My boyfriend LB grows a great mustache. Mustache success has been achieved by these notable figures: Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Ron Swanson, Attorney General Eric Holder, Carl Pavano. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Walter Cronkite, Martin Luther King, Jr., my uncle Sam Ripley.
Adam Tschorn, who covers men’s grooming, style and pop culture for the Los Angeles Times, noted the popularity spike of the mustache last year, and identified the “hipster appropriated handlebar” as the particular style that had found new appreciation.
“The handlebar mustache…has become entrenched as a kind of …nostalgic longing…modern-day culture’s renewed appreciation of authenticity and heritage brands.” –June 19, 2013
Oftentimes, when LB and I are out together, usually at a bar, the mustache draws attention, primarily from young men, ages 21-31. We’ll walk into a place and it’s not uncommon for a perfect stranger (male, aged 21-31) to offer his flattened palm in the air, near LB’s field of vision, and hold it motionless until LB walks near enough to quickly pad the guy’s hand in high-five acceptance of unspoken approval. The first time it happened, I chalked it up to a fluke, a particularly mustache-enthusiastic guy or two, nothing more. The second time it happened, we were at a beachfront bar in Norfolk, Virginia, around 10 o’clock at night.
“Allright! My man!” yelled a twenty-something guy in a t-shirt and jeans.
At first I thought we had found some of LB’s coworkers–fellow Navy contractors who live all over the country, and meet up when they cross paths on the same job. The guy beamed at LB with that stock-still expression of strangers, when there’s nothing to say after a greeting. The guy’s buddies brightened and cheered when they saw what their friend was looking at, which was LB’s mustache. The guys gathered within about two feet of us, high-fiving LB and grinning jubilantly with this respectful-mob sort of movement—aping our general progress in the direction of the bar, but not jostling us or actually violating our personal space.
We sat at the bar,which faced a wall of mirrors—I assume the décor was meant to provide patrons with a view of the ocean during the day. But that dark night, it provided us with a wide-angle on all of the young guys who were chatting, noticing LB’s mustache at different intervals, and continuing to nod and smile at him long after he acknowledged their salutations. At that point, LB’s mustache was a modest, shortened version of the Colonel’s (Kentucky Fried Chicken guy).
Lots of articles have been written about the mustache. The late prominent journalist Charles “Chuck” Stone wrote about the clear racial division in mustache-wearing in particular in his 1967 Tell It Like It Is , explained why traditionally, more professional African-American men sport mustaches than do white professional men. He wrote that cops in Philadelphia used to have a phrase, “distrust a white man wearing a mustache; distrust a black man not wearing a mustache.”
Historically, the Negro has always been considered a boy. He was called ”boy” even after he won his Ph.D. from Harvard. . . . Nevertheless, some years after the Negro began to feel his emancipated oats, he decided to prove to the white man that he, too, was a man. He didn’t go out and build any huge factories or develop any new industry..He sat down and grew a mustache.
None of this gave me insight into the kind of attention LB’s mustache draws, a white male, today, in 2014.
“This is what it’s about,” he told me later. “It’s about young men missing out on how to be men. The mustache reminds them of the guys who traditionally do that–cub scout leaders, big brothers–that boyfriend of their mom’s who was really cool who they wished would have stayed around. When young guys approach me with the mustache, they want something that’s missing in their lives–a big brother. They want to learn to change oil in a car, and build a fire, and learn other practical stereotypical “man” skills. You do those things to give you personal satisfaction and confidence as well as self knowledge. That in turn gives you confidence to talk to the opposite sex.”
LB and I both love observing people and analyzing the forces that act on us in society. A seemingly simple conversation about our days at work can easily lead to a discussion of post-World War Two workplace developments. So when he told me about what the mustache means to him, I wondered if there were people studying the stuff he talked about, in terms of the need for professional big brothers, if you will. I found this. If you look at it a certain way, women call the shots in public school pedagogy, discipline, and, more and more, in the household. According to Pew Research, in 2013, 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 years old are headed by breadwinning females. Most of those females are single parents. As a middle school teacher, it used to frustrate me at times that male teachers commanded an easy authority: maybe it’s because kids are starved for male authority figures in the classroom, too.
(Despite all that, the gender pay gap is still alive and well, and actually got worse in some places through the post-2008 economic recovery. In places like Louisiana, women make 69 cents for every dollar a man makes.)
LB works in the male-dominated oil industry, performing physically difficult tasks of diving, inspection, and construction. He’s a commercial hard hat diver, and most of his coworkers are men. His profession requires knowledge of many skills that span typically masculine disciplines: electrical and mechanical construction and problem-solving, engineering, manual labor to carry out the problem-solving, and split-second decision making. A “masculine” career makes a person really good at the skills that make you self-reliant, but LB is also just great at these things, period. Three women who have popped up earlier on this blog–Nancy Drew, electrical engineer, Val, scientist, and Starlilly, paramedic– regularly demonstrate many of the above mentioned skills. They are women whose talents have led them into career fields make them great at historically “masculine” skills of self-reliance.
That practical know-how is what LB sees is lacking among young men who don’t work in fields that require such skills. He says that’s because young men aren’t taught these things before they get careers, and these practical skills build leadership ability and confidence, and there are mixed messages in society. They are important skills to feel confidence, but also having those skills and taking pride in them mark you as “too” gendered and somehow “anti-feminist.”
There’s a Parks and Recreation episode in which Leslie Knope responds to Ron Swanson’s all-boys Pawnee Ranger club with her own all-girls Pawnee Goddesses–and because Knope’s club doesn’t teach survival skills (without the aid of cookie dough and stickers) several girls defect to Swanson; because Swanson doesn’t teach crafts and food preparation, several boys defect to Knope. Both Knope and Swanson were unprepared for the fact that the kids wanted skills that were more about their personalities than their genders.
The last time all of this stuff came up in conversation–as it tends to do when the young men gather around the mustache, and LB and I spitball all the possible reasons for it–something that Brene Brown said in an interview came back to me. She was talking to a man and father of two who had read her book, Daring Greatly. He told her that the emotional openness that she encouraged in people was the exact sort of thing that society discourages in men. Society wants men to stay on their pedestal of provider, protector, and do it silently, while also supporting women’s expression, he said. That has really stayed with me.
“Most women pledge allegiance to this idea that women can explore their emotions, break down, fall apart—and it’s healthy,” Brown said. “But guys are not allowed to fall apart.” Ironically, she explained, men are often pressured to open up and talk about their feelings, and they are criticized for being emotionally walled-off; but if they get too real, they are met with revulsion. She recalled the first time she realized that she had been complicit in the shaming: “Holy Shit!” she said. “I am the patriarchy!”
Arsenale Creativo, a style and trend site out of Venice, Italy, brings it back to style and fun. “Since few years ago we preferred a neat and well-dressed man, but today a manlier and messier look is the main thing. Moreover, mustache reminds (us) also a sense of style and timeless elegance..they can be considered a gentlemen’s symbol and people love to play with this concept.”
And when you wear it with ease and confidence, you’re bound to get attention.