We got caught up on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier last night. Just the most recent episode; we’d been busy and stressed over the weekend. And those of you who have seen it will understand why my reaction was astonishment. But even before things went the way they did, I realized something that was extremely jarring. John Walker (Wyatt Russell) had stubble. Under his (awkward-looking) Captain America mask. And there is something that just feels wrong about that, despite my belief that how you keep your hair of whatever kind is your issue and not mine. Oh, I may think you look better one way or another, but I won’t shame you. Yet this still felt wrong.
I mean, Sam Elliott’s played a lot of cowboys and a lot of bikers so he can keep that luxurious moustache as God intended, speaking of people who just look better one way or another. And I do agree that someone who loved him should have explained to Michael Jordan in 2010 that the toothbrush moustache was never going to not be called the Hitler moustache, even if he wore one. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? A man not even born when Hitler died, who is one of the most beloved sporting figures of the twentieth century, could not hope to change how we thought of one way of styling facial hair.
You get this with head hair, too—for all of me, if a man likes the practicality of a bun, who cares? But facial hair in particular is often seen as a shorthand for telling you about a character. This is beyond things set in the Civil War, where historical accuracy mandates facial hair you could hide farm animals in. This is “guys with pencil-thin moustaches are sleazy,” something I’m certain John Waters is playing on with his own choices. “Guys with big moustaches are bikers.” “Old rural Southern men still wear Civil War-era beards.”
I happen to think my partner looks better with a goatee, particularly with what one online guide I found calls a “circle beard.” However, he’s in the Army Reserves, and on drill weekend, he’s got to shave the beard to comply with standards that, from what I can tell, derive from the World War I requirement of a well-fitting gas mask. I don’t think the regulation makes sense, and I don’t think people’s reactions to him are the same depending on where in his facial hair cycle he is for the month, but that’s where we are.
Now, done well, it’s definitely possible to play with people’s facial hair expectations. Getting back to Marvel, look at what Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) does with his Avengers: Endgame beard. Both he and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) have grown beards in the intervening years, but Thor’s is the beard of a man who has given up, and Cap’s is the beard of a man who is tired but still going. A few choices in trimming say a lot about how the two characters have been handling the five years since we’ve seen them last.
Still, it’s weird that we have those expectations. Honestly, we’re not even judging by choices, here. Baldness, of course; my cousins lean toward the “well, I’m going bald anyway” end of things, and they can pull it off, but remember that Patrick Stewart was afraid when he started balding at seventeen that he’d never get a girlfriend. But also it’s my understanding that some people have facial hair that just doesn’t support growing a moustache or beard, and they have the choice of “clean-shaven” or “fourteen-year-old.” Trevor Noah, from what I can tell based on the last year, fits into that category.
And my goodness but this is all without getting into racial issues, speaking of Trevor Noah. I found out as I was writing this that Disney is relaxing certain standards for front-facing employees at the parks, and it’s worth noting that a lot of their original standards, including for hair, were “look wholesome and white.” Even if you weren’t white. I’m obviously less qualified to speak to the specific hair issues of PoC. But it wouldn’t surprise me if other cultures also have these mostly unspoken assumptions about what certain follicle patterns say, because humans will judge one another on anything.