The Venus Flytrap: Touché ‘Tache

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When Salvador Dali appeared on the 1950’s American TV game show “What’s My Line”, in which a blindfolded panel deduced the professions of mystery guests based on a series of yes/no questions, he was correctly identified by a suggestion one panelist made to another: “ask if he could use his moustache to paint?”

Historically, moustaches symbolized both masculinity and various types of power in many cultures – from the warrior deity Parthasarathy (the only depiction of a Vishnu with whiskers), to Western intellectual elites from Nietzsche to Einstein, the examples are numerous. During the 20th century, they were sported by artists who represented a sort of hypervirility, including Freddy Mercury, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Selleck. The world’s most famous living lady with a beard, the striking circus artist and professor Jennifer Miller, wears hers proudly, saying, “It goes all the way back to Samson and his big mane of power. That’s why men don’t want women to have too much of it in too many places. So, here I am, a gal with a beard, prancing around the streets of New York.”

But does facial fuzz really have the kind of currency it used to? As one website put it, “moustaches are now the style equivalent of wearing a polyester leisure suit on your upper lip”.

It’s not that people don’t have moustaches anymore, or that those who possess them no longer take them seriously, as a walk down any Indian street will tell you – it’s that they’re no longer sexy in the popular imagination. Sure, a Johnny Depp goatee or some George Clooney scruff still warrants a second glance, but full-fledged whiskers are mostly the stuff of caricature.

In the past, emphasizing gender extremes, from rib-crushingly cinched waists in women to the bulging codpieces of Crete and medieval England, was fashionable. Today, trends veer toward something more androgynous – and bless androgyny for what how it frees us, but I wouldn’t mind being blessed, or rather brushed, with some serious bristles now and then! Has the fundamental sleaziness of the hairy face, with all it implies, lost its semi-subversive appeal? Look to typical old pop culture stereotypes: the baddie is bearded, the hero babyfaced. And who doesn’t secretly want the bad guy, with his swagger and his moustache twirl?

I don’t think I’ve ever actually wanted to have a moustache or beard, in spite of the many male accoutrements I have envied, so unlike Jennifer Miller, my contribution to a face fur revival is much smaller. I’ve invented an emoticon that hopefully conveys a sense of the yesteryear hotness of the whiskered man (or woman). I leave it to your imagination: :-{P.

The truth is, though, that my personal favourite story about facial hair relates to its absence. A Caucasian man, the type who probably thought it was enlightened of him to consider the question, once asked me how evil white people are portrayed in Indian comic books, given that villains are always shown to be dark-skinned. I thought it would be funny, because my sense of humour frequently sabotages my biological imperative and I liked him very much, to tell him that maybe they just had beards (like him). He showed up a day later, cleanly shaved. I could see his freshly smooth cheeks turn pink when I asked him why.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

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4 responses »

  1. yes,yes, very true – and you have a thing for moustaches is well known – moustaches are super cool and so are beards and all the beatnik boys had beards in San Fransisco just like all the girls had flowers in their hairs. and as a professional be(e) – ard – keeper, i can tell you, you get so used to it, it’s hard to let go. btw, was expecting something on the famous south-indian male moustache obsession too! and also, why do most intellectual men in their 40’s – yogendra yadav, pranoy roy, mukund padmanabhan, rushdie – tend to keep this nicely trimmed beard as opposed to the student/scientist/professional revolutionary unruly chick beard?

  2. The only men I dated that I didn’t really like were clean-shaven. Now a goatee, ah that gets me. Every bloody time.

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