Beards are back. It's impossible not to notice — hirsute is hip, from Brooklyn to Hollywood, from the corner artisanal whatever shop to the flawlessly kept chins of Jon Hamm, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Gosling. The trend has persisted beyond no-shave November; scruffy is still popular. But why? And who are these men — these manly men who judge the mirror, who pluck, tweeze, trim?
Some have called these fashionably bearded men "lumbersexuals" — an aggressively masculine and naturalistic antidote to the "metrosexual", the mid-aughts dandy portmanteau. Last month, Slate's Culture Gabfest took on the lumbersexual trend with Willa Brown's fantastic article in the Atlantic, "Lumbersexuality and Its Discontents."
Willa Brown's central point is that the brawny, upright, Paul Bunyanesque archetype that has captured the hearts of today's hipster set is actually just a romantic symbol created by journalists. The lumberjack of hipster lore is not, Brown emphasizes, an accurate portrayal of the working class men who toiled in North Midwest lumber camps at the turn of the century. This means that the identity that has inspired so many gruff beards, camp gear shopping sprees, and pine tree tattoos is not authentic or true; the lumberjack is simply a manly "romantic hero", a myth, a carefully trimmed cousin of the shamefully unkempt Big Foot. To summarize, says Willa Brown, hipster lumbersexuals are playing with a false identity:
The symbols these men are taking on—the plaid, the woodworking, even the beards [...are...] impractical, spangled gestures at a reality they’ll never have to know.
But the lumberjack hero is not the only cultural archetype that uses the beard as a symbol. It was Shakespeare who first played around with what beards mean for men (and masculinity). In The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Early Modern England, Will Fisher claims that the presence (or absence) of an actor's beard said a lot about his manliness: "facial hair often conferred masculinity: the beard made the man" (56).
In Much Ado About Nothing, for example, Benedick, a witty young nobleman with a bachelor's attitude against marriage, is tricked into falling in love with the strong-willed and ever so picky Beatrice. Benedick's noblemen bros mock his love-sickness because it's so obvious: it's, well, written on his face. When Benedick decides to woo Beatrice, he shocks the stage: he shaves his beard. He's a new man; his focus is to look good for Beatrice. When they receive word about Benedick's new look (and how he uses his facial hair to make himself up), his guy friends poke fun at the type of feminine grooming that today's hirsute hipsters are mocked for:
Don Pedro: Hath any man seen him at the barber's?
Claudio: No, but the barber's man hath been seen with him; and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls.
Leonardo: Indeed he looks younger than he did, by the loss of a beard.
Claudio: And when was he wont to wash his face?
Don Pedro: Yea, or to paint himself? for the which, I hear what they say of him.
(Much Ado About Nothing. III.ii.20-27.)
When Benedick shaves his burly beard, it's his body that shows he's falling in love with a woman and leaving his bachelorhood behind. His very face, his lack of hair, is the signal: "the old ornament of his cheek", once grizzly with hair, is now as soft and smooth as a tennis ball.
Benedick sheds his manliness in order to please Beatrice, who's made her views on hair quite clear: “Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face! I had rather lie in the woolen” (II.i.27-28). Fiercely independent, Beatrice uses beards to justify her hatred of marriage: she can't find a man who's good enough. Her standards are not only high; they're impossible to meet. She doesn't want a man with a beard (because he's not youthful enough to be attractive); nor a boy without a beard (because he's too feminine, and not enough of a man). She lists her options, beginning with the prospect of finding a husband who "hath no beard":
What should I do with him — dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.
(Much Ado About Nothing. II.i.28-32)
Beatrice is difficult to please: she seems to want a lover who does and does not have a beard at the same time. Benedick's strategy is to change his attitude, his attire, and his body for her. His beard is not just hair — it's a signal, a symbol. His body, and its (lack of) adornment, speaks just as loud as a mask or costume might.
Compare Benedick's newly shaved face, for instance, to the young Claudio's naked chin, which Benedick's mocks as "Lord Lackbeard" (V.i.192) when challenging him to a duel. Benedick uses Claudio's smooth face as a source of ridicule, but Claudio's "softness" is not a result of a choice. Unlike Benedick's bachelor-shedding clean shave, Claudio lacks a beard simply because he's too young to grow one. A beard is something that a man can lack, yet it is also something that he can purposefully grow and attend to. Hidden underneath a beard is a naked chin, which suggests its own set of symbols: youth, inexperience, femininity.
Is the hipster beard truly a prop? Is a beard as easy to change as a pressed plaid shirt, leather boots, vintage suspenders? Yes. Shakespeare's plays were centuries ahead of this image-obsessed avatar world we call the Internet. They show that manhood is created, a series of staged poses, costume changes, and imagined roles — whether on stage or on Instagram.