Natalie Portman with a shaved head. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on hair: Why patriarchy fears the scissors - for women, short hair is a political statement

Choosing to behave consciously as if the sexual attention of men is not my top priority has made more of a difference to how my life has turned out than I ever imagined.

The “manosphere” really hates short-haired girls. On “game” forums and in personal dating manifestos, the wickedness of short-haired women pops up time and time again as theme and warning - stay away from girls who’ve had their hair chopped off. They’re crazy, they’re deliberately destroying their femininity to “punish” men, but the last laugh will be on them, because the bitches will die alone. Yes, there are people who really believe this. In 2014.

This week, a writer going by the handle Tuthmosis put out a short article explaining why “Girls With Short Hair are Damaged”. The piece has now received over 200,000 interactions on Facebook, so I’m not going to link to it again here. If you scrape through the layers of trolling, though, Tuthmosis' logical basis for declaring short-haired women “damaged” is pretty interesting. 

He writes that long hair is “almost universally attractive to men, when they’re actually speaking honestly. . . Women instinctively know this, which is why every American girl who cuts, and keeps, her hair short often does it for ulterior reasons . . . Short hair is a political statement. And, invariably, a girl who has gone through with a short cut – and is pleased with the changes in her reception – is damaged in some significant way. Short hair is a near-guarantee that a girl will be more abrasive, more masculine, and more deranged.”

The essential argument is: men like long hair, and what sane woman would ever want to do anything that decreases her capacity to please men? 

The advantage of articles like this, pantomimic though they be, is that they make misogyny legible. There was a time when feminists had to do that all by ourselves, but now we don't have to point out the underlying assumptions of a lot of the bullshit we deal with every day, because there are people on the internet doing it for us.

So I’m almost grateful to Tuthmosis for writing this particular piece of recreational sexist linkbait. I thought I'd never have an even passably good reason to write about how little things like short hair change the way patriarchy responds to you.  

I’ve had short hair for most of my adult life. I keep it short partly because it suits me, partly because long hair is a whole lot of bother, but mostly because I don’t have a choice - my natural hair is limp and rubbish and doesn’t grow far past my shoulders without turning into witchy rat-tails. I’ve had a lot of fun with my boy-short crop. I’ve had it shaved, buzzed, dyed, undyed, a long pixie with a fringe, a half-head “Skrillesque’”, and I’m currently rocking what the blog Autostraddle calls ALH (“alternative lifestyle hair”), with a style somewhere between “Human League” and “Androgynous Emo Frontman from 2005”.  Of course, there are problems. To be frank, my hair is a great deal gayer than I am, and sometimes accidentally cashes cheques that my heart and loins don’t deliver, to the extent that I’ve considered letting my hair go out out to Candy Bar to play all by itself. It’s fabulous enough to pull it off. Anyway.

The author, with short hair.

I’ve experimented with growing the crop out twice, encouraged both times by men I was dating. It seemed like the thing to do to make myself more pleasing to potential boyfriends, potential bosses, and other people with potential power over my personal happiness. Both times, it looked awful. It took a lot of effort and a surprising amount of money to maintain, and it still looked awful, and I didn’t feel like myself. Growing it past my chin took determination, because every day I’d look in the mirror and want to take the razor to it right then and there. 

And yet, the amount of male attention I got – from friendly flirting to unwanted hassle – increased enormously. Not because I looked better, but because I looked like I was trying to look more like a girl. Because I was performing femme. Every time I cut it off, I noticed immediately that the amount of street harassment I received, from cat-calls to whispered sexual slurs to gropes and grabs on public transport, dropped to a fraction of what it had been – apart from total strangers coming up to tell me how much prettier I’d be if I only grew it out.  People have done this when I’ve been quietly working on my laptop in cafes,  because I really need to be interrupted in the middle of a deadline to be told I need to work harder on my girl game.

Among the plus points for short hair is that makes it easier to read my book on the bus in peace. I mention this because there are clearly some men who rarely or never consider what it’s like for a person to negotiate femininity in the real world. There are plenty of reasons why a ‘sane’ woman might choose not to play up her ‘fertility signifiers’ every chance she gets, and not just because she’s got better things to do with her time.

My little sister has had the opposite experience. She has naturally long, thick, glossy chestnut waves, but recently she experienced a severe shock, and it started to fall out in clumps, which wasn’t something I thought actually happened in real life. It was a hugely distressing experience for her, and I went with her to get it cut into something more manageable while she waits for it to grow back. 

