire for dominance and in part from contemporary understandings of diversity, as I will discuss at length.
Finally, as self-proclaimed and sometimes willful outsiders and as a group seemingly committed to insulating itself from mainstream demands, skate culture’s correspondence with mainstream culture—particularly the mainstream media—remains of paramount importance. In fact, discussions with skateboarders make it clear that their simple presence within mainstream culture is not entirely troubling; rather, it is the mainstream’s presentation of their masculinity that skateboarders find troubling. The skaters exhibit a type of relativistic tolerance for media portrayals; they suggest that, while mainstream media may make mistakes in their portrayal, it is only the continued existence of “true skaters” that is of importance. That is to say, as long as skaters can rely on their fellow skateboarders to stay true to the key values of the culture, they are ensured that a community exists in which they can experience transcendence, freedom, and individual expression. As such, a key element of skate life is constant correspondence with each other and various media in an effort to communicate the culture’s core values.
“A desire to be different”: Subcultural Aspirations, Mainstream Actualities
Skateboarders imagine their practice and their community to lie outside of mainstream happenings; they proclaim themselves to be “outsiders,” a “minority.” As 21-year-old Jeremiah, an employee of a chain skate shop, explained, “I wasn’t really attracted to skateboarding by the actual sport. I was more attracted to the fact that nobody did it and I was like wow, this is cool, I’m going to try this. And that’s pretty much how I got into it. A desire to be different, I guess, at a young age.” A former hockey player, Jeremiah explained that as a middle-school student he began to feel dissatisfied with his then current group of friends and turned to “underground” music—punk and indie rock—along with skateboarding in an attempt to differentiate himself.
Although, as I have noted, skateboarding’s relationship to mainstream culture has certainly shifted in the time since Jeremiah was a middle schooler, skateboarding continues to be presented as an oppositional activity. Despite its expansive presence in advertising appeals and preteen and teen media and its general importance to such mainstream behemoths as the Walt Disney Company and its networks, ABC, ESPN, and Disney, skateboarding has been used primarily for its rebellious, subcultural image. Although many skateboarders object to the culture of extreme exemplified by The X Games and Mountain Dew’s advertising campaign, they also frequently remind one another and themselves of the numerous run-ins they have had with police, business owners, parents, and teachers who disapprove of their activity of choice. As such, although the mainstream amplification of skateboarding’s extreme, risk-taking nature mischaracterizes their culture in most skaters’ judgment, skateboarding’s illegality and general aura of rebellion is appealing. In this way, the skaters correspond with the interstices of media representations of skate life, critiquing and accepting their portrayals in a fluid way.
Skateboarders’ attachment to their practice’s association with rebellion, however, pales in comparison with their firm insistence that it offers an alternative to other teen boy activities, most notably mainstream sports. Timmy, a 20-year-old skateboarder who worked at a local diner, explained, “It’s not like a sport. It’s not organized, there’s no teams. . . . It’s completely up to you, how much better you get and what you want to work at, and it’s like self-propelled.” Matthew, a 21-year-old college graduate, claimed:
It’s just like disassociated from the rest of the normal world almost. . . . With the snowboarding . . . you’re in the mountains, in a place where they allow you to be, where you pay to go there, and you ride a chairlift and go down the mountain and everything, they have little slopes built for you, but skateboarding is not like that, you know. You are in places that you are not meant to be for skateboarding, and . . . you have to look at things like, “How can I use this for skateboarding, even though it’s not meant for it,” you know. And, I don’t know, it makes you think a little different, right?
Sixteen-year-old Jack, a student simultaneously earning his high school diploma and an associate’s degree at a local community college, made this point most adamantly.
And that’s not what skating’s all about, you know. The whole competitive thing. I’m just really not into it at all. It’s like, “He made The X Games and got a gold medal!” It’s just like, that doesn’t mean anything! This isn’t the Stanley Cup! . . . The other thing is that skateboarding is NOT a sport. . . . It’s just that you don’t skate to be better than anyone; there’s not a coach who’s saying, “I want you to do a 360 first, and then a kickflip, by the end of the week!” you know? You don’t have to wake up at 5:30 in the morning to go skate. That’s what sports are all about. It’s like tournaments. They’re not worth it! You better be good, and that’s not how I see skating.
Jack also explained, “The possibilities are endless in skating, and there’s no restrictions, there’s no, like, codes, there’s no rules; it’s just like, open, you know. Just get on your board and ride.” Thirteen-year-old Eric explained:
Like a team sport, you have like, coaches yelling at you, and people depending on you. You have a time limit. But, um, with skateboarding you’re on your own, you’re like on your own team, you just push each other. It’s not, it’s not, you don’t compete against each other. Like, you see The X Games, it’s not skateboarding, like it’s not about competing. It’s just skating together.
Jim, age 15, said, “It’s just awesome, to ride and do it wherever you can do it. There’s not a court, it’s not like basketball or something that, where you have certain limitations. There’s like no limitations at all. And you can do it wherever you want, and do whatever you want or anything.” For each of these skateboarders, the trappings of team sports, including sanctioned spaces for participation, established rules, and coaches, all signify patriarchal control, and for skateboarders their practice offers an escape from such control. The Ann Arbor skaters’ claims mirrored closely those made by Becky Beal and Charlene Wilson’s participants, who “contrasted their style with ‘jocks,’ who were usually identified as football players, claiming that they were more intellectual, creative, and independent.” And the attention the skaters paid to attitude aligns with researchers’ findings in studies of other “extreme sports.” Belinda Wheaton points out that participants in activities such as skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, and other action sports frequently argue that it is the “style of life” attendant on the practice that is important, not the practice’s existence as a physically demanding or competitive sport.
