As Movember passes into Decembeard, Notches is showcasing some of our great publications that reflect upon the significance of sex, sexuality, and the bearded face. Taken together, these four posts illuminate the powerful meanings associated with facial hair, its employment in policing gender and sexuality, and how it fits into broader national and political questions that go far beyond a single bearded face.
Moustaches, beards, and male facial hair are not inherently sexual, but are sexualised because of their association with the onset of sexual maturity in men, because of their use in coding sexual desires and categories, and because of their role in identifying gender and sexual aberration. Facial hair can be both ‘manly’ and ‘effeminate’, ‘real’ and ‘false’, and, as a recent conference on the history of facial hair has shown, tied up with all manner of political, economic, social, cultural and sexual discourses.
Julia Laite introduced Notches‘ readers to facial hair in her response to vitriol against the man that 21st-century bloggers love to hate – the hipster. Criticised for his faux manliness, the bearded hipster is a poseur; his ‘manly’ beard lies and his sexual interests are illegible. But the hipster hasn’t been alone in attracting the ire of female observers. Women, Laite usefully reminds us, have long used commentary on male style to police men’s bodies and sexuality. Looking more closely at the sexual implications of men’s facial hair, Justin Bengry honed in on shaving product advertisements at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. These ads, appearing even in mass-market publications, alluded to sexuality and queerness with language of aggressive domination, fear of penetration, and a dialog around active and passive sexual roles. What was this fascination with protecting men’s ‘little doors’?
Media and popular culture have remained a key source for Notches contributors thinking about how entertainment can have wider political significance. In May 2014, the Eurovision Song Contest — referred to playfully as the ‘Gay World Cup‘ — propelled Austrian drag performer Conchita Wurst onto the world stage. So powerful was the destabilising effect of this Hirsute Phoenix that some Eastern European men shaved their beards, publicly excising the offending facial hair that seemed no longer to signal uncomplicated hetero-manliness. As T.J. Tallie argues, ‘Conchita Wurst and her disruptive beard offer a powerful lens to examine larger questions of nationalism, sovereignty, and shifting sexuality in Europe’. Łukasz Szulc took up these questions, explaining that in Poland both the Right and Left employed Wurst to distract people from key issues in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections: highlighting traditional Polish values threatened by the moral laxity embodied in Conchita, or to demonstrate support for Wurst and alliance with a ‘progressive’ western Europe.
Across these four posts we see that facial hair does far more cultural work than simply ‘framing the face.’ It speaks volumes about the histories of sexuality and gender, economics and politics.
Justin Bengry, The Erotics of Shaving in Victorian Britain
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