Saturday, September 19, 2009


In our third and final counter-example to those Shira Tarrant offered in her article in Bitch (“Guy Trouble: Are young men really in crisis, or are these boys done just being boys?”), I’m taking on her assertion that the Marc Jacobs fashion ads featuring guys in dresses represents a positive step away from stereotypical masculinity. My counter-example looks at the men’s hairstyles recently featured in the New York Times’ Fashion & Style section. (The article’s not available without signing in to the Times’ website, but I’ll provide you as much as you’ll need here.)

David Colman reports:
There is a minor eruption of major hair atop the country’s young male populace — and, as hair is wont to do, it’s growing.

Curiously, the look is not one of style as much as degree. There is no army of winsomely tousled RPattz clones. Instead, there are Afros, mohawks, dreadlocks and pompadours. There are “Idol”-ized punky pincushions, Allman-esque hippie cascades (with matching beards) and Bowie-style, parti-colored shags. And these are just the styles that have names. Often enough, these clever young dandies are crossbreeding styles into hybrids unknown to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hair Hall of Fame.
So, young guys are opting for a wide range of hairstyles that reach across genres and recent history. What’s the big deal about hairstyles anyway?
Often guys who are after a more extreme look will drop the name of some rocker — Robert Plant, Simon Le Bon, Robert Smith, Anthony Kiedis — as inspiration. But what makes this curious trend even curiouser is how little connection the hair actually has to the moment, the man or the music that spawned it. That guy with the long, brown hair and beard may well have techno on his iPod, and the guy with the dyed blue shag is as likely to be drumming his fingers in time to death metal.

“You can never tell what they’re into from their hair,” Ms. Jukes said. She pointed out that her boyfriend, Ben Koller of the metalcore band Converge, has gone for the early-1970s look of the teenage John Michael Osbourne (back when he was the lead singer of Black Sabbath). His band, however, favors a chaotic clash of punk and metal that makes Black Sabbath’s 1970 hit “Paranoid” sound like Doris Day. And however you though Adam Lambert’s hairstyle pegged him, it was clear to “American Idol” audiences that musically, at least, the man’s got range.

Once upon a time — say, 40 years ago this week, when long-hairs thronged to Woodstock by the hundreds of thousands — you got a hairstyle to show the world your affiliation, to brandish a cultural identity defined by your musical tastes, your political views or how depressed you were. But such literal interpretations of hair appear to be utterly passé, even if the hairstyles themselves are not.
Here’s what’s special. There used to be a time when men’s hairstyles were a sort of uniform or identifier. They were symbolic of one’s adherence to a particular culture and that culture’s values and aesthetic. The hair expressed its signified group’s point of view. In other words, you used to be able to make assumptions about men based on their hairstyles. Not anymore. According to one guy interviewed in the article, “I don’t think it defines people at all anymore.”

What is at work here is the new approach to masculinity we at The Guide have begun describing with our two most recent posts about Tim Gunn and Dennis Rodman. While the traditional approach makes masculinity itself a guy’s end goal, the new approach treats masculinity as a means or a tool a man can employ towards achieving a goal specific to him as an individual. This makes the end goal not some masculine stereotype but something more unique. Tradition doesn’t get to set men’s goals anymore, men themselves do. With this new approach, the number of potential results is endless, whereas with tradition, the result is inherently always the same.

The difference here is semiotics, or how we look at signs or symbols and interpret them. In semiotics, according to its seminal scholar, Ferdinand de Saussure, linguistic signs are made up of two things: 1) the signified and 2) the signifier. In the Times’ article, the signs in question (conceptual stereotypes like “punk”) are a product of the relationship between signifieds (a young guy with anti-establishment tendencies) and signifiers (a spiked, dyed hairstyle). The guys in the article destroy the power of the sign (or, as I’ll refer to it from here on out, the symbol). They do this by changing the signified. The guys determine what the hairstyle symbolizes; they don’t let tradition speak for them. So when you see a guy with a Goth hairstyle or a punk hairstyle, there’s a chance that the guy has reinterpreted the concepts and symbols traditionally attached to his hairstyle according to what holds personal meaning for him. Fashion or society’s definition of what those styles symbolize no longer always define the guys wearing these styles. Guys like those in the Times’ article have taken the act of defining themselves into their own hands. Now, in order to find out what it all means, we would have to actually get to know the guy’s perspective and aesthetic to make sense of what it means to him.

Traditional masculinity, like the hairstyles here, is populated by symbols. What makes traditional masculinity (or traditional anything) so establishment-friendly is that society has agreed upon the definitions of signs and how to read them. What disrupts the establishment is when those definitions are no longer under their control. Remember Tim Gunn’s use of the suit or Dennis Rodman’s use of leather in his Sports Illustrated cover. They determined what those symbols mean for them. They determined how to use masculinity and its symbols not to speak the language of patriarchy, but to speak their individual minds.

To return to the article, “‘I know I’m not a trailblazer,’ said Mr. Cooper, the fashion stylist, ‘to me it’s just personal. It’s a creative outlet.’” In a way, he’s right; it is just one small thing, and a tiny part of something much bigger.

No comments: