What do Siddartha, Buddha, Jesus Christ, (French revolutionary) Maximillien Robespierre, (martial artist and action film star) Steven Seagal, (samurai ninja) Hattori Hanzo, Tom Brady, the Terracotta warriors, and George Harrison all have in common? Aside from being total badasses, they all wore (or were depicted wearing) their hair in what is colloquially known as the ‘man bun’. That’s right; George motherfucking Harrison wore a man bun. If that’s not a ringing endorsement, then I don’t know what is. How ones’ hair is worn can speak volumes about their personality, beliefs, or experiential history. Some sects of orthodox Islam and Judaism require a woman’s hair to be made visible only to her husband. Crew cuts are often associated with a military or law enforcement background. And in this case, the man bun is recognized by its identification with enlightenment and badassery. Yet in spite of this historical trend amongst the great and captivating, it is currently suffering an acute backlash – the most far reaching of which comes in the form of a series of YouTube videos recording the separation of man from bun aided by a pair of scissors.
Among men, long hair has often been associated with strength. Conan the Barbarian had long hair, as did the Greek demigod Hercules. Even the Old Testament’s Samson claimed his hair gave him strength. The man bun is as much a pragmatic necessity as it is a fashion statement; believe me when I write this, it’s not fun hitting your one-rep max for your squat with your hair covering your eyes. Aside from representing physical strength, hair can serve as a kind of symbol or metaphor for other values as well. It takes commitment, patience, and dedication to grow long hair – all traits that are a prerequisite for success in other domains. For men, growing their hair out can serve as an act of rebellion much in the same way that short hair does for women. It represents individuality, and a willingness to buck tradition and eschew stereotypes. In 2015, this is truer now than in the recent past, as many of us struggle to form an identity in a constantly evolving environment.
However, popularity often breeds contempt, and as such there is a persistent and aggravated backlash to this stylistic choice. And that’s a real shame, because yet again we in modern society are faced with the reality of a painfully limited definition of masculinity. As a consequence of the rapid change we’re experiencing in moving from an industrial era into a digital one, humans have adopted a defensive posture, rigidly identifying with superficial physical markers as a compensatory reaction. For many it provides solace and stability in a world where our future provides little if any, of either. Amongst men, atypical forms of self-expression are shunned (i.e., sandals, manicures, fanny packs, and the aforementioned man bun), whereas conformity is the desired norm. This is as much an internal conflict as it is communicated to us through culture. Any deviation from ‘normal’ expressions of masculinity raise questions about that persons sexuality, competency, power, intelligence, and even their very manhood. In short, displays of machismo are ‘good’, while anything to the contrary is ‘bad’. Let’s contrast this across genders: Women are empowered when they adopt expressions of masculinity and femininity, whereas men are seen as weak or undesirable for that very behavior. In the same way that aspects of women’s sexuality and intellectual ability are challenged or outright suppressed, the wholeness of masculinity is sadly held in the same low regard.
A few short decades ago, expressions of counterculture values communicated to the larger population a kind of irresponsibility, or an unwillingness to participate in the system that birthed them. Today, they represent the ability to express oneself fully while still meaningfully contributing to the larger social structure. During the 20th century a person with long hair and tattoos was likely to evoke images of a dangerous bike gang or an ex-convict. But in today’s world, physicists and high school teachers regularly wear tattoos and atypical hair styles. With that being said, we still live with this specter of the past, and as such it still influences our thoughts and the conclusions we draw from social observations.
As I stated earlier, the expectation that men are to conform to the larger societal norms are reinforced by pervasive negative and prejudicial value judgments. Another way to frame this conversation is through the use of what is known as the theory of the disposable male. Academics have made the argument that in the 21st century, men have suffered a staggeringly decreased utility to society. For instance aggression, (or simply depictions of aggression) are regarded with increasing intolerance. Even century-old practices like martial arts are viewed as barbaric. The success of the human animal now has less to do with procreation than it ever has before. Most of the duties of men in previous generations are now being automated, or are outsourced to political institutions and law enforcement. Anatomically speaking, we aren’t that different from the animal we were just 10,000 years ago and yet there is less tolerance in civilized society for the kinds of masculine behaviors that have helped us to get this far. Men who embodied the warrior spirit were celebrated in 1943, for example, because those were the kinds of people who would defend their country. Now it’s been a long time since the United States has engaged in that kind of conflict, but those behaviors still exist (and in abundance!). Now, those people are condemned for their savagery whereas a few short generations ago they would be given a medal for their bravery. And rest assured, if we were ever to engage in a similar conflict to those that populated the first half of the 20th century, we would again call on the very same kinds of men to defend our livelihood.
In absence of these traditional avenues for masculinity, these seemingly superficial styles hold some power for men in this century. It can enable us to connect with an ideal, and empower us to achieve a kind of fulfillment that wasn’t widely available to previous generations. Men have yet to discover their identity in the digital age, and symbolism can help us make that distinction. I’m not trying to make the argument that society is to blame, because that is nebulous at best and (in my opinion) utterly useless. Similarly, I’m not trying to play the game of ‘who suffers more’ between men and women either. But I would like to see men (and women) everywhere celebrate their brothers and cherish self-expression, because to shun it is to reject our history. And if we do elect to follow that course, I struggle to envision a future for us as a species.
Photo source: karmaloop.com