When I talked to her about this piece, she told me she really wasn't expecting the loss of her hair to affect her as much as it did – nor was she expecting the number of unsolicited comments from male friends telling her she never should never have cut it off, not knowing she had a medical condition. 

For all that the “manosphere” bangs on about evolutionary psychology and the effect of such attributes as long, luscious locks as natural signs of “fertility”, what’s really noticeable is that that to get hair of any length to look like it does in catalogues and on catwalks takes work. It takes energy and money and attention. Especially if yours is naturally wild, or frizzy, or afro. It takes creams and serums and tongs and irons and spray and mousse and a deft, time-consuming blow-dry technique to get your hair to look like Kate Middleton’s, and that’s the point. The point is to look like the performance of femininity matters enough to you that you’re prepared to work at it. I know a good few women who do all this every day and nonetheless manage to hold down jobs, raise families and write books, and I remain impressed, but I’ve never had that sort of patience. 

Still, none of the women I know with long, pretty hair is anything like the “ideal woman” who’s spoken of in breathless terms on Men’s Rights Activism sites, Pickup Artist forums and in great canonical works of literature written and revered by men, because none of them are fictional. The “ideal woman”,  who wakes up looking like an underwear model, who is satisfied with her role as housewife and helpmeet but remains passionate enough to hold a man’s interest, who looks “bangable” but never actually bangs, because that would make her a slut, is almost entirely fictional. She exists mainly as a standard against which every real women can be held and found wanting. She exists to justify some men’s incoherent rage at being denied the ideal woman they were promised as a reward for being the hero of their own story. Tuthmosis’ stories about how short-haired women have frightened and disappointed him are oddly amusing: he describes how one “once came over to my house, texted with one hand, while she jerked me off with the other”.

If the story is true, you have to admire that sort of manual dexterity. Nonetheless, it seems to get at the crux of the problem that non-fictional women seem to present for a certain kind of man: we just aren't paying enough attention to their boners. 

Tuthmosis is right, for all the wrong reasons. Wearing your hair short, or making any other personal life choice that works against the imperative to be as conventionally attractive and appealing to patriarchy as possible, is a political statement. And the threat that if we don’t behave, if we don’t play the game, we will end up alone and unloved is still a strategy of control. When I talk to young women about their fears and ambitions, it’s one of the main things they ask me about.

Short cuts: Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong'o.

The idea that women might not place pleasing men at the centre of our politics, consciously or unconsciously, makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Sometimes it makes them angry. I am regularly asked whether I think that feminism ought to be “rebranded” in order to threaten men less, because anything a woman does, even attempt to chip away at a massive, slow-gringing superstructure of sexism, must appeal to men first, or it is meaningless. 

If making your life mean more than pleasing men is “deranged”, it's not just short-haired girls who are crazy.

An infinite number of trolls with an infinite number of typewriters will occasionally produce truths, and on this point, yes, Tuthmosis is right. Chopping your hair off is “a political statement”. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made bigger ones in my life. But choosing to behave consciously as if the sexual attention and comfort of men is not my top priority has made more of a difference to how my life has turned out than I ever imagined. And that sort of choice still worries a great many women and girls, who learn from an early age to fear what Roosh V, well-known pick-up-artist and Tuthmosis’ editor, warns all “sick women” seeking to “punish” men by cutting their hair: “being lonely and having to settle for a brood of cats is not a good life for a woman, but that’s what will happen if you keep your hair short.”

If I were really to stoop to the level of the original piece, I’d have to reassure readers that from personal experience, this sort of warning is there to be ignored. My own “game” hasn’t suffered at all from having short hair, and it’s a really good way of filtering out the douchecanoes. Neo-misogynists tend not to want to sleep with me, date me or wife me up however I wear my hair, because after five minutes of conversation it tends to transpire that I’m precisely the sort of mouthy, ambitious, slutty feminist banshee who haunts their nightmares, but if I keep my hair short we tend to waste less of each other’s time. If you've a ladyboner for sexist schmuckweasels, short hair isn't going to help, although they might let you administer a disappointing hand-job. 

But if you want to meet men as equals, if you want to fill your life with amazing men and boys as lovers, as life-partners, as friends and colleagues who treat women and girls as human beings rather than a walking assemblage of “signs of fertility” – believe me, they are out there – then I wouldn’t start by changing your hair. I’d start by changing your politics, and surrounding yourself with people who want to change theirs, too.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.