Setting Things Straight – Can Queer* Culture Be Appropriated?

Image: Buzzfeed

Aislinn has come down to ANU from the Sunshine Coast, both to study Arts/Laws and avoid Pauline Hanson.

I grew up in a short-haired family. Every few weeks, my brother and I would head to the hairdresser: I’d ask for a pixie cut, he’d simply ask for a  haircut. We tacitly accepted that mine was somehow worth thirty dollars more, and walked out looking the same.

Commonplace as it was, my pixie cut turned out to be a riveting conversational point at teenage babysitting jobs. This reached the point where I would usually have answered the question of ‘are you a boy or a girl’ before I could even tell the child’s embarrassed parents my hourly rate. Normally , the next probes would be ‘then why do you have boy hair,’ and ‘does that mean you can marry a girl?’

I wish it did, kid. I really wish it did.

That question, though, speaks to a broader problem about the cultural meaning of my short hair.

Was I a librarian on the brink of retirement? Obviously not. Was I two months out of ‘The World’s Greatest Shave’? Still no.

Having whittled away those possibilities, ‘lesbian’ would once have been an acceptable assumption to the average, judgemental passer-by. Once.

In progressive and socially-conscious 2017, however, the appeal of abandoning the hairbrush has long overtaken any desire to present a queer cultural identifier. That has made my short hair a sign of convenience more than anything. Hence: lazy girl I am, but lesbian I am not.

So, is any straight girl with a pixie cut just unknowingly contributing to the broader co-option of queer culture? I mean, it’s only hair; there’s no need to tie it to an agenda.

The problem is, hair has historically been linked with political agendas. Back when Second Wave feminism was fresh and new, short hair was something of a feminist statement. It was made with the express purpose of diminishing the power of a visual cue typically associated with power and masculinity, by appropriating it en masse.

Naturally, a powerful Third Wave crashed down on the logic behind that – if women derive power from masculine characteristics, what happens to femininity? The resulting culture of ‘non-judgemental diversity’ has somewhat diluted the power that the pixie cut once had as a queer feminist identifier.

Moreover , why should we even be invested in visual identifiers of the queer community?

It’s important to note: Nobody is imposing hair restrictions on gay women, just as bisexual men are under no obligation to dress like Brendon Urie. Performance of certain visual signals is a product of queer culture and acts as a form of social communication. But Western queer culture is becoming increasingly diverse – or rather, showcasing a diversity that has always existed – and the consequence is a decreased ability for a queer person to choose to treat their appearance (e.g. short hair) as an identifier. The concept of attributing a visual cue to a sexuality is now anathema in this world striving, though often unsuccessfully, for universal acceptance.

Of course, my Robin Wright hair was not the problem – merely symptomatic of the broader issue.

Everyone outside of the queer community gets to reap the benefits of the culture, without any of that irritating social adversity. A straight, cis woman can get by with her low-maintenance pixie cut and minimal speculation about her sexuality – as well as possibly cashing in on improved career prospects on the side thanks to that hegemonic gender bias. A lesbian gets lost in the crowd of crew cuts, now unable to identify potential love interests, while still being barred from something as simple as marriage.

You’ll know what I mean if you watch Buzzfeed’s Try Guys trying drag for the first time. You won’t believe what happens next! Four straight, cis men have a whale of a time creating their own drag personas in a nine-minute video that would, in a matter of hours, grant them more attention and appreciation than the professionals who taught them the art. A decent chunk of the 24 million viewers of the video were happy to enjoy the fun, ‘exotic’ aspects of queer culture, but leave the not-so-shiny homophobia and persecution to gather dust outside of the public eye.

Hair preference, of course, despite its scattered bouts of political prominence, is just a small piece of a broader phenomenon of appropriation, to which we can now add drag culture. The queer community is struggling against the mainstream adoption of elements from its culture, and not in a petulant, ‘I liked it before it was cool’ kind of way.

So, back to my original dilemma: if a young, straight woman looks like Jamie Lee Curtis, does it amount to appropriation of queer signifiers? Of course not. Her freedom of expression is paramount. But if you take it further, say into drag culture, it’s not so simple.

So, next time you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race or hit up Cube for some heterosexual fun, it might be a good idea to give credit where credit’s due.



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