Still, not all of the skateboarders felt quite as adamant about defining skateboarding in opposition to sports. Eleven-year-old Adam, for example, explained, “It’s not a sport to a lot of people—it’s more like how they live their lives, what they do and stuff. Skateboarding for me, it’s a sport, but it’s also a lifestyle, and how like, knowing that other people can help you if you’re having trouble skateboarding or something, like knowing that you have friends.” Despite considering skateboarding a sport, Adam still found the cooperative nature of the practice to be key. His focus on other people’s help was not surprising given that many of the older boys in the skate shop were willing to give the younger skateboarders advice not only about how to skate more successfully but also about the values of the culture. That is, skateboarders frequently communicate to instruct one another in skateboarding’s core principles and values. However, such instruction is contingent in form, for were it too direct or formal it might begin to resemble the restrictions skaters see in traditional sports. As 29-year-old Brian suggested:
If you want to treat it like a sport, it could be a sport. . . . Where I can see a lot of people saying it isn’t a sport is because they don’t look at it from a competitive point of view, okay. Um, just ’cause that’s so, it is a sport. Just like waterskiing, or surfing, it’s a sport. The only thing that makes it different as a sport is it doesn’t have to be for trophies and stuff like that. . . . You just choose not to treat it like a sport, ’cause you get this crazy idea, that set notion that a sport has to be win, lose, competition, competition, competition, but not necessarily.
Brian’s directive—“If you want to treat it like a sport”—demonstrates the contingency I have discussed. The boys avoid controlling one another while at the same time maintaining the boundaries of skateboarding’s values. John, a 21-year-old university student and skate shop employee, explained that as a teenager he skateboarded while continuing to participate in football and basketball. Jeremiah pointed out that while skateboarding “doesn’t have the limitations that other sports do have,” such as rules, the practice still requires physical prowess. He said, “You see something, you try to do it, the only limitation you have is your own natural ability. It’s cool in that sense. Other sports aren’t like that.”
Although, clearly not all skaters feel strongly about distancing their practice from traditional sports, the relative lack of organization, rules, routines, coaches, playing fields, game times, and so on in most types of skateboarding is appealing to many skateboarders. These skaters and others also approach their characterization of the practice by discussing its artistic and individualistic nature, as I will discuss. Whether or not skateboarding is wholly distinct from other sports—one could claim, for example, that runners frequently operate independent of the organized sporting world—skateboarders’ imagined outsider status is important to their identity and is arguably encouraged by both mainstream and niche skateboarding media. Furthermore, their often adamant assertion of difference suggests that they find traditional sporting culture—still a central domain of adolescent boys—dissatisfying or even stifling. When I asked 19-year-old Joe, “Do you think there’s a difference between kids who are skateboarding and the kinds of kids who join the football team or something like that?” he replied, “Yeah, there’s definitely a difference. They’re told their whole life that that’s what they should do ’cause their dad probably was a football player for [the university] or something, and sometimes their dads won’t even let ’em skateboard. I’ve seen it happen.” For Joe and the other skateboarders, participation in football represents submission to patriarchal demands.
Skateboarders’ descriptions of the traditional sporting world, with the demands of coaches, set practice times, and fellow players, also allude to the highly disciplined male subject that David Savran describes in Taking It Like a Man. Although the skaters’ complaints hinge on the idea that someone or something else will be regulating their activities in the sporting world, Savran’s self-disciplined, overly policed, pleasureless male subject is still applicable, for the sporting world absolutely esteems self-discipline. Savran’s argument suggests that a self-flagellating ideal male subject has given rise to a culture in which male self-violence is a foundational aspect of white masculine identity, and, in her analysis of the movie Fight Club, Lynn Ta reveals that even texts that seem to be critical of such norms end up resorting to self-violence. I would suggest that skateboarders’ rejection of the perceived norms of sport culture—as well as their discussion and performance of the norms of skateboarding culture—enacts a different mode of adolescent masculinity that does not rely on male self-violence and in fact operates as a promising alternative.
Skateboarders place a tremendous amount of importance on their ability to act as individuals and the feeling of freedom facilitated by skateboarding. Their breathless descriptions of opportunities to both express one’s individual style and practice self-guidance bring to light the highly American nature of skateboarding. The related desire for a sense of freedom is also highly American, but the ways in which skateboarders describe a feeling of bodily transcendence reveal a particular experience of freedom that lies outside traditional white male rationality. The skaters’ correspondence with mainstream American culture is complex in its various assessments of mainstream codes. The values and ideologies central to skateboarding culture blur the boundaries between subculture and mainstream and reveal that, while masculinity may operate as what I call a “location of difference” for skateboarding culture, other ideologies—such as freedom and individuality—lie firmly within mainstream America.
“It’s just you and your board”: Individuality and Self-Expression
In sharp contrast to their sometimes adamant rejection of the norms of traditional sports, many skateboarders wax poetic about the expressive and individualistic nature of skateboarding. Responding to the question, “Why do you skate?” with descriptions of their love of the practice, skateboarders usually shifted tone and stared into space, grappling for words that would describe the joy of the experience. Far from the overly aggressive, in-your-face skateboarders on mainstream television, these boys spoke quietly and passionately of their devotion to skating.
