Arts & Culture

The Hipster Beard: Creepy or Essential?

[Note: The following is an opinion piece on the creepiness of hipster beards, those scraggly face-warmers sported by young, underemployed, flamboyantly-dressed men in cities across the nation. For a defense of these beards, see Andy Selsberg's response.] One of the … Read More

By / November 8, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

[Note: The following is an opinion piece on the creepiness of hipster beards, those scraggly face-warmers sported by young, underemployed, flamboyantly-dressed men in cities across the nation. For a defense of these beards, see Andy Selsberg's response.]

One of the most disturbing moments of my (admittedly boring) childhood was the day my dad shaved his beard. When he walked out of the bathroom, all three of my brothers burst into tears, demanding to know what this smooth-faced interloper had done to our father. I was old enough to understand the transformation, but I still felt shaken. With a beard, he’d looked authoritative, serious, almost Solomonic. His nude chin bespoke an entirely different man: someone young and frivolous, more likely to flirt with strange women than to arbitrate disputes over Lego ownership.

For the past year or two, I’ve revisited this shock almost every time I walk down the street, only this time it’s the converse: how did all the boys turn into my dad? It might have started with Will Oldham’s near-Freudian bush-face on the cover of 2003’s “Master and Everyone,” an achievement in hair-growing so monumental that it nearly eclipsed the record itself. It might have something to do with Devendra Banhart, psych-folk, and the need to have a chin as goaty as one’s voice. Wherever the hipster beard came from, I wish it would go away. I think my dad is pretty great, but I’m a little freaked out by how much my boyfriend is starting to resemble him.

Not everyone has a bearded dad, obviously. But if you’re young enough that your facial scruff qualifies as hipster accoutrement and old enough that it’s not just pubertal bragging, then your parents probably came of age during the golden era of stubble liberation. In April 2005, the New York Times explained that beards are hip because they’re subversive. Fair enough: fringe forces often have fringed faces. Beards can signify passionate devotion to a fundamentalist cause and/or the inability to toe the social line, making them quite literally countercultural: look at Osama Bin Laden or the Unabomber. The Brooklyn beard might well be a symbol of wild-eyed pre-modern weirdness, an unruly protest against the uniformity of our flat globalized age. But the Times was thinking more of Kris Kristofferson’s chin in the 1978 movie Convoy. It’s hard to be nostalgic and subversive at the same time.

Of course, there’s nothing categorically wrong with re-heated trends. It’s just that in laying claim to the beard during their own youths, the boomer generation stripped it of its powers. The untamed mountain-man beard at least suggests some kind of feral intensity. Once filtered through the dad matrix, though, it becomes by definition unsexy. The virtues it implies—responsibility, maturity, prudence—are certainly all fine things, but they don’t make a girl’s pulse start to rise when spotted walking down Broadway. Whether or not we’re evolutionarily wired to like dependable men, we’re culturally programmed against anything that reminds us too much of the previous generation. And without his clothes, a bearded guy looks like the gamy dude in the line drawings illustrating the erotic boomer bible The Joy of Sex, which makes him shorthand for all sorts of disturbing primal scenes. (Oldham, as always, is a total genius: in bearding up like Freud, he somehow both presaged the trend and pinpointed exactly the kind of anxiety that goes with it.)

No matter how obscure or obscuring, fashion is always about sex. Someday, all you beardos might have kids who depend on your hairy chins to make sense of their little worlds. But until you’ve reached that point, it might be wise to shave once in a while. Nobody wants to feel like she’s making out with the scratchy symbolism of her parents’ generation.

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ALSO IN JEWCY:

Andy Selsberg defends the face fluff.

Marjorie Ingall loves all male body hair, whether it’s facial or dorsal.

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