Alex Blaze

Hair, gender, and power

Filed By Alex Blaze | January 17, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: binary, gender, school, taylor pugh, Texas

Over a year ago I posted about a boy who wasn't allowed to start public school in Texas because he had long hair. He was Native and it was part of his culture to keep his hair long.

taylor-pugh.jpgAnother school in Texas, this time a suburban school instead of a rural one, has a problem with a boy who wants long hair, this time for apparently no reason other than taste. He's allowed to go to pre-K, but he and his long hair have been separated from the other students in the library with a teaching assistant. Long hair on a boy, the school board claims, is such a distraction that he can only be handled by people with hazmat suits. Talk about gender anxiety.

And then talk about authoritarians playing the victim. Sheesh, they make a decision to separate this child from classroom instruction for no reason other their own psychological issues with those who'd cross the gender binary, and then it's all boo-hoo about how the parents are forcing them to do it:

"It's a trade-off," said one board member, Gary Bingham, an insurance agent, in an interview. "Do the parents value his education more than they value a 4-year-old's decision to make his own grooming choices?"

The boy's parents, Delton Pugh and Elizabeth Taylor, have argued that it is unfair to punish Taylor for his longish locks; it suggests, they say, that the district cares more about appearances than education.

I'm valuing looks over education? You're valuing looks over education! This whole country's valuing looks over education!

Hair is still political, especially since it's malleable enough to be a form of self-expression, attached to one's own body to make it incredibly personal, is laden with cultural, racial, gender, and religious politics, and grows back and can be changed fast enough to make it a moral decision worthy of condemnation.

And gender is meeting culture here. Boys with longer hair aren't necessarily seen as gay or trans (although they may be called "gay-mo" or "pussy" because of it), but as inherently feminine and weak. As digby put it a while back:

A lot of the shrieking aversion to the dirty hippie came from all that "feminine" hair on men's heads and "masculine" hair on women's bodies, if you'll recall. My brother was constantly harrassed about "looking like a girl" in 1966 Mississippi for having hair below his collar. In those days, hair was a political statement and even though forty years have passed and most of those people can only dream about all that hair they no longer have, the right successfully parlayed that gender role anxiety into a political narrative that continues to powerfully effect politics today.

It cuts both ways. Here's Michael Savage saying that any woman with short hair is a lesbian who should be killed:

CALLER: I'm listening to you with the window open. This mean-faced, clipped-hair, liberal type -- you know, the type you always talk about.

[MICHAEL] SAVAGE: Yeah. Yeah.

CALLER: She comes up by my window and she goes, "You're listening to hate speech. Why are you listening to that?" And I go, "Wow, you sound pretty angry." And she goes, "You're listening to hate speech. Look at you, listening to a hatemonger." And then, like, there was other traffic coming, she ended up walking away, and I rolled down the window and I go, "You're a loser." And she just walked away and gave me this smug look. But it was pretty --

SAVAGE: Well, what does that tell you about the loving, kind lesbian who just assaulted you in your car? She's a -- the type that stuffed ovens in Hitler's concentration camps. Whenever I hear anyone preaching to me about how compassionate they are, I reach for my Glock.

The Texas school board that is separating this kid from the class because of his long hair, while allowing girls with longer hair to stay in class, is just riding the cultural baggage that comes with hair. While the stereotype of boys with long hair is about femininity and weakness, the core of the problem is power and control, trying to show people who's boss and that even their identity that's a natural part of their bodies can be surveilled, policed, and changed by someone more powerful.


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Yesterday's episode of This American Life on NPR featured a segment on two trans kids...both MTF. I highly recommend it (and it goes along with this post a little)!!

I first heard about this on the local news here in Dallas. According to the news report I saw the boy wants to grow his hair long enough to donate it to Locks of Love. He has an aunt who is fighting cancer.

Also there was a decision made that he could join his classmates if he wears the hair in a tight braid. The parents are still fighting that because they said he complains about headaches when his hair is tightly braided.

It's ridiculous that he's having to deal with this type of discrimination at such an early age.

battybattybats battybattybats | January 18, 2010 2:22 AM

What idiocy. A distractiom? What's a distraction to the education process is the nonsense going on about the kids hair.