It’s just you and your board. . . . It’s like an art form in a sense. The only limitations you have in skateboarding [are] your own. And the idea that you can just take a thought, a pure idea, a thought in your head and go attempt to do it, it’s kind of like art. (Jeremiah, age 22)
There’s not too many, you know, like there’s teams, or whatever, but they’re not teams; it’s not like they huddle. There’s not a game plan. And it’s not a choreographed thing, so it’s not like you go out and have a play, you know. It’s like, the play is in your head, you make it up. Um, that’s part of the art of it, too, it all just comes from your soul and your heart. . . . And I think that’s part of the joy that builds up in style. (Mike, age 29)
It’s pretty much about expressing yourself! (Eric, age 13)
It’s an art. That’s the only way you can define it. Just like, the way I see it, there’s so many different styles of painting and stuff, and music, too. . . . That person, like, I’m just saying, if you can know what their personality is, you know their art. . . . So with skating, like I take who I am as an individual and bring it to my skating. . . . Watching a skateboard video, you’ll see people with . . . dreads and stuff, they’ll have the whole rude style, and the hesh rats, and like, I don’t know, it just seems that you take the exact individual that you are and put it in your skateboarding. (Jack, age 16)
The skateboarders’ claims move easily from imagining skateboarding as a concrete representation of an abstract sense of self or, in Jeremiah’s words, “a pure idea,” and imagining skateboarding as an extension of style. While the former suggests that skateboarding is expression for expression’s sake, for the joy of baring, as Mike claimed, “your soul and your heart,” the latter connotes a more superficial, outwardly motivated desire to demonstrate to the world “who I am as an individual.” Jack’s quote not only exemplifies the notion that skateboarding is a space of self-expression but also that such self-expression is imagined via lifestyle or style and is manifested via such stylistic markers as dreadlocks. Their self-expression, that is, could still be based in the consumption needed to mark particular personalities and styles. Fifteen-year-old Braden, a close friend of Jack’s, echoed the discussion of expression via style in his explanation of the “roots” of skateboarding as represented in the film Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Everyone had their own style. They were all progressing. So, it’s all about progression and individual style. Um, basically, like. Like, having, um, define style. I’d say just skating and doing what you want. . . . And that’s the big thing of skating, like it’s for you. Like, just individual art. Art not sport! And, uh, it’s all about doing things for yourself.
Twenty-nine-year-old Mike, a bartender, explained how one expresses style via skating.
Once you learn a trick, you start to appropriate your own style, like squeak out a trick, like slide it out, the way you use your foot. . . . You just teach yourself, like different ways, like you would do it the way you’re more comfortable. And when you teach yourself that, you know, you completely make it your own at that point because not only have you learned to do the trick, and maybe do it quite well, but you’re able to put your piece on something that’s already been done many times, and you do it in a way that no one does it. . . . You’re not just doing any old trick all the time, that’s just gonna get boring, so you kind of make it creative.
Self-expression for the skaters is, in part, about asserting one’s individuality—“you do it in a way that no one does it”—and the individuality of skateboarding also permeates skateboarders’ pride in being self-taught. Mike explained that skateboarding “feels good. It’s part of me. I’ve done it so much. It’s one of the 3, 4, 5 things that I’m really good at. I taught myself everything. That kind of meant a lot. So I just did a trick or whatever and just want to keep learning. You teach yourself. I didn’t really have anyone to help me out.” Matthew, age 21, echoed Mike’s claims.
It’s very individual, you know. It’s, uh, it’s like you don’t have to rely on anyone else, you can do your own thing, you know. Just have fun, skate the way you want. . . . I didn’t have to stay after school and go to practice for anything. I didn’t have to like rely on other people. I could go out by myself and just practice. . . . It’s like an individual activity. It’s for yourself, you know. And, uh, what you can make yourself do, what you can, like, push yourself to do, right?
Although such individual effort echoes, in some ways, Savran’s self-surveilled man who must embrace pain in order to become a fully realized individual—to be a good skateboarder, you must “push yourself,” presumably through some pain—the skaters’ frequent claims that when skateboarding one should “Just have fun, skate the way you want” and that it “feels good,” suggest that the general experience of skateboarding is one of pleasure not pain. Such pleasure also rejects the constraints associated with masculinity by allowing young men to experience a range of emotions and revel in mental pleasure.
In fact, even though, as I discuss later, many representations of skateboarding foreground pain, skateboarders themselves rarely discussed it outside of notions of hard work. Representations of self-inflicted pain such as those depicted on Jackass are, as I argue in the next chapter, largely ironic and so do not seem to register with the boys. In short, though it seems as if pain is central to skateboarding, for the boys pain is not central to the experience.
“It’s like spiritual fulfillment”: Skateboarding as Escape or Transcendence
Contra Savran’s self-flagellating male, the boys consider skateboarding a way to escape pain rather than a demonstration of their ability to feel it. Although (and in part because) skateboarding requires a high level of concentration, it offers a sense of transcendence, escape, meditation, or fulfillment seemingly unavailable in the boys’ other domains. School, work, families, and relationships all produce stress in the skaters’ lives; the practice of skating mitigates that stress.
