The gang has always been an arena
for the acting out of gender.
Most gangs today are unsupervised peer groups, but many have institutionalized
in urban ghettoes, barrios, and prisons. Male gang members typically display
an aggressive masculinity expressing values of respect and honor and condoning
vio-lence as a means to settle disputes. The gang also promotes a traditional,
subservient, femininity, but for girls, membership can also be a sign
of gender-role rebellion. Like all of us, male and female gangsters “do
gender” in a globalized world of uncertainty.
The mass media have held a fascination for the gangster and helped shape
the public’s understanding. From early films of the James Cagney
“tough guy” through the romanticized “West Side Story”
to the recent films like Boyz in the Hood, being a “gang member”
means being “macho.” In the global era, this stereotype has
been diffused across the planet, leading to such anomalies as the discovery
of “Crips” in the Netherlands.
The classic studies on gangs spent little time analyzing gender. For Frederic
Thrasher (1927), the father of gang research, the industrial era gang
was a way to work out the masculine anxieties of immigrant boys, yearning
to be free of the traditional bonds of their old world parents. For Albert
Cohen, the gang was the antithesis of femininity, masculine by definition,
a rebellious assertion of working class maleness in a modernizing world.
Lewis Yablonsky, Short and Strodtbeck, Cloward and Ohlin, and Malcolm
Klein, in their influential mid-century works, all described a quintessentially
male group process and ignored female gangs.
Walter Miller (1958) argued gang life essentially meant conforming to
male lower class “focal concerns” of “trouble,”
“toughness,” “smartness,” “excitement,”
“fate,” and “autonomy,” Miller argued male gang
members rejected identification with their mother in female-headed households
by an compulsive concern for masculin-ity. On the other hand, Joan Moore’s
(1991) study of East Los Angeles gangs saw barrio life as full of “machismo,”
but also marriage, courtship, adjusting to the life after prison, and
the search for a conventional life. Moore’s barrio is populated
by both male and female gangs, boyfriends, girl friends, work, church,
Only a few studies look specifically at issues of masculinity. James Messerschmidt
(1993 ) explored how street gangs protect “turf” and wage
street warfare “based on idealized notions of hegemonic masculinity.”
Majors and Billson (1992, ) point out that the “cool pose”
of African American youth “is designed to both render the black
male visible and to empower him; it eases the worry and pain of blocked
opportunities.” Hagedorn (1998) compares partying male gang boys
to “frat boys” and constructs a “typology of gang masculinities.”
All these studies stress the complex interaction of gender and social
structures, and find gang masculinities re-semble mainstream notions of
what it is to be a man more than deviant hyper-masculinity.
However, street life often does become a symbolic display of an aggressive
masculinity that flaunts a rejection of the shuffling “Sambo”
or “Uncle Tom” identities of the past. The Black gang member,
Robert Staples (1982) says, is reacting to an “internal colonialism”
which has de-legitimized authority and makes the masculine ethic of success
a cultural imperative. Phillipe Bourgois (1995) calls this a life “in
search of respect” vividly describing the frustration and rage of
young men humiliated by joblessness and demeaning low wage work.
Researchers who work from representative samples, however, have continued
to find variation in the character traits and other characteristics of
gang members. The gang has practical and symbolic meaning for its members,
fulfilling functions of protection, solidarity and, for some, becoming
an alternative family.
Immigration has always been strongly related to gangs, and in the US there
are more Latino than African American or white gang members. Vietnamese
and Chinese gangs have spread across the country. For immigrants, the
gang often resembles its classic form as a mechanism for male adjustment.
However, the existence of organized gangs like the Tongs and persisting
Latino gangs like the Latin Kings or prison gangs like La Eme, influence
An enduring US ghetto has meant enduring gangs. Los Angeles and Chicago
have both seen several gang organization continue for more than half a
century, and gangs in most cities have lasted now for more than twenty
years. The globalization of the economy has given added importance to
the informal sector, and many US gangs have become little more than drug
selling enterprises. The war on drug and high rates of incarceration have
moved gangs into the prisons and helped institutionalize their organization
on the streets.
While the popular image of the gang member is inevitably male, female
gangs have always been “present but invisible” (Chesney-Lind
and Hagedorn 1999). Like males, girls in gangs vary in their conception
of femininity. While some female gang members are viciously victimized
and exploited by males, others are rebellious and independent, independently
challenging gender roles. Despite popular beliefs that violence among
girls is increasing, girls remain much less violent than boys with no
signs of significant changes in the “violence gender gap.”
Gang life, and particu-larly the drug game, is male-dominated and dangerous
to female drug customers and gang members alike.
Violence remains strongly related to males settling disputes of honor
and business, but the global era has introduced new patterns of gang activity
and violence. Manuel Castells points out that shrinking the world to a
communal level is one wide-spread, and often violent response to globalization.
In US ghettos, Castells (1997 ) argues a “resistance identity”
has formed consisting of a masculine and violent “culture of urgency”
exemplified by drug-dealing gangs.
Gangs exist in most poor urban areas, but copy-cat groups have sprouted
in subur-bia and small towns. Some gangs today have become politicized
and a few have been reported to have launched a struggle against “male
chauvinism.” However the culture of the gang remains one of aggressive
male dominance, hustling for survival, and lower class solidarity.
Bourgois, Phillpe. 1995. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio.
Cam-bridge. Cambridge University Press.
Castells, Manuel. 1997. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture
Volume II: The Power of Identity. Malden, Mass: Blackwell.
Chesney-Lind, Meda, and John M. Hagedorn. Editors. Female Gangs in America:
Es-says on Girls, Gangs, and Gender. 1999. Chicago. Lakeview Press.
Hagedorn, John M. “Frat Boys, Bossmen, Studs, and Gentlemen: A Typology
of Gang Masculinities.” 1998. In Masculinities and Violence; Lee
Bower, ed. Thousand Oaks. Sage. 152-167.
Majors, Richard and Janet Mancini Billson
1992 Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. New York: Simon
Messerschimdt, James W.
1993 Masculinties and Crime: Critique and Reconceptualization of Theory.
Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.
Moore, Joan W. 1991. 1991 Going Down to the Barrio: Homeboys and Homegirls
in Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Miller, Walter 1958 "Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of
Gang Delinquency." Journal of Social Issues. 14:5-19.
Staples, Robert. 1982. Black masculinity: The Black Man’s Role in
American Soci-ety. San Francisco. BlackScholar Press.
Thrasher, Frederic. 1927. The Gang. Chicago: University of Chicago.