Their was 'controvertial' hairstyles when i was at school and it was distracting for all of 10 minutes at most, in a day it was normal and in a week it was old-hat.

Gah! These types of "rules" are so antiquated. I grew up and lived them for YEARS. Girls in plaid skirts... boys w/short hair and collared shirts. 12yrs of Parochial School.

It has less to do w/"gender politics" but about CONTROL. Controlling the youth.

Controlling all the good boys and girls.
The good news is this... youth will find the loop hole. They always do, if they want too. A good fight isn't about actually winning.

It's about making the stupidity visible.

Well, Dieks, you do have a strong point, but I think you miss a connection.

It is about control, and it is about gender politics.

Specifically, it is about the control of gender expression, and a reinforcing of gender roles through expression.

It is maintaining a place of heteronormative values -- in this case, that boys have short hair. IT would be even more egregious if the same school is allowing a girl to have short hair and be a part of the class while this boy is ostracized, but it is still very much an effort to say "we only accept those who are like others here".

They are, in effect, punishing this boy for being different -- regardless of his motivations for doing so, which would be used to mitigate the controls here.

No.

In fact nope.

I don't live my life in "gender politics". As a woman who has been constinetly told NO in every aspect of my life... GP doesn't help me in the least bit.

I completely stand by what I originally posted.

Heteronormative makes normative THE most powerful... when it's merely the most visible. I don't believe in the most visible. I don't live my life in the most visible.

Some poor boy in TX needs to cut his hair "to fit in".

That has to do w/control. School Boards, Bureaucracy and antiquated white "christian" theologies that want to to control this child and his parents.

If we go w/all the allllll the "great" artworks of a white Jezuz... he had long white hair and it had nothing to do w/gender politics.

But as a Jew he was still nailed to the cross.

Couldn't this be a case of both control by the most powerful and gender conformity in action? I don't see many people in visible positions of power who strongly violate gender expectations. Do you?

Can you imagine the reactions in a conservative community if a little girl wanted to wear her hair in a buzz cut?

If the original news story were to receive much focus from the larger media, I give it a week tops before some conservative political commentators start crying about how the liberals are using children as social experiments to get them to do things that are unnatural for girls and boys and thus leading them on the path to—cue the sinister music—homosexuality.

I know from personal hard learned experience that even in more liberal circles, the fact you might have long hair or god forbid come out as being, Gay, Lesbian, or Transgendered is something for many people to recoil at.

It is too bad this seems to be programmed into many and they do not seem to see the fault in their views. It is after all really judging someone without any real knowledge of the person they are. Rather like reading a book by looking at the cover as they say.

Of course there are the right wing control freaks who would have us all march in lock step to the beat of their drum. But to them I can only say that it was the diversity allowed within the American culture that had a great deal to do with the advancements made in this country over the last 100 years or so. Those who would try to reverse such are clinging to a sinking ship.

I believe in time we will have all those things we all strive to see today. Acceptance regardless of our unique sexual orientations and gender expressions, but those who do not understand the strength of a culture is steeped in the diversity within it are just making life hard on those who see this coming and are living it already.

"Do the parents value his education more than they value a 4-year-old's decision to make his own grooming choices?"

They shouldn't have to make that decision at all. The school is forcing that decision on them. The argument is a red herring.

battybattybats battybattybats | January 19, 2010 3:42 AM

In fact the opposite of their argument is true, the school is the one putting the childs hair ahead of their education.

Brains are used for absorbing education, not strands of keratin protruding from the scalp.

Can you imagine the reactions in a conservative community if a little girl wanted to wear her hair in a buzz cut?

I see little girls that refuse to conform all the time. I have four teen girls myself, PLUS the 2dozen and more friends that hang out here.

We have lived. Traveled all over these 50States.

The inspiration for my girls, where women like my immigrant Abuelita [[grandmother]]. My Auntie, who raised me and who put herself through college, two Masters degrees and one from the Naval War College. My bio-mother an addict, go-go dancer, part time prostitute. My sister a 20yr Army Vet. And little old me. A freaking mom-dyke.