There’s so much enjoyment and community in just riding around a parking lot, just cruising around the streets downtown. . . . But the reason I skate is just the pure enjoyment I get. (Jack, age 16)
But it’s freedom! I feel free when I’m skateboarding, and I can forget about everything that’s bothering me for that hour or two of the day. It’s like liberating, so it’s kind of like therapy as well. . . . Some people do meditation, some people do yoga, I skateboard. That’s my meditation, I guess. It’s the one thing I can focus on and not think about anything else. (Brian, age 29)
There’s this certain feeling that I get. Like personally, when I bomb a parking structure [skate down its ramps rapidly], which I usually do two times a day, there’s just a feeling that you get when you’re on the edge of control, like cruisin’ around the corner on a big skateboard. . . . You get an adrenaline rush, and it, it keeps me young, too. (Jason, age 32)
It’s just so fun, it’s like, you’re just in your own world when you skate. Like it’s really fun. . . . You’re focused just on skateboarding, and . . . you can like get away and stuff, you know. (Marc, age 15)
You get stressed out with school or work or just like relationships and stuff, and when you start skating, it’s like the only thing in your head is just cruising down the street, it’s super relaxing. And you can’t beat it, no one can take it away from you. (John, age 21)
When you’re skating, there is sort of an escape involved. Like, when you’re really concentrating on just skating, I mean, it’s that sense of focus that you don’t really, I don’t get it from anything else. I’ve got all sorts of other hobbies, like music, but, I don’t know, skateboarding is the true, like, it’s almost like meditation in a way. . . . It even helps me think about things. . . . It just makes me feel good about myself . . . and, I don’t know, it’s just cool, too! (Timmy, age 20)
When I’m skateboarding, there’s nothing else on my mind but skateboarding. So, in that aspect, it’s freeing. If I have exams or stress from anything else . . . like, I could have a midterm tomorrow and I go skateboarding, I, for that time . . . I’m thinking about nothing but skateboarding. And just, like, totally immersed in how much fun I’m having, you know. (Matthew, age 21)
It’s just like, orgasmic. . . . I’ll fall in love with skating when I’m just alone in the middle of an abandoned street. . . . You get a lot of thinking done. (Braden, age 15)
And like . . . this is gonna sound cheesy, but it’s like spiritual fulfillment. In a way, where it’s just, if there’s any problems any time, you go skating and you don’t really think about it and it feels good. (Kiran, age 24)
In these descriptions, the skateboarders elaborate on the emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental pleasures that accompany skateboarding. Of course, as skateboarder Jason suggests, much of the pleasure they describe is probably a result of the adrenaline that accompanies the type of risk taking that is typical of sporting culture generally and mediated depictions of skateboarding more particularly; clearly, these skateboarders are not fully rejecting physicality, risk taking, and bodily harm, all clear markers of dominant masculinity. As Alana Young and Christine Dallaire note, by taking pleasure in the type of risk taking associated with skateboarding (what Stephen Lyng calls “edgework”), female skateboarders, for their part, “challenge hegemonic femininity.”
Despite the fact that skateboarding is inherently risky to some degree (and thus conventionally masculine), skateboarders’ reflective and passionate tones contradict dominant images of surly white male teens as well as notions that men are not and cannot be expressive, emotive, or introspective. Furthermore, their discussions of stress and problems belie suggestions that young men are unable to reflect on or talk about what’s troubling them. Both the practice of skateboarding and skateboarders’ discussions of it provide skaters an opportunity to engage in a manner contradictory to dominant norms of masculinity, and, as their passionately stated descriptions reveal, they place a high value on this opportunity.
Nonetheless, although skaters are highly devoted to the notion that skateboarding is pure fun, the emphasis that they place on independence and the progression of skills reveals a continued loyalty to the value of hard work. In fact, the skaters seem to be expressing the American dream via skateboarding: they are self-taught, successful, skilled, and dedicated. Although skateboarding usually earns them no monetary rewards, the development of their skills seems to be enough to merit such devotion.
Tied closely to the skateboarders’ ideas about self-expression is a clear sense that it evokes a type of passion or love not produced by other activities or hobbies. Their expressions of passion also seem to belie the hyperrationality of masculinity and whiteness, but the attendant importance of devotion and dedication to the advancement of skateboarding culture and the progression of individuals’ skateboarding skills suggests that the passion is easily translated into traditionally American modes of masculine engagement. As Jack elaborated, “I eat, drink, sleep skate, you know. . . . When you’re a skateboarder, you have that love, that strong love for it.” Brian suggested that, despite having taken up skateboarding because of its subcultural or outsider status, he continues to skate because of “passion.”
The subtle shift in skaters’ descriptions of skateboarding—from expressive art form to the product of individual hard work—demonstrates the ways in which traits associated with masculinity and American identity are dynamic in their relationship to normative identities and expressions of dominance. Skaters’ breathy descriptions of the art of skateboarding certainly challenge masculine norms of rationality and emotional reticence, but the underlying commitment to such masculine American values as independence, progression, and physical work reveals the enduring nature of these values, their flexibility in relationship to other expressions of identity, and the inextricable relationship between dominant norms and subcultural alternatives.
Claiming the Outside/Maintaining the Inside: The Preservation of Power in Skateboarding Culture
“Wanna talk about a real minority”: Demonstrating Individuality via Outsider Status
Skateboarders construct their identity, in part, by claiming outsider or even minority status. Although some of these claims clearly imply a sense that minority groups are asserting, unfairly, that their own experiences with oppression are unique (see especially Brian’s subsequent discussion), others suggest simply that skateboarders do imagine themselves as standing outside of mainstream culture generally. Many skateboarders take pride in this outsider status, arguing that it has provided them with a unique outlook on life. Again, individuality becomes paramount to skater identity; not only have they independently trained themselves to participate in a creative activity, but they’ve also developed distinctive identities that supposedly help them stand out from the crowd.
