Women with Facial Hair
by Robin Whitaker
Issue 22 Spring 2000
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View photographs from: Women with Moustaches ▸
Ring Source - Want anthropologist to write essay on photographs of women with facial hair (!)
I think it might be worth starting with the significance of that parenthetical exclamation mark and the appeal of an anthropologist's perspective. They suggest there is something a bit odd or exotic about the idea. Might it have anything to do with how, on hearing about the idea, the mind jumps to the mythic bearded lady of carnival side-shows: the female grotesque? This association is worth exploring despite its distance from the substance of Trish Morrisey's photos. It points toward something of the critical appeal of "women with facial hair": a dispute with taken-for-granted ideas about gender and sex, culture and nature and what makes a woman.
For all the tolerance, even celebration, of putative transgressions in our society, for all that it seems like old certainties have given way to an unprecedented fluidity, the dominant cultural logic still operates some pretty resolute rules when it comes to embodying gender or gendering bodies. The possibilities for personhood are restricted to membership in one of two discrete categories. The assignment of gender structures our everyday interactions to such an extent that any ambiguity is quite distressing. Think, for example, of the discomfort caused by the rare experience of being unable to tell whether someone is male or female. The uneasiness may have its source in a desire not to embarrass the other person (who, we assume, wants us to know) by saying something "inappropriate." Its benevolence in no way lessens the force of this dichotomising logic, which operates even in situations where a person's gender is irrelevant.
The strictures increase as we move away from the safety of the obviously staged. Drag queens may be feted on the catwalk; mundane failures of gender identification still carry a whole host of minor and major risks. Very few of us escape the childhood terror and shame of failing to measure up to cultural expectations about what it means to "be" a girl or a boy.
Of course, not all violations of gender are equivalent. A woman who prefers menswear might be thought odd by prevailing standards. She might experience subtle or overt censure in certain contexts. Then again, if she adopts the right poses, if she understands the stylistic nuances required - and if she has the right body - she may be regarded as the very embodiment of femininity, reaping all the attendant rewards and pleasures.
To be a woman with facial hair is to engage in gender play of a deeper kind.
At the heart of the matter, I think, is the common sense conviction that gender owes its existence to sex. Sex is taken to be the biological basis for dividing bodies into male and female: an obvious and absolute natural difference. Gender is a matter of cultural elaboration on that division. We are born male or female; we acquire gender within specific social and historical contexts. The obvious variability of genders across and even within cultures, then, need not challenge the idea that they are anchored in something more stable, and, by implication, that there is an appropriate unity between biological sex and gender.
Women who stray too far from the acceptable norms may be labelled "unnatural" or simply "unfeminine." Men who do so may be labelled effeminate or effete. The implication, though, is that they are acting against what their natures demand. That nature, those bodies - their sex - is left intact.
The idea of "women with facial hair" intrudes on these assumptions precisely because the "failure" involved appears at the level of nature, not culture. As much as we "know" that facial hair does not, naturally, belong on women, that knowledge is confounded by the evidence. What could be more natural than hair? What would it mean to say that the biological processes of a female body were "unwomanly"? What would that, in turn, say about how we know in the first place which bodies are female, which bodies male?
The idea of "women with facial hair" is unsettling, and not just because it trespasses against cultural norms of femininity. Its power lies in its paradoxical character. As much as its somatic quality suggests the precedence of nature over culture, the exoticism of "women with facial hair" is evidence of culture's habitual triumph over nature - a victory secured by all the mundane disciplines that eliminate any sign of nature's ambiguity (think, for example, of the daily regime prescribed by Bridget Jones). While Morrissey's photos might not shock their studied conformity to convention sharpens the paradox. The transgression entailed in a display of hair on female faces is set against lipsticked mouths, tweezed eyebrows, coiffed hair. Even the genre of portraiture suggests certain conventions of femininity. To take these as framing devices is to show the natural process of hair growth as a matter of deliberate choice. As style, the notion of 'women with facial hair' questions our presumption that nature exists somewhere beyond culture. As much as culture seems to be trumped by nature's refusal to conform to the proprieties of gender, in another sense, nature, it seems, owes its very existence to culture.
These photos unmask the cultural work required to produce sexed and sexable bodies. For the most part, the effort involved is so mundane that it ceases to register; it seems entirely natural.
These photos remind us that the sexed body, as such, does not exist. This is not to say, 'there is no body,' but to suggest that the border between nature and culture is less fixed than we are inclined to presume, and, by extension, that the division between male and female is not self-evident either. Like other borders, these are arbitrary and political - open to renegotiation. It also suggests that, as much as it is a condition of personhood, gender is produced by (always already gendered) actors, whose agency is hidden because subject to the demand that gender appear as the most natural thing in the world.
In a reading of Simone de Beauvoir's statement that one is not born but becomes a woman, Judith Butler suggests that Beauvoir did not intend to imply that 'one becomes a woman only finally to "be" one. ... One never "is" a woman, for the act of becoming is never really completed.' We may choose to act as though we 'are' women in some final way, but even that requires a 'constant and tacit effort of freedom.' To be a woman in a way that claims one's womanhood is effortless - such being, suggests Butler, we might call 'the bad faith of gender.' The idea of 'women with facial hair' - if not any specific woman with facial hair - has the potential to expose such bad faith by avowing the freely exercised effort entailed in living one's gender. It shows gender as enabling as well as limiting, opening up certain possibilities for living in the world even as it closes other down.
In one obvious sense the idea of 'women with facial hair' reinforces rather than disrupts the dichotomising logic of sex and gender. Indeed, its transgressive power depends on the dichotomy. And yet, the critique implied by 'women with facial hair' lies in its suggestion that the whole system is contingent - that it does not exist, as Butler would put it, apart from the acts that constitute it. For if gender depends on sex for its existence, we cannot know sex without gender. Each takes the ground from the other. This holds out some hope for freeing gender from the tyranny of sex.
To question sex as the guarantor of gender is to threaten to expose as insubstantial the very foundation of our culture's most basic system of categorisation. This is very far from saying there is nothing to it. Whole industries are devoted to maintaining sex and gender, and the rewards and punishments attached to getting it right or wrong have a perfect materiality. But it does say that the foundations for sex and gender are not the ones they claim for themselves. The always present risk of exposure may help explain why it is those identities that are apparently most intractable that also seem to be those most in need of defence.
Finally, I think, this may help explain the exoticizing impulse. Exiling 'women with facial hair' to the circus is a defensive move that puts trouble in a place where it can be safely contained.
Other articles mentioning Trish Morrissey:
Oral History Archive: Trish Morrissey Interview [Audio Interview] ▸