Trimming Back Binaries: Hair Modification as Resistance to Gender Norms

Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair, Lady Gaga’s Hair, and The Lady of Rage’s Afro Puffs are just a few of the many popular culture references to the symbolic power of hair.

The cover art for Lady Gaga’s 2011 single, Hair, from her Born This Way album.

In varying cultures and contexts around the world, hair is significant for numerous reasons. In our Western society, hair has served as a powerful component of the socially constructed gendered identity. With regard to the hegemonic gender binary, short hair symbolizes masculinity and long hair symbolizes femininity.

Historically, the modification of hair has served as a symbol of resisting social and political powers of each hairstyle’s respective time period.

Resistance in a broader context is defined as challenging hegemony, institutions or systems of power, and social norms through an individual’s actions or speech. In regard to the relationship between fashion and power, resistance can be explained as the various ways in which individuals adorn or modify themselves in order to refuse compliance of the social or cultural context in which they operate.

Through current trends of pixie cuts, short hairstyles, and “man-buns,” it is clear that both men and women are defying gendered norms and expectations vis-a-vis the modification of their hair.

A Hair History 

In our Fashion and Power course, we have studied some of the various ways in which groups have utilized the modification of their hair in order to indicate affiliation with subcultural resistance to specific aspects of mainstream society. During post-World War II Britain, white working-class youth participated in the punk subculture as a response to black immigration from the West Indies, as well as to inequality, capitalism, and British society as a whole. Dick Hebdige writes that subcultures “represent symbolic challenges to a symbolic order” (92). As a part of their DIY ensembles, punks modified their hair by coloring, cutting, and spiking it to visibly indicate they were resisting consumerism and mainstream society.

Black women during the 1960s sporting the Afro.

In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement provided the historical and cultural conditions that gave rise to the Afro hairstyle for African Americans. Kobena Mercer writes that the Afro and dreadlocks of the time period were, “stylistically cultivated and politically constructed in a particular historical moment as part of a strategic contestation of white dominance and the cultural power of whiteness” (40). Black men and women intentionally grew their hair into Afros as symbolic resistance of Western hegemonic ideologies about beauty that traditionally devalued black hair and blackness altogether.

Against the backdrop of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, many white, college-educated youth created a subcultural group in America called the hippies. Known for their flower-power signifiers, bohemian-style attire, and anti-establishment and anti-war attitudes, hippies mobilized to resist mainstream society by visibly living alternative lifestyles. Men who identified as hippies often grew their hair long, resisting gendered expectations for male hair. This modification of hair, in tandem with wearing form-fitting shirts, shawls, and flower-crowns, enabled men to resist culturally and societal-created ideas of gender by blurring gender binaries through their stylistic fashion choices.

Contemporary Hairstyle Trends and Gender 

During the 2014 awards season, Anne Hathaway sported her short pixie-style haircut with swept bangs.

The idea of gender, as many scholars note, is socially constructed. Sandra Lee Bartky and Judith Butler argue that there is nothing biological about femininity and that as a hegemonic force, it is both productive and serves to discipline women. Butler writes that, “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes” (308). Bartky supports this argument by writing that, “the categories of masculinity and femininity do more than assist in the construction of personal identities: they are critical elements in our social ontology” (105). As Bartky notes, socially constructed attributes of masculinity and femininity shape the way we understand gender in today’s society. Societally defined gender binaries of male and female discipline men and women by indicating what bodily practices fall under these categories of masculine or feminine. Both men and women, however, have the agency to resist these socially constructed ideals through their stylistic choices and daily practices.

Walt Disney’s Mulan cutting her hair short in order to pass as a man.

A woman’s decision to cut her hair short would be one such choice. In Walt Disney’s 1998 film Mulan, heroine Hua Mulan uses her father’s sword to radically alter her own hair so that she may pass as a man and join the Chinese army in his place. Because short hair is associated with masculinity and the gender identity of being male, Mulan changes her gender presentation to that of a man, simply by modifying her hair. In Nickelodeon’s 2013 Legend of Korra, Korra cuts her hair in order to shed her identity as the Avatar, as she embarks on a journey to rediscover herself. By cutting their long hair, women transform a traditionally feminine attribute of their appearances in order to resist gender norms and expectations that are associated with being a feminine woman.

The Legend of Korra’s heroine, Korra, cutting her hair short as she begins her recovery.
After wrapping up filming for the final installment of Harry Potter, Emma Watson debuted her pixie-style haircut at the movie premiere.