Four girls who refuse the pink/blue lines all the time, especially when such lines don't fit them. They then inspire other girls to refuse the pink/blue line... cause there isn't a line for these girls. Poor poor girls. Such "victims"... Oh wait. They refuse to be that too. And they get through it... as the women before them did. It wasn't easy or fair... but life for a woman is never fair or easy.

That's what makes a woman's life so freaking interesting.

PS Timber:::

There are real life visible positions of power who strongly violate gender expectations that surround us all the time.

The trick is paying attention to them merely because they are women.

Dieks said:

I see little girls that refuse to conform all the time. I have four teen girls myself, PLUS the 2dozen and more friends that hang out here.

We have lived. Traveled all over these 50States.

Undoubtedly. I too have had my fair share of friends and a few family members who toss gender conformity out the window. I myself am not into the whole pink, frilly thing.

Still, when you look at aggregates of people, what proportion of people push those barriers? I worked in a food co-op for years and I often felt like I was the butchest woman on staff. The funny thing is, I'm not even butch. I'm somewhere on the blurry boundary between androgynous and feminine... and I was working in a friggin' food co-op for goodness sake—supposedly the land o' non-conformity and diversity.

To quote myself:

I don't see many people in visible positions of power who strongly violate gender expectations.

The operative word in the above quote is the word many. I did not say that such people did not exist. What I'm implying is that generally, it's a lot harder to climb the rungs of power if you strongly violate common gender expectations. It's not impossible, but it's much more difficult.

As a woman, it's already difficult to enter into a position of power because society still feels uncomfortable with the notion of women in power. (Just think of the years upon years of crappy comments made about Hillary Clinton.) Then you have to do this juggling act of not appearing too "hard" or too "soft." It's a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation.

When you look at women in congress or the heads of corporations or any other high levels of power, how many women do you see who are visibly, outwardly masculine? How do those numbers compare with the women who follow the general, outward rules of femininity? How many outwardly feminine men do you see in power? How do those numbers compare with the outwardly masculine ones?

Put another way, how many aggressive, assertive women in three piece suits do you see roaming the halls of congress and various statehouses? How many soft-spoken skirt wearing men do you see in those environments? How many news anchors? School superintendents? Managers at Starbucks?

I'm kind of befuddled by your resistance to the notion that society has many avenues in which it tries to control people and gender expectations form one of those avenues. I mean, that's not exactly a new, wild-eyed, cutting edge idea. I learned about this stuff in women's studies and sociology in the 90's. Those ideas weren't even fresh and new then.

"I'm kind of befuddled by your resistance to the notion that society has many avenues in which it tries to control people and gender expectations form one of those avenues."

Because AGAIN as I stated in my first comment... this is about "control". This particular incident is about controlling a little boy and the parents to conform.

I don't understand why anyone would be "befuddled" or insistent that I see it as only about gender. I don't find long or short hair gender markers.

Ergo... it's not about gender politics... it's about controlling a little boy, who is stated in the article as a little boy, who has no gender issues and controlling his hair length.

It's not about gender politics. It's about controlling a little boy and making the parents conform.

I don't understand why anyone would be "befuddled" or insistent that I see it as only about gender. I don't find long or short hair gender markers.

Where did I say it was only about gender? I agree that social control is behind this and gender conformity is the avenue that is being exploited by the intent to control the boy.

The thing is, while you do not see hair length as a gender marker, unfortunately, tons of people do. If hair were not seen as a gender marker, those busybodies in Texas wouldn't be hyperventilating over the boy in question.

Ergo... it's not about gender politics... it's about controlling a little boy, who is stated in the article as a little boy, who has no gender issues and controlling his hair length.

I don't think the boy has gender issues either. Heck, if he wanted to wear pink, play with dolls and grow his hair long, I still wouldn't think he has "issues". It's the busybodies in this world whose gender issues cause them to be offended that are the source of the problem. They are the folks that are turning this into something political by using their access to power to force him to conform to their gender expectations. It is the reaction of the busybodies that brings this under the category of "gender politics."