And we gotta band together. It’s the only way we’re gonna be able to fight oppression. We’re still being oppressed. Wanna talk about a real minority. Skateboarders, is a true minority. ’Cause you know, cops hate us, uh, everybody hates us. Middle-class people, oh we’re so dangerous, yet somebody can barrel down the street on a mountain bike, they never say nothing about that. You know what I mean? . . . They profile us, big time, skaters. Just have a skateboard, even if you’re walking with one, the cops’ll watch ya. It’s terrible. . . . I’ve never been ticketed for skateboarding. I’m proud to say that. Never been ticketed for skateboarding. (Brian, age 29)
Brian’s claim that he is continually surveilled but has never received a ticket is curious and at first glance suggests a feeble attempt to claim special status via an unrealized oppression. Studies of whiteness and masculinity have described such behavior, and surely a proclamation of oppression is one manifestation of “the possessive investment in whiteness.” After all, it takes only a small step to move from claiming to be “a real minority” to suggesting that other minorities are inflating claims of oppression or asking for “special treatment” when it is not needed. At a moment when affirmative action is continually under fire, such insinuations should not be taken lightly. Notably, Brian had recently arrived in Michigan from California, both states where affirmative action cases have been major news. Nevertheless, after reading this passage, Kiran implored me to communicate that many skateboarders had received numerous 100-dollar tickets “for rolling on the sidewalk/street in Ann Arbor.”
Other skateboarders’ discussions of difference, however, were aimed toward explaining why skateboarders might think differently from the norm. While in some respects these claims align with the skateboarders’ argument that skateboarding is not a sport in that they situate the practice and culture outside of more normative practices, they also gesture toward the origins of skateboarders’ sense of dissatisfaction. As I have noted, skateboarders are policed and surveilled, and these experiences, along with their fraught relationship to their nonskateboarding peers, result in the sense that they are outsiders.
And it’s a subculture . . . because we get sort of a raw taste of life. We have to argue with people on a regular basis about getting out of the area. (Jeremiah, age 18)
We don’t care what other people think about us. (Eric, age 13)
Fifteen-year-old Brandon and Jim, interviewed together, explained.
Like, you’ll always be accepted into skateboarding, and unlike football or something, kids’ll make fun of you if you’re small or something like that. Look at me, man, I’m scrawny. I skateboard. Kids, I have a bunch of friends. Kids love me, you know? It’s awesome. (Joe, age 19)
The skateboarders’ descriptions of being teased about skateboarding or body type and their references to arguments with the authorities about the practice of skateboarding make it clear that they feel as if they have been somewhat forcibly excluded from dominant groups such as the jocks in high school. Skate media and culture do tend to suggest a lanky body type as an ideal—one need only look at Tony Hawk to see this—and I suspect that bulkier men who would be valorized as football players or wrestlers may feel excluded from skateboarding culture. It is important to note, however, that the dominance of this body type in skate culture may play a role in skaters’ attraction to it. The boys’ assertions of difference serve as a strategy by means of which they establish a sense of agency; if one chooses not to participate in a particular group, he cannot be excluded from it by others. More germane to my argument, however, is that the skateboarders’ solution to exclusion is highly individualized and lacks an articulation of larger structural issues such as the idea that a “real man” would be big—and physically dominant—not “scrawny” like Joe. Skateboarding in this sense becomes a type of enclave, a location in which skateboarders can feel comfortable with themselves and escape from the demands of dominant norms. Skaters’ inability or unwillingness to live up to established markers of masculinity does not necessarily effect an articulate critique of those norms, nor does it inspire a conscious effort to change them. Instead, it forces withdrawal into a more accepting community.
From Punk to Hip-hop: Style as Cultural Difference
Skateboarders frequently translate their outsider status into assertions of cultural acceptance. Referencing such stylistic markers as music and clothing, skateboarders deemed their community “multicultural” or “diverse” and indicated that their acceptance of multiple peoples stemmed from their own experiences of exclusion or oppression. Using code words such as Rasta, punk, and hip-hop, skaters implied that their culture is racially diverse, but these words seemed to weigh equally with generic terms associated with high school cliques: geeks, nerds, and so on. The skateboarders’ explanations of difference served to elide race, making it seem as though any and all racial differences were easily subsumed by a common devotion to skateboarding. Even when they were explicitly discussing race, as Kiran does below, skateboarders slid easily into references to lifestyle or music.
Such elision is not surprising in a community of youths who have come of age in a culture that celebrates tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism while rarely explicitly discussing the continued effects of racism and racial difference. In youth culture, race is frequently associated with particular music forms, and contemporary youth culture suggests that “crossing over” via music is acceptable but still problematic. Skaters seem to suggest that anyone can cross over into skateboarding as long as his primary concern is with skateboarding.
