I dyed my hair bright red last week.
I’m unaware of any conscious motive for my having done so, and believe I just did it on a whim. Despite this, I fully intend to maintain the color, as I think it suits me. Plus, it turns out that people are capable of expressing a wide variety of reactions to something so seemingly innocuous as bright red hair, and I confess that I’m interested to see just how many different reactions will continue to surface.
Most reactions were positive or neutral, but I was surprised by how many reactions indicated that people have some very strong intuitions concerning bright red hair.
Within a few hours of having adopted bright red hair, I was called various homophobic slurs on three separate occasions in an area of town that is imagined to be tolerant. While I thought such a reaction was possible, I didn’t exactly expect it, and certainly didn’t expect the accusations to be so frequent!
The other reactions I’ve experienced weren’t so aggressive. Many people simply gawked, while others took to explaining to their curious children that it was somehow rude to acknowledge my admittedly unconventional hair color. Other parents subtly distracted their children from gaping at my hair, as if to dissuade them from getting any wise ideas. (I have faith in these children.)
Of course, of all these reactions, I thought the young maniacs shouting homophobic slurs were the most interesting. Briefly I wondered why they would believe that hair color would be any indication of one’s sexual predilection, but I think they wanted to say more than that. I think they wanted to talk about gender expression. They wanted to say that decent people are not supposed to have bright red hair, and boys that do are just a little too delicate.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve never put much stock in this notion of gender. As best as I can tell, the concept is used as a kind of proxy for a wide variety of complicated things: behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Just as there is an INTP or ENJF, there are boys and girls and other genders too.
I don’t question that the concept may be useful or helpful in some circumstances for some people, but I am sure that it can also be quite harmful.
It seems to me that much of the enterprise of gender consists in inventing fictional kinds of people who are supposed to exhibit certain groupings of behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Deviation outside certain acceptable ranges is answered with punishment, while conformity is met with approbation.
So, a boy with close-cropped hair is fine, but if the hair becomes a little too long (or a little too bright red), then there’s a problem. Just how great a problem it is depends partly on time and place.
Of course, all this is a very poor model of human identity and expression, and so when people invariably deviate from restrictive social norms, new terms will need to be coined to denote such people.
I think such terms may be useful for practical and political purposes; they can help such people find one another, and organize for common causes. However, ultimately, they’re probably pretty poor descriptors, and probably don’t capture some deeper reality.
Many people are much better acquainted with these issues than me, and face far more serious consequences for aspects of their persons that are much more important than hair color. But for my part, perhaps my bright red hair will serve as a helpful reminder.