Hair and Hippies and Gender Panic; or, Today’s Nibble of Rambling Cultural Criticism

This morning I’ve been mulling over the cultural significance of the huge cultural controversy that hair length engendered in the late 1960s. I’m sure this has been commented on many times before, but on personal blogs that have about 30 daily pageviews, you’re allowed to reinvent the wheel.

Anyway, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as fashions started by the hippies entered the mainstream and major events like Woodstock, the Newport Folk Festival (which turned 50 this week), and the anti-Vietnam protests brought the countercultural aesthetic into the public eye, they caused a furor among many older and more conservative people who didn’t know how to react to styles that favored jeans over suits and ties for men and dresses for women; young men who wore their hair long and young women who wore their hair short. One of the most frequent tropes that comes up in conversations about the ’60s kids is a shouted question, either from an older person or a little kid: “Hey! Are you a boy or a girl?”

This, of course, is part of the thematic content of the “American tribal love-rock musical” Hair, whose title song is spurred by naïve inquiries from an older woman, who initially mistakes one of the more effeminate male characters for a woman. In the ensuing song, the whole cast revels in the idea of long hair and the sense of liberation from society’s conformity it suggests—and since the musical is named after that celebration of a fashion statement, it makes it seem as if it’s the hair length that’s driving the show’s hymns to sex, drugs, and peace as well. But what’s interesting is how the whole hair issue is inextricably entwined with a gender dynamic—it’s pretty clear that many people objected to the long-hair-for-men trend because it did blur the distinctions between gender roles and create a situation that made it more difficult to gender individuals. Gerome Ragni and James Rado (the writers of Hair) recognized this in an interesting way: the woman who is confused by the androgynous male character and sets off the title song is really a man in drag, who throws open his fur coat at the end of the song to reveal that he’s just wearing shorts underneath. (It makes me, anyway, wonder what sorts of insecurities someone might have that they would be so obsessed with trying to discern someone’s gender and be made so anxious when that’s more difficult.)

It’s weird that a movement and culture which was, in point of fact, relatively gender-normative and even at times misogynistic (look at the sexual objectification of women by SDS members, or the gendered factionalization of the gay liberation movement, or the fact that it took until the late ’70s for second-wave feminism to really take hold) should have spurred so much cultural anxiety about the blurring of gender definitions, but I think that is as indicative as anything else of the omnipresence of gender issues in our society: if we are going to have a cultural panic about something, it might as well be gender and we might as well assume that the root of a generation’s cultural shift is gender, even when it isn’t.

However, Hair the musical subliminally introduces an important point here: in some ways, I think, the ambiguous gendering introduced by the hair problem provides an excuse for the homoeroticism evident in the relationship of the two main characters, Berger and Claude. And so it is they who can be transgressive and dance sexually even as they treat cavalierly the women in their life—one of whom is pregnant, but they don’t know by whom, and one of whom gets cruelly cast aside by Berger like the yellow shirt which gets used as a symbol of their relationship. While this rambling probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to someone who isn’t familiar with Hair (though you should be! Read the book, or go see it if you’re able! The Broadway revival is awesome), it does demonstrate how androcentric the so-called “sexual revolution,” and all the questions of gender of this period, were. The crisis of masculinity caused by the draft and those who dodged it, male-centered gay liberation, the way that women were used by people like the men in SDS… all this evidences the advances made in the freedom of masculine sexuality seemingly almost at the expense of feminine sexuality.

Which, I suppose, goes a long way towards explaining why the virgin-whore dichotomy is still so dominant in our culture.

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