Skateboarders are, they’re pretty, um, unbiased culturally, so, ’cause they’re outsiders, especially back in the day they were outsiders, even now, still. So, you kind of come up with your own music and you start liking different things, you know? Kids that skate aren’t just listening to punk, they’re not just listening to pop anymore, they listen to everything. They listen to jazz, all kinds of stuff. (Mike, age 29)
It’s just stupid to define a skateboarder in one way, it’s like defining what a person is in any other sport in a certain category. I guarantee you there are all different kinds of personalities and all different kinds of people. (Jeremiah, age 21)
[Skateboarding is] a mesh of cultures. . . . You know, people who listen to punk rock music or, and then there’s your rocker, there’s your hip-hop heads, and then there’s everything in between. . . . [L]ike style of clothing, right, you know, like there’s people who look like rockers, people who look like hip-hop heads. . . . There’s people who dress real nice like [pro skater] Andrew Reynolds, you know, he wears a sports coat. (Matthew, age 21)
One of the things I’ve always liked about skateboarding is that it’s diverse. . . . Like culturally diverse, it’s socioeconomically diverse. It’s not about rich people that skateboard, poor people that skateboard, middle-class people, there’s like, all sorts of different races. It’s awesome. There’s pro skaters that are half Indian like me. . . . In India there’s not really a skateboarding scene, but in most other countries, like in Africa and stuff like that, there’s skateboarders, South America. It’s so cool. That’s one of the things that makes skateboarding, in my opinion, a superior culture to any other kind of youth culture, or like, [any]thing that other people would consider cool. That’s one of the reasons that it’s cooler than snowboarding. Like who snowboards? Rich white kids. For the most part. . . . I think that’s what keeps the majority of people out of it . . . they can’t afford to buy a five-hundred-dollar board and lift ticket. . . . Skateboarding’s low cost keeps it diverse, and that rules. There’s so many different things you can be into and still be a skateboarder. Punk rocker kids, hip-hop kids, metal, whatever. There’s dudes that listen to Britney Spears, and they all skateboard. ’Cause that’s their common bond. There’s diversity. (Kiran, age 24)
As I have mentioned, skateboarders believe their level of cultural acceptance or tolerance to be an outcome of their experiences as outsiders. For skaters, superficial discrimination is inexplicable, and skateboarding’s tolerance is another measure of its superiority to other youth cultures. Notably, however, in describing skating’s diversity Joe established a clear boundary excluding “white trash kids.” Furthermore, the invocation of white trash allows Joe, especially, to displace intolerant attitudes onto a group of folks deemed less educated and less accepting of diversity than most skateboarders, who present themselves as middle class.White trash signals not simply economic difference but a difference in taste. I would suggest that boundaries of taste permeate skate culture despite skaters’ claims that one can wear any style and listen to any type of music and still be accepted into it. Certainly, skaters display a particular sense of “cool” that operates as a requirement for entry into the culture. The clothing skateboarders wear falls into a limited spectrum, and the adoption of tight clothing or business attire, for example, must be suitably ironic. Matthew, for example, described another skater with admiration: “You see a lot of skateboarders that are really, really fashionable. . . . Like, they stand out. Look at [Joe]. He’s got like, wears girls’ jeans and like a striped sweater. Sometimes I see him rockin’ the headband! . . . Yeah, [Joe’s] hilarious!”
Although many of the skaters’ comments on diversity are centered on issues of style, it is important to take note of Kiran’s succinct and smart analysis of the opportunities afforded by skate as opposed to snowboarding culture. Although skateboards usually cost approximately 100 dollars, depending on the level of use they can last a relatively long time. And without the cost of lift tickets and transportation to ski resorts—or even the costs of participating in club sports—skateboarding is a relatively cheap and accessible practice. Of course, Kiran’s life experiences—he is half Indian and half Belgian and was born and raised in Belgium until 1990—have probably enabled him to be more attendant to such issues than his white counterparts.
Even after reading this book, Kiran objected to my analysis of race in skate culture. He took issue with my (and other scholars’) characterization of it as a white culture, naming a host of professional skateboarders who are not white, including, in Kiran’s words, “We got Tony Alva—Hispanic dude, Steve and Mickey Alba—Latinos, Peggy Oki—Asian, Steve Caballero—Mexican, Christian Hosoi—Hawaiian, Ray Barbee, Tommy Guerrerro, etc., etc.” At this time, Kiran had moved from Ann Arbor to Austin, Texas, and he told me, “When I go to the skate park by my house there’s more minorities than white kids there. I just think the Midwest is pretty segregated and maybe a lot whiter in parts than people realize. But just think about the kids in Ann Arbor, too.” He named five skateboarders, only one of whom I had interviewed, and concluded, “all brown or some shade of it.” Kiran’s point is well taken, and I think it is important to note the diversity evident in skate videos. Still, mainstream depictions of skateboarding continue to be mainly white, and images of diversity in niche videos can also be read as the type of tokenism that maintains the centrality of whiteness.
“We just want to skate, you know?” Skateboarding as Transcending Race
Skateboarders’ claims to tolerance, even when explicitly referencing race, serve to support their claims that it is the practice of skateboarding itself that is crucial to the culture, not the performance of different lifestyles. In other words, their discussions of tolerance, which in a nutshell say “Race doesn’t matter—skateboarding does,” assert the authenticity of this culture by suggesting that it is only about the practice of skateboarding and not about appearing to be cool, maintaining power, or developing an exclusionary group, each of which would be aimed toward stylistic ends rather than the experience of pleasure, joy, or transcendence, as I discuss later. The Ann Arbor skaters’ discussions of race worked hard to elide race, much like Wheaton and Beal’s skateboarders and windsurfers. At the same time, like Wheaton and Beal’s respondents, their conversations about race still drew on the normativity of whiteness.
