Johnny Harrington in Vogue. Photo: James Mountford
Pretty much anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a bit of a thing for male body hair. I love it, especially a well-looked-after beard. There’s been a huge resurgence of the beard lately, along with it’s slightly less attractive friend, the moustache, and with that resurgence there has been a lot of criticism of and about beards. Particularly ‘ironic’ beards.
What the hell is an ‘ironic’ beard? How can a beard be ‘ironic’?
Well apparently if the man cares about his appearance, and expresses his masculinity in unconventional ways, his beard is ‘ironic’. For example, if a bearded man also has long hair that’s placed in a top knot, and is sympathetic to the feminist movement, his beard may be deemed ‘ironic’, but if a man is a drunk slob who just forgot to shave for a few weeks, his beard is just a beard.
I find it amazing and weird that at a time when many men are embracing painful hair-removing activities, perhaps led by athletes and to an extent, gay men, we also have a huge trend of men fully embracing this ‘natural’ expression of their masculinity. What impresses me most about it is that many of the men I personally know who could occasionally be mistaken for cavemen (if their products were taken away and you forced them to camp in the bush) are often sensitive, comfortable with their masculinity, and comfortable with women. Men who embrace their own body hair are, in my experience, more comfortable with body hair on women. On the other hand, men who appear to be more feminine, more ‘metro-sexual’ and remove their body hair tend to criticise women who choose not to remove any remaining vestiges to remind people that we are mammals. In my experience, straight men with hairless genitals are more likely to have old-fashioned attitudes to women, and I would hazard a guess that that’s partly because they aren’t overly comfortable with their own masculinity. How can you be comfortable with the opposite gender if you aren’t comfortable with yourself?
Some women view it as a perverse feminist victory when men also submit to cultural pressures to painfully remove their hair. ‘Now they know how it feels!’ they proclaim. That, in my opinion, is not feminism. It’s tempting to gloat over the equal oppression of sexuality, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the end-game we were after. Similarly, some women (not all of them feminists) are denouncing ‘ironic’ beards as signs of ‘self-entitlement’ and as being unattractive – these arguments often centre on the confusing display of sexuality. These ‘young’ men aren’t traditionally masculine enough, they work in bars making pretty cocktails and spend money on their appearance (something only women are supposed to do, apparently). To these women, and particularly the ‘feminists’ among them I say ‘Wha???’
That epitome of the Boomer generation, Elizabeth Farrelly recently wrote a confusing and somewhat confused diatribe about (against?) ‘ironic’ beards that also somehow explained what’s wrong with young people these days and our drinking culture and king/coward hits. Elizabeth Farrelly is clearly confused by these beards, she writes:
“Talk about mixed messages. Part Amish, part lumberjack, part Victorian dandy, part spaghetti-western barman, the single common thread is nostalgia; a retro drift to circa 1890, and the wish that the 20th century could be disappeared.
But even the nostalgia is not simple. The New Beard, while explicitly heterosexual, is also painstakingly ironic. So its accessories, far from reinforcing masculinity, deftly defy it.”
She then goes on to differentiate between the masculinity that produces steroid-taking young men who punch other young men in the streets after having too much alcohol, but ties both masculinities into a central argument that my generation are too spoiled and self entitled, bringing the over-availability of porn and violent video games into the mix to prove that really she is quite old, doesn’t know any twenty-somethings and wants to go back to simpler times when everyone loved each-other and protested against the Vietnam war. And worked 12 hour days from when they were 6 years old. Or something.
Firstly, I don’t think that my friends who are very sexy and have lustrous, well-maintained beards are trying to ‘defy’ their masculinity. Trim away at it? Reshape it? Perhaps. Secondly, while she vaguely waves a critical hand over the picture of today’s youth and recognises that maybe some of the reasons we are so ‘self-entitled’ as she puts it is because her generation made us that way by molly-coddling us, she at the same time concludes that my generation drink too much and fight a lot because everything has come too easily for us. Never mind that overall crime and violence is down at the moment. But it is true that mixing alcohol, steroids and other drugs is probably not a good idea.
The self-entitlement that Farrelly complains about may well exist, but I don’t think it’s as simple as she paints it to be. Firstly, it’s a product of affluence, which suggests a lot of other good things about this generation: we work, we have good jobs that pay good money because we are well educated, and the economy supports it (although there are also those who have the money because their parents don’t kick them out of home and make them pay rent, but whose fault is that?). But we are also quite caring too, and politically-minded, despite what the media says. I don’t want to get bogged down in describing the ways in which Baby Boomers are at as least self-entitled than us (low-density NIMBYism and Asylum seeker policies, anyone?) but self-entitlement is not this generation’s biggest problem. Maybe we should look at over-stimulation, continual mixed messages, and severe cut-backs to the social progress that has been made over the last few decades.
If recent random violence has come from a crisis in masculinity, it’s not well-educated ‘self-entitled’ bearded men we need to worried about. The kind of masculinity that is producing street violence is one that is very traditional and very stuck in a fast-changing world. It is likely to be perpetrated by men with a history of domestic violence (an issue that gets far too little hand-wringing for the comparative cost of life). The men who punch people on the street don’t do it because they’re drunk, or because they feel self-entitled, but because they are angry and afraid. They do it because they are not comfortable with their own masculinity. My bearded friends are physically affectionate with each other. They share their feelings. They are friends with women, They are accepting of difference. They also play sport and drink and laugh at crude jokes. They get drunk and sing at the top of their lungs to 80s power ballads. But they don’t go around punching each other in the head for no reason, or any reason, really. If our generation has problems with its identity it may be because the whole culture does. We are caught up in a rip-tide between currents of progress and backwardness. No wonder we are confused and we drink so damn much. But to Ms Farrelly, and the other women out there who are confused by forward-thinking men with backward-looking beards, I say: Embrace the ironic beard! Traditional masculinity is so 1965.