To use an analogy, if a heterosexual woman runs for the senate and she looses because she is widely perceived by the the electorate as a lesbian, it wouldn't make sense to say that her loss is simply a manifestation of social control and has little or nothing to do with people's views of sexual orientation. It doesn't matter what her sexual orientation is. It was people's perceptions and their homophobia that created the problem and hence, sexual orientation and the politics that surrounds it was brought into play.

Dieks said:

I see little girls that refuse to conform all the time.

So, what exactly are they resisting when they refuse to conform? If it's not sexist gender expectations being foisted upon girls by our culture, then what social phenomenon are they pushing against?

Again, it seems strange to me to observe situations in which adults and peers assert control/conformist expectations over a child in a way that specifically relates to gender and then imply that the scenario is an example of exerting control over a child but is not related to gender conformity. That's kind of like saying that a thunderstorm results from the heating of the earth and the resulting evaporation and air currents but is not an example of a weather pattern. It doesn't make sense.

"Again, it seems strange to me to observe situations in which adults and peers assert control/conformist expectations over a child in a way that specifically relates to gender and then imply that the scenario is an example of exerting control over a child but is not related to gender conformity."

I don't understand and find it very "strange" why you have any issue and continually think that I must agree w/you regarding it having to do gender?

If you have children and raise them that way... then fine. That is how you raise your children.
That is your experience.

It's not mine.
From what I read from the article provided regarding Taylor Pugh... GP's is not his parent either.

Why are you so insistant that I conform to your opinion regarding the article??

Because honestly... you can read it any way you like. I never questioned your experience as a parent. I am more then comfortable w/my personnel experiences and life to take it somewhere else from my own personnel experience as a parent.

When I lived in Northampton, MA, there was a similar story about a boy who refused to cut his hair. Everyone, of course, had a strong opinion about whether his haircut was appropriate, mostly along the lines that it made him look like a girl, which most considered distracting. I don't know all the details but he did eventually cut his hair short and a lot of people expressed relief that he no longer looked like a girl. And this is a town that has a huge population of trans and genderqueer people. I refuse to believe that this story has nothing to do with a boy looking like girl.

I also wanted to add this about my own life. When I was young and assigned female, I was often called a "handsome boy" by strangers, which annoyed and disturbed my mother. So what did she do? Grow my hair long and put it in curlers so everyone wouldn't be confused about my gender.

Hair is definitely a gender marker, at least in the culture where I grew up (white, rural, low income PA). I have known boys who recieved flak from school officials for long hair as well as girls who were ostracized for short hair.

Also, I recently cut my hair very short and my neice (just barely three) has started using the pronoun 'he' for me instead of using 'she' as she did previously. As soon as I had short hair, she read me as male. It did not bother me, but my mother and my sister immediately began correcting her and insisting that she refer to me with female pronouns. Moral of the story, hair is a big gender marker, but people train kids to try to fit people in the binary even with hair changes. Studies have shown that for kids under five, hair, clothes, and certain behaviors are the only way that kids sort gender. The average five year old cannot determine gender for a figure without hair and clothes clues. Older kids start using body and face shape. Hair is one of the earliest gender markers learned in most american sub-cultures.

Let the poor boy attend class with the rest of the students! Sheesh. He doesn't have a learning disability which precludes this- he only has long(according to the local school board) hair.
This is just insane and proves what happens when some people have way too much time on their hands.
And lots of issues. SIGH. Just let the boy learn!!!

This from the Voice of Reason in response to the article.

TheVoiceOfReason (0 friends, send message) wrote: 4d 20h ago
"There has got to be a bigger issue that the mom can get upset about than his hair. She is throwing a tantrum, he son probably does on a regular basis too. But why would she want her son to have his hair draped all over his face where it impairs his vision? If she wants a girl, either adopt one or have another kid, but don't live out your fantasies of having a girl with him. Is she trying to turn him gay?

Just trim his hair and move on with life. They are not asking to have it all cut off, just trimmed nicely. I suppose next she will put him in a dress, lipstick, and eyeliner and then protest because the board will ask her to dress him in pants like all of the other boys."