Skateboarding’s open to all different cultures, like African Americans, Asians, all kinds of people. And they wear baggy clothes, whatever you want to wear. It’s pretty much accepted in skateboarding. (Adam, age 11)
Skateboarding is really multicultural. Like if you skateboard it doesn’t matter, like, what background you are, what race you are. And usually in society it really matters, like what color your skin is or what your background is, you know. . . . I would say skateboarding is more like a mix of people from all different backgrounds. They’re just kind of there to skate. (Alex, age 19)
Not as much a race issue these days in skateboarding. Skateboarders are kind of hated, looked at as thumbs down by the rest of society. It doesn’t make sense for white skaters and black skaters to not skate together. I evaluate if things are racist, and generally, it’s more positive—like, “Wow, black guys have good style when they—or Asian guys.” . . . Race is not a problem in skating. (Jeff, age 21)
Despite the skaters’ indications otherwise, my own experiences with the southeastern Michigan community suggest that it is mainly white. I interviewed two Latino and one Indian skateboarder; the rest of my interviewees were white. Of the white skateboarders, one indicated, without being asked, that he was Jewish. I encountered one Asian skateboarder, who declined to be interviewed, and no black skateboarders during my time with the community.
The skateboarders’ responses to my prompts about race also reveal a sense of discomfort in talking about race. Although the skaters frequently tended to use highly informal language punctuated by linguistic qualifiers and false starts, their unease when explaining race relations in their community was palpable in the extent to which they lapsed into such qualifiers during these discussions. Although Matthew could not vouch for diversity in his own experience, he relied on a sense of diversity in the “imagined community” of skateboarders, and skate media—particularly skateboarding videos—support this assertion in their representation of diverse “teams” of professional skateboarders. Also notable is Jeff’s attempt to make clear that he does think about racism and guards against it. For him, positively valenced but still monolithic descriptions of various racial or ethnic groups (“Black guys have good style”) are not racist. The boys’ uncomfortable and problematic discussions of diversity and race should be understood in the context of their own culture as well as broader American cultural constructions of race.
The disparity between claimed diversity and the reality of the community is not surprising given the skateboarders’ general sense that they operate differently from other adolescent groups, their existence in a culture that supposedly values diversity while doing little to promote it, the community’s specific location in a liberal university town, and my presence. As a researcher and an educated woman, I surely signified a liberal white who would have no truck with overt racism, and the skateboarders were undoubtedly guarded in my presence even after knowing me for five years. My status as a researcher was always known, and even to those skateboarders who regarded me as a friend I was generally an older, more established—and thus relatively authoritative—figure. As such, the skaters’ struggled to acknowledge racial differences and even racism while at the same time denying its presence in their own culture. As one skateboarder told me, “I mean, it could be different in the South and stuff.” Like most white Americans, these skaters shunned the notion that their own community might be exclusionary.
Taken together, however, the skateboarders’ elision of race and their continued reliance on individualized notions of identity and community served to maintain the power of white, middle-class skateboarders. Because their main claim to difference and their solution to dissatisfaction with other more mainstream groups (as encountered in high school, for example) amount to the repeated refrain that “skateboarders can do whatever they want,” the group saw no need to make a conscious effort to include frequently excluded groups. Whiteness and masculinity remained the unstated norms, a status that cultural theorists have demonstrated to be a position of power. As such, the dominance of individuality operates to maintain white dominance in this group.
“You do it for the love of it”: Authenticity, Love, and Individuality
The skateboarders’ notion of authenticity is firmly grounded in their general ethos of individuality. As such, to be an authentic skateboarder one must be doing so for his own reasons rather than to impress others. Consequently, mainstream images of skateboarders as “extreme,” or even competitive (as in The X Games), are labeled inauthentic or, in Jack’s words, “very wack.” Jack elaborated that skateboarders in the media “are portrayed as getting air. Being extreme. It’s not about . . . doing tricks! It’s all about having fun. And if doing tricks is having fun then that’s what it is. If it’s riding around a ramp, it’s having fun, you know.” Jack’s somewhat roundabout claim reveals the contradictions that the skaters’ primary concern with individuality evokes. That is, if the bottom line for skaters is that each skateboarder takes part in the culture for his own, individual reason, then judgments about what does or does not constitute authenticity become highly contingent: skateboarding is not about doing tricks unless that’s what’s fun for you; if riding ramps is fun for you, then it’s authentic; and so on. Such individualistic evaluations also translated into skateboarders’ correspondence with the media. For example, many skaters excused Tony Hawk’s excessive monetary success and corporate involvement as a personal choice; as long as he still loved skateboarding and displayed his skills, they suggested, he had every right to participate in its mainstreaming. Skateboarders’ assessments of Tony Hawk align with those of Wheaton and Beal’s skateboarding respondents, who deemed a skateboard brand authentic if it exhibited “a long-term commitment to the sport [or] demonstrated a working knowledge of” it. What’s more, if the brand was perceived to be appealing to “core,” committed skateboarders it was more highly regarded than brands perceived to appeal to newcomers.
As much as individuality pervades skateboarders’ descriptions of their practice, a sense of true love, fun, joy, or devotion must motivate their participation in it in order for skaters to deem it authentic. Such an emotional commitment to skateboarding—and the attendant devotion to feelings of pleasure—can be read as a negotiation of masculine norms deeming pain to be paramount, as I have discussed with reference to David Savran’s work. Still, when developed through the lens of individuality, the skaters’ expressions of pleasure lose some of their political steam. That is to say, skateboarders’ experiences and descriptions of the pleasure of skateboarding, and pleasure’s overriding importance to their sense of authenticity, act as a nascent critique of norms of masculinity. However, that critique remains nascent inasmuch as it relies on individuality for its expression. Individuality, in part, disallows skateboarders from developing a broad-based, institutional critique.
