Thursday, March 18, 2010

Beards Are Back: Is Obama to Blame?

[SF Chronicle Says "No You Can't," Bears Say "Yes We Can!"]
Published in San Francisco Bay Times: March 18, 2010

By Brent Calderwood
     Recently, columnist Caille Millner’s provocatively titled “Young Men Need Jobs, Not Beards” incited a minor uproar among San Francisco Chronicle readers, and especially among the bear community, a subset of the gay community of which I am a proud member. Self-described bears like me emerged in the early 1980s and pride ourselves on embracing hairier models of male beauty than those offered by mainstream American culture. Fur flew when we read that “Taliban-esque beards make [young men] look about half as attractive as they really are.”

     Millner, who often writes for the Chronicle on issues of race, class, and gender, has been accused by many of her readers, hirsute and otherwise, of missing the mark about a fashion trend that’s emerged, she said, “over the past two years” among young men—presumably among young, straight white men..
     Millner opens her article by positing that newly unemployed men “feel insecure and inadequate, and may lack the emotional freedom to handle these feelings in a constructive way.”
     “Psychologists,” she goes on to say, “often point to these factors when it’s time to explain why there’s more domestic violence during a recession. These factors may also explain why there’s more hair.”

      “Psychologists?” Which psychologists? Millner doesn’t say. As someone who has studied Social Work at UC Berkeley and has worked as an intern social worker and therapist in inner-city agencies, it looks to me like a nod to former prison psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan MD, who, in his groundbreaking 1996 book Violence, eloquently put forward the theory that “different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are feelings of shame.” But then, Gilligan says nothing about men growing beards to hide their shame, and besides, Gilligan has a beard—at least his NYU faculty photo does—so Millner can’t mean him.
     Perhaps she meant to mention Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? If so, why would she let an opportunity to drop old Siggy’s name slip through the cracks? One reason stands out: Freud also had a beard.
     In fact, Victorian Englishmen of all classes wore beards with pride. Bears did not start the trend; we merely reclaimed it. The mid-nineteenth century spurt in beard popularity was even given a name—the Beard Movement—a reaction to the smooth-jowled Regency Period, a permissive but corrupt ten years during which a young, clean-shaven, dipsomaniacal divorcee called George ruled by proxy while his father, George III, went gradually insane. Saddled with a a “Bush-league” sovereign who wasn’t much interested in ruling by the book, the Regency Period was an era of excess, waste, and war (sound familiar?).
     Once the Regency regime ended, Victorians let loose (in their subdued Victorian fashion) with facial hair of all kinds—mustaches, burnsides, mutton chops, Vandykes, Piccadilly Weepers, and full, bushy beards. To the Victorians, beards meant various things: artistic sensibility, intellectualism, rugged individualism, virile masculinity, even radical politics and sympathies with the working class.
      Predictably, thirty-four responses to Millner’s article, many by bears I know from my own San Francisco community, have appeared on the Chronicle’s website since March 1.  In addition, on other sites, scores of bloggers and Facebook friends of mine, most of whom identify as “bears” and others who describe themselves as “working class,” are filling the Twittersphere with expressions of outrage and disappointment that a progressive columnist should launch her editorial missiles at what could by liberal eyes be viewed as innocent populations: unemployed men, young men, men with beards.
     One anonymous online respondent, whose pithy comment earned more “thumbs up” on the Chronicle website than any other posting, said simply: “Wow. This could have been written in 1967 and would have been just as vapid then.”
     And there’s the rub. Whether we identify as “bear,” “person of color,” Muslim or Christian, some combination or none, who among us, especially those over the age of 40, hasn’t seen recent images of shaggy young men without involuntarily thinking: “hippie,” “counterculture,” or “flower power”? I’m reminded of the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, who came back, burned and bewhiskered, from India in 1968, and whose photo I would have loved to have seen run with Millner’s editorial last week.
      Even in late March 1968, with youth counterculture at an all-time high, with massacred My Lais only ten days buried and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ten days away from assassination, the public nearly panicked when they saw Paul’s full, bushy beard—rumors that he was dead and that his music had influenced Charles Manson’s violence would soon follow.

     When Marvin Gaye grew his beard for the cover of 1971’s “What’s Going On,” it marked his graduation from clean-cut crossover heartthrob to introspective truth-seeker. “What mattered,” said Gaye, quoted by biographer David Ritz, “was the message. For the first time I really felt like I had something to say.” By then, the public was prepared to accept beards without hysteria or condemnation, and “What’s Going On” became Gaye’s first top 10 album in the U.S. Even though I wasn’t born till 1975, I resonate deeply with McCartney, Gaye, and so many others who chose to “go natural” for political reasons.

     Perhaps bears like me today, rather than trying to pull the wool over our faces, are simply choosing to make spiritual, artistic, and political statements, much like Victorians and hippies before them. Perhaps, excited as most young men in the U.S. are by the election of Barack Obama after eight years of Bush’s excess, waste and war, they would rather align themselves with Marvin Gaye, Che Guevara, Jesus, Mohammed, the Beatles—or even with Rip Van Winkel, who, as the story goes, woke up at the end of a decade to find that the American Revolution had been won, and American would no longer be browbeaten by a tyrant named George.

Brent Calderwood’s essays and reviews have been published by New American Media, The Chicago Sun-Times, and Bay Times San Francisco. He has edited for The Princeton Review and taught writing at John Jay College. He blogs on culture, class, race and gender at “The Defibrillator,”

Oh, and P.S. I can't figure out a delicate way to include the following link, so here is a site dedicated to sexy young men with beards. If you have other links to contribute, please note them in the comments, or look at my profile here to find my contact info, send them to me, and I'll post links myself. 

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