It’s now eleven years since I wrote an early piece on bear culture for Salon. But I was obviously onto something bigger than I imagined:
“Bears” almost all have facial hair — the more the better. Of all the various characteristics of Beardom, this seems to be one of the most essential. The Ur-bears have bushy beards that meander down their necks and merge with a large forest of chest and back-hair to provide a sort of all-hair body environment … Bears at their most typical look like regular, beer-drinking, unkempt men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They have guts. They have furry backs. They don’t know what cologne is and they tend not to wear deodorant.
Bears were partly a reaction to the whole ghastly metrosexual moment when straight men, for some elusive reason, decided to shave, product and starve themselves so as to look more like women (at the behest of those Queer Eye minstrels). And exactly the same kind of hirsute transition is now – a decade later – well under way among straights.
I regard this, in the spirit of Tim Teeman, first as a huge achievement for gay male America. Not only are we more comfortable in our own unpolished masculinity, we have created a cultural space for straight men to be the same. To put it another way: gays have helped redefine masculinity for straights – and for the first time, straights have not responded by feeling in any way tainted or discomfited by the association. In the process (don’t tell anyone), the gays have craftily transformed the public space by exponentially increasing the number of men we might have a hankering or a fetish for. Win-win!
(We’ve been quietly doing this for quite a while, of course. One reason every film star in an action movie looks like Arnold Scharzenegger is that gay men adopted steroids in the 1990s and strode around town with huge pecs and tight abs and traps that could lift a tow-truck – thereby upping the ante for the now relatively-puny straights. Yes, steroids in sports – especially football – also ramped up muscle culture. But the sexual and aesthetic appreciation of it – often suppressed in public female discourse – encountered no such restraints among the gays.)
The new vibe has many parts. It seems to me driven by a little cultural balancing of the high-tech 21st Century by the mores of the low-tech 19th – whether it be local brews, carpentry or sturdy all-weather clothing. This doesn’t mean being an actual lumberjack of course, as Holly Baxter explains:
I like the poseur who sits beside me at a nauseatingly hip cafe with his cold brew, Barbour jacket and anchor tattoos – I can’t deny it. He isn’t telling me he’s anything but a freelance web designer who can grow an impressively bushy moustache. He isn’t sitting at home, crying over his laptop and wondering why he can’t just get out there and be a “real man”. Instead, he’s playing with the concept of what masculinity looks like and does. He is at the same time both aggressively attached to the traditionally masculine look and completely removed from the lifestyle that it advertises.
Attaboy! It was the same idea that caused Victorian men to adopt the beards of those returning from the Crimean war – which was the first war that, because of the severe cold, allowed British soldiers to grow beards. No one mistook the newly bearded civilians for actual war heroes of course, but it was the heroic aesthetic that had cachet – and begat a new trend that lasted decades. There’s a minor parallel to that today as well. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also gave us real Special Ops heroes who grew big beards to melt into the surrounding population more easily. Of course, bearded hipsters are not actual war heroes, but they sure don’t mind looking like one. And what greater fantasy of male derring-do than a bearded, horse-riding badass chasing the Taliban in the mountains of Af-Pak?
I can’t help but wonder also if this public display of raw masculinity isn’t also a reaction to the relative decline in male power in American life and culture. As girls beat boys in school, and as women increasingly beat men in college, and as women out-pace men in vast swathes of the economy, and as old patterns of allegedly sexist male culture are policed and patrolled with ever-greater assiduity, the beard and the old-school manliness of the lumbersexual become new ways to express masculinity which cannot be denigrated or dismissed as sexist. It’s a way to reclaim manliness without running afoul of the new prophets of gender justice.
And it’s a default. If many cannot concede the power of testosterone in creating male culture, they surely have to concede its power in growing a beard. Think of it as testosterone’s last permissible stand against the forces of relentless sameness. And all you have to do to display it is … nothing.
(Photo: from our Beard of the Week last June.)