It is important to note, however, that the skaters’ regard for individual satisfaction with skateboarding is often couched as the antithesis of commercial interest in the practice. That is, one marker of disingenuity in this culture is the notion that an individual is skateboarding for profit rather than pleasure. To skateboard for profit, one must focus on competition, physical prowess, and constant progress—values antithetical to skaters’ ideas about self-expression and cooperation. Skateboarders, then, sometimes communicate a critique of commercial culture; however, the critique is that commercialism disallows individual expression, not that capitalism causes structural inequalities, exploitation of various peoples, overuse of natural resources, and so on. The critique is always located in their valorization of individuality.
You do it for the love of it, not to be cool, or not to be good at it, it’s all the same thing, you know. Its like, the whole jock stereotype, usually you see it in sports, like the football jock, you know, like some guy with slick[ed] back hair, you know, ladies man or whatever, plays all these sports. . . . A lot of them get caught up with skating for whatever reason; they see it and think this’ll be kind of fun. And they just skate to be, like, skate to be good. They don’t skate; they’ll only do something really big and crazy if it’s on film or if someone’s taking a picture of it. Or if, you know, they just do it to be better than other people and not to have fun. That’s not the way all of it is. (Jack, age 16)
I don’t think like anything could change skateboarding because [of] kids that actually love it so much that that wouldn’t happen. (Joe, age 19)
When I first started . . . I didn’t know people got paid. I just thought it was something that people were doing, you know, when they weren’t working and it was just having fun. Kids now look at it like, my little brother skateboards and he looks at it like, “Oh, I need to get a sponsor now,” stuff like that. And it’s just like, you don’t really need to, you know? I mean, I’d be skating if I didn’t have any sponsors. . . . Right now, skateboarding, it just seems like, everybody’s trying to start their own company and tryin’ to make a lot of money and just trying to make their own impact on skateboarding, and I think that the companies who are really down for skateboarding since, like, they’ve started, and companies that are all about skateboarding, sound fun, will survive. And skateboarding companies that are just all about the money will just die. So it kind of just separates out. Survival of the fittest I guess. Survival of the funnest, I would say. (Alex, age 19)
Some of these kids just get too, like, “When am I gonna get sponsored? How am I gonna get sponsored?” This, that, and the next thing. I don’t remember ever having that mentality. I just went out and did it and had fun. (Matthew, age 21)
If you’re not having fun when you’re skating, you’re skating for the wrong reasons. . . . Tony Hawk and the 900 makes young skaters think, I need to be able to do a 900 or a 720 or something, I need to be able to these big tricks. And they’re not satisfied with how they’re skating. . . . They’ll start skating ’cause it’s cool. You know ’cause like, man, Tony Hawk’s on TV! And like, he’s a regular guy, I’m a regular guy, you know! I can do a 900 if I practice. And like, they start skating for the wrong reasons. You know, like I can accomplish this, by this time. (Braden, age 15)
In these claims, skateboarders communicate a sense of dissatisfaction with the current media climate and the importance of sponsorship and commercialism to skate culture. Like Beal and Wilson’s participants, the Ann Arbor skateboarders evidenced a contradictory relationship to commercial culture in which they deemed sponsorship acceptable if it was accompanied by an inherent love of skateboarding as a practice. The skaters’ discontent with sponsorship and commercialization certainly does not translate into a rejection of niche skateboarding media and in fact belies most skateboarders’ appreciative fandom of the professionals featured in skate videos. Demonstrating their dynamic and contradictory relationship with commercialism, these comments suggest that skaters’ reverence for individualism also serves as a strategy through which they can evade developing a definitive critique of commercial culture. Furthermore, the focus on individuality allows skateboarders to continue to regard their culture as authentic even in the face of the extensive media appropriation I have detailed.
Tony Hawk, The X Games, Jackass, Viva La Bam, Wildboyz, and other mainstream depictions of skateboarding pose a contradiction to many skaters, who regard the mainstream popularization of their practice to be both promising and problematic. The importance of individuality, the relative lack of concern with the pitfalls of capitalism as an institution, and arguably mainstream producers’ skillful appropriation of the heroes and signs of skate culture mitigate skateboarders’ concerns with dominant portrayals of their culture. As I discuss in the next chapter, MTV’s representation of skate culture draws on its commitment to individuality, pleasure, and youthfulness while also reinscribing skateboarding as extreme and rebellious. The network’s skateboarders, furthermore, without question assert American white males’ power over women and people of color while mocking the preservation of masculinity via self-inflicted pain.
Listening to skateboarders’ passionate descriptions of their practice, I was struck by the boys’ devotion to their culture and willingness to express enthusiasm and dedication. More succinctly, I was taken by their evocative and almost poetic language as well as by their poignant mode of delivery. This is not to say that the skateboarders were always thoughtful, constantly emotive, or solely cooperative. In the space of the skate shop, the boys displayed their physical acumen on the skateboarding rail, teased one another mercilessly, and often ignored me. I remained on the boundaries of their culture in part because I was the only woman present, and together this group of boys was able to erect invisible borders that served to exclude me. The skateboarders’ expressions and performances of masculinity, then, are always and continuously contradictory. They move easily and seamlessly from rough-and-tumble aggression to thoughtful introspection, they mock one another’s skateboarding skills and then offer friendly advice, and they rely on gross-out humor yet elaborate powerfully on grace and beauty. These contradictions pervade skate life’s constructions of masculinity and correspond with the multiply valenced masculinities that saturate mediated portrayals of skate culture. These complex and dynamic codes of masculinity produce skate life’s not quite antipatriarchal critique of patriarchal limitations.