Wednesday, 12 December 2012


If you haven't read Roland Barthes on Roman hairstyles on film, you really should. He uses the changing presentation of Romans' barnets to argue that semiotics demonstrates the mutability and cultural specificity of signs.

I thought about it just now because I watched a trailer for the new Superman film, Man of Steel.

It is - like all the other mainstream superhero films - mostly about origins, patriarchy, the Law of the Father and conservatism (oh yes they are). But there are a few other touches which warrant attention. Primarily, Clark Kent's beardiness and Superman's clean-shaven face.

What do beards signify at the moment? In my cultural sphere, it signifies a tiny degree of cultural alterity. Look at all those new-folk and rock bands: Bon Iver and Co. They've all listened to The Band and decided that because manufactured pop singers are all clean-shaven, nothing says 'authenticity' like a bushy beard. It's a sign. Inevitably, the more popular adopting beards becomes, the less meaningful the beard is. Take Mumford and Sons:

Without needing to hear a single note of their folk-pop, your semiotic skills tell you that they're faking it. The ramshackle troubadour look is too artfully put together to be convincing. Especially the facial hair. Not enough to scare pop-pickers, just enough to persuade a more cynical crowd that they mean it, man

The other current meaning of beardedness of course is another group which definitely 'means it': Islamic men. In particular, media depictions of Islamic men with beards tend to imply that the bigger the beard, the more likely the man is to be a terrorist. Like this chap:

Before 11th September 2001, a man with a beard and a hook would be assumed to be a pirate, or an actor appearing in Peter Pan as a pirate. But beards are scary things now. They either indicate a taste for real ale, or for violently overthrowing Western capitalist hegemony. 

Which brings me back to Man of Steel, the latest in a series of 'reboots', which seem to be occurring ever more frequently. You don't even need to clock the redesigned costume (burgundy rather than red; no external undercrackers!) to realise that this Superman has even more 'issues'. Clark has a beard! It's not a Taliban beard, it's more like a Mumford beard: carefully designed to tell us that he's somewhat alienated from patriarchal society and American values. Not very alienated: it's not a proper beard like Mr al-Hamza or a member of ZZ Top. Instead it's a Mumford beard: a lame attempt which doesn't challenge society, but promises later harmony and acquiescence. But the facial hair definitely has a role to play here: as a sign of the values and psychological problems to be triumphantly defeated in the third act. Beards are bad. Even little ones. 

In conflict with his dad's advice, he's unsettled, and the psychological distress manifests itself in facial hair and a darker costume (not at all influenced by Batman, no way). But when Clark transforms into Superman: no beard! His angst vanishes as he becomes a Man of Steel or action. The beard is abjected: it crosses the border between the internal self and the external world - it's unsettling because it deconstructs the in/out binary opposition. But when Clark becomes the Man of Steel his physical and psychological borders stop being porous. He is a Man, and he is inviolable. Therefore no beard. His doubts are gone: he's no longer a Terrorist or even a potential Mumford (or Son). 

The lesson is that beards as a sign of counter-hegemony are done. Mumford and Sons appropriated them and Man of Steel has made damn sure that the sign is too transparent and appropriable to be of any further use to self-styled rebels. Time to shave, Gen X-ers!

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