In recent years, there has been a trend for female celebrities to sport the pixie haircut, a hairstyle that typically features shorter hair on the sides and back of the head, and longer hair on top. Bartky writes that, “’feminine’ – [is] a body socially constructed through the appropriate practices” (105). For women, these practices traditionally include accessorizing, putting on makeup, wearing clothing that flatters the body shape, and having long hair, to list a few. British actress Emma Watson debuted her pixie haircut at the 2010 London premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 1. In an interview with Us Weekly, Watson spoke about how “liberating” (2010) she found cutting her hair to be. As the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Watson has spearheaded the HeForShe campaign for gender equality. As we have discussed in class, homology is the correspondence between an ideology behind a style and a specific material. In this instance, Watson’s role as a high-profile, active, and outspoken feminist is homologous with her stylistic haircut; Watson is able to resist traditional gender roles through her decision to modify her hair.

Scarlett Johansson with co-star Robert Downey Jr. in a 2012 Avengers press conference.

Anne Hathaway debuted her short hairstyle in 2012 after filming the movie adaptation of Les Miserables. This was in light of an interview with Matt Lauer, in which Hathaway points out, “we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants” (2012). Watson and Hathaway are amongst a myriad of other celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Miley Cyrus, and Scarlett Johansson, who have opted to resist gender norms by modifying their hairstyles. In 2013 Lawrence discussed female body image in Hollywood with Barbara Walters, and was quoted saying, “it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV” (2013). In a recent interview with Out magazine, Cyrus speaks about gender binaries and societal expectations by saying “I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into’” (2015). Along the same vein, during a 2012 Avengers press conference, Johansson points out the obvious sexism in the questions asked of her in comparison with those asked of male co-star Robert Downey Jr. In a recent interview with Cosmopolitan UK, Johansson was paired with male co-star Mark Ruffalo in a refreshing conversation that provided for a reversal of gendered interview questions, with Ruffalo answering inquiries about his outfit choices and diet, while Johansson discusses her stunts in the new Avengers 2: Age of Ultron film. It is evident that these hairstyle choices are a part of a larger feminist movement, which has included social campaigns like #AskHerMore and #NotBuyingIt.

A man sporting the new, trendy “man-bun.”

In men’s fashion, a recent hairstyle trend has been the so-called “man-bun.” In this hairstyle, men grow their hair long, pull it back, and tie it into a bun either on top or on the back of their heads. From simple observation, it appears that it is primarily heterosexual men who participate in the trend. Many of these men also seem to be self-identified hipsters; hipsters situate themselves in a position to resist mainstream society, whether that is through their dress, attitudes, or occupations (Khaled, 2012; Greif, 2010).

Laura Portwood-Stacer argues that, “an act of stylistic resistance affirms the extant incapacity of disciplinary forces to totally control the will of the individual” (66). Men who participate in this fashion trend use their agency to resist expectations of short masculine hair and reveal that they refuse to simply submit to gender norms. Dick Hebdige writes that subcultural style, “challenges at a symbolic level the ‘inevitability’ and ‘naturalness’ of class and gender stereotypes” (89). By appropriating and transforming the traditionally feminine hair bun, these men are revealing the nature of gender binaries and that ideas of masculinity and femininity are not inevitable. With that said, the name of the style qualifies the hairstyle, relabeling it as masculine. The participation in the hairstyle itself can be seen as an act of resistance to traditional gender norms and expectations, regardless of the unofficial labels given.

Former One Direction heartthrob Zayn Malik with his “man-bun.”

Zayn Malik, Chris Hemsworth, and Jared Leto are just a few of the many male celebrities that have recently adopted the “man-bun” trend. Interestingly, it has become so fashionable that multiple Buzzfeed articles have been written in praise of the style, online fashion company ASOS featured a clip-on “man-bun” as an April Fool’s joke, and a group of South African comedians even filmed themselves doling out street justice by cutting off random strangers’ “man-buns.”

It is clear that fashion and style are potent communicators of power and meaning, capable of perpetuating existing inequalities or challenging the status quo. As a form of resistance, hairstyles signal to others the refusal to comply with existing gender norms and expectations. As evident through recent trends in the modification of hairstyles, individuals have been resisting socially constructed gender binaries and associations with ideas of masculinity and femininity. These trends, coupled with high-profile and visible feminist campaigns, have served to contribute to the obfuscation of gender binaries.

Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990. 93-111. Print.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. By Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina. Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307-20. Print.

Greif, Mark. “The Hipster in the MIrror.” The New York Times, 12 Nov. 2010. Web.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1988. Print.

Khaled, Heidi. “The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster: Popular Critiques of Art, Commerce, and Authenticity Through the Ages.” (2012): 1-16. Print.

Mercer, Kobena. “Black Hair/Style Politics.” New Formations 3 (1987): 33-54. Print.

Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “”I’m Not Joining Your World”: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-presentation.” Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 51-73. Print.


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