I’m writing these words through the worst jet lag I’ve ever had, composing an introduction for a performance theory course I’m teaching this semester at RISD, and the fog of my freshly growing out bangs. When I decided to grow my bangs out a couple months ago, I wasn’t sure how far I’d let the hair go: would the bangs become long enough to no longer be bangs, or would I miss its tips hitting my brow and chop a trim not two weeks in? Well, three weeks into the growing and my special tiny red bang-cutting scissors not beckoning me, I had truly let the bang grow out, but not completely out of its identity as “bangs:” I’d eventually prune them once they became “big bangs.”
“Big bangs” is not the same thing as “long bangs.” To me, “long bangs” is a bang that hits right around the bridge of your nose, and still covers your forehead. “Big bangs,” on the other hand, is a bang that extends to the jaw and beyond; bangs so long that in its natural state, will not only cover your brow but most of your face. Big bangs actually necessitate hairspray: you have to spray their roots so they stand a bit. Then you can do practical things like walk, read, drive, type.
My decision to grow big bangs was made not because of boredom, regret, or repulsion. Rather, there were three magazine covers from last summer still floating around inside my wintering brain: Julianne Moore on British Vogue, Penelope Cruz on W , Lindsay Lohan on British Elle.
All three women had bisexual bangs—long enough to be either bangs or not-bangs, and all three had the bang parted, roots stiffened, and the tips swept down and over to cover half of their faces. I wanted my hair to look like this. But because I am who I am (OK, an academic trained in literature) I was not content to just accept “beauty” or “trend” as reason. I wanted to know why I wanted look like three women from magazine covers six months old. In Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, the Countess Gemini declares: “... one should like a thing or one shouldn’t.... But one shouldn’t attempt to reason it out—you never know where it may lead you.” I agree that we don’t know where reasoning out a love for a thing may lead, but I disagree that one oughtn’t do it. It’s a compulsion with me.
So I began a mental list of big bangs to compose my big bangs theory: what femininity is created from the act of turning a bang into a hair curtain? But where that led me was a place I didn’t necessarily want to go: the past. I thought of big mall hair of the 80s, big 90s supermodel waves. These are images of big bangs just felt wrong. Not because they didn’t have meaning for me, but because they had too much meaning for me. They seemed laden with cultural “meaning,” coated stiffly as the hair spray that the style sometimes requires. Did I really want to figure out what the 90s glamazon mashed with the 80s mall chick meant upon my own big skull? For once, I became Countess Gemini and the resounding answer was FUCK NO.
This conclusion was initially depressing to me whose favorite question had always been “Why?” But perhaps it’s time for a new question—“HOW?”—and with that, a new way of theorizing. History is important for sure, but I feel no longer so invested in decoding the symbolic or even metaphorical weight of things. This is in fact an aspect of critical thinking I encourage in my students: to look for meaning in a text, but that to be vigilant for the effect it produces is even more interesting and important. If having big bangs makes me feel better and more feminine, is it really that interesting to ask if that is so because it is a citation of Cindy Crawford circa 1992? Not really. More interesting: if big bangs make me feel better and more feminine (and they do), how is the material structuring of the hair style contribute the structure of my emotions?
As a girl living out life in a male body, my physical self has always felt ephemeral to me. By now, it is common to think and talk about cross-gender identification in terms of “performance”—whether you want to talk through the discourse of RuPaul or Judith Butler. But for me, “performing” is not just about acting out a fantasy. It has something more to do with the feeling of desperation: how often the “girl” I feel myself seems to be so utterly and self-defeatingly intangible. This is the sense of “performance” that critic Peggy Phelan writes about:
“Performance’s only life is in the present....[Performance] becomes itself through disappearance....The document of a performance then is only a spur to memory, an encouragement of memory to become present.”
This is why I’m obsessed with absorbing images—not just of women I love like Julianne, Penelope and Lindsay. I also obsessively catalogue the days when my affinity to such women feel particularly perfect. The following digital selves are the very spurs to memory that Phelan talks about:
These images were taken on days when my hair performed well: I felt like “me.” These photos were not immediately deleted from the hard drive because they actually matched the image of “girl” in my brain. These are images of myself as Julianne, Penelope, and Lindsay (respectively) not because I was successful in looking like Julianne, Penelope, and Lindsay (clearly I wasn’t) but because looking at them, I become successful in feeling like Julianne, Penelope, and Lindsay. And it is a rare day indeed when the girl in your brain matches the girl that gets mapped out on your skin.
It’s like the idea of having a “good hair day,” which is a bit like winning the lottery: you repeat your daily hair care and prep regimen, but it is that unknown force beyond personal control—atmospheric, astrological, gravitational, divine—that gives your pile of beloved dead cells that precise lift and pull of perfect form. And it is a form that you cannot willfully reproduce, no matter how hard you try. But you try. And I try. Again and again I try. But the day’s do must always disappear into the cloud of hairspray and smoothing serum dust that covers your pillow at bedtime.
Hair is the ultimate performance because it gains identity by disappearing. But hair also complicates Phelan’s contention that performance and reproduction cancel each other out. The perfect hair do/ day does not need documentation to become a spur to memory—which I do not consider to be so incidental—“only a spur to memory.” This spur is quite necessary for living, especially for gals like me. The intense joy that the perfect hair brings—that insistent serrated blades of emotion itself is the spur digging into me, to remember. And in my case, encouragement not only for memory to become present, but for present to never become memory: for the present to immediately become the future.
Yesterday, I did a trial run of a new hairstyle: a parted and scraped-back look. It’s a look I love and used to pull quite often when I was a boy with a boy-shag, but have never had success with the style once I grew my hair out. The ponytail always felt messy and uncomplimentary to the slick front, and I could never get the bun right. Then the front: the physics of pulling the hair back would inevitably flatten out the top too much and make me look more like a greasy melon than a chic Helmut Newton chick. But I’m planning a very specific look for the first day of my performance theory class on Wendesday: I want to present myself then as a specimen of a performative object to get my students to start thinking deeply about performance as a process. So I thought I’d try out the hair style on a lazy, no-activity Saturday afternoon. And bingo: it worked! Just enough combination of hair products (put gel into relatively dry hair) and choreography of styling (doubled ponytail instead of a traditional knot in the back) and the parted-and-scraped-back style worked. I was so pleased I immediately set out to document it. But none of the photos were successful: they didn’t at all resemble the happy image in the mirror. Or rather, the feeling produced by my narcissistic examination: my eyes felt blacker, bigger, brighter; my cheeks felt flusher and razor-sharp; my neck felt Audrey Hepburn-long. I felt like a greyhound.
But none of the photos made me feel like this. So I deleted all the images and drew a picture in my diary instead. Of course I don’t look like the image below, but looking at it, even now, the emotion produced is closest to the small joy of yesterday. It makes me more determined about the future of my own theoretical work: to discover or invent a process by which the ephemeral pleasure of perfect self-admiration can be embedded directly into the flesh. And these bangs: they will be done, when they are long enough for me to chomp on, snipped to just the tip of my nose.