Like any good lesbian, I care a lot about my hair. Sadly, as often happens with many a good lesbian, this hasn't always led to particularly good choices when it comes to my 'do. During my closeted high-school years, I sported the LHB (long-haired butch, for the uninitiated) before shifting to the “can I still pass for bi?” bob in college. Post-grad, there was a coif that somehow rolled all Jodie Foster's looks into one. And somewhere along the way, there were even bangs involved.
Then I started watching The L Word, and its cornucopia of lesbian hair options blew my mind. All those layers! Such colorful streaks! And Shane, my god…Shane! Who knew the right cut could get you laid? It's hard to say whether it was Showtime's serial drama or my own increasing comfort with my sexuality that changed things, but ever since I laid eyes on those L.A. lezzies, my hair has grown bolder. I've rocked a spiky bedhead, an ironic mullet, and a feathery little thing I like to call the Jane Lynch, each with its studied razor cuts and carefully crafted cowlicks. They've been brazen, these haircuts, but they've been freeing, even if they've seemed a bit wild to the mainstream eye (my parents; potential employers; the lady at the Verizon store). I didn't think I could get much wilder than a recent blue-accented, anime-character shag, but that was before I discovered the power of Justin Bieber. Or his hair, anyway.
The diminutive 16-year-old pop singer is, as you probably know, the current pinnacle of tween-media hotness. His albums hog the top spot on Billboard charts, his Twitter trending is off the chain, he's starred in Saturday Night Live skits, and his tiny, smooth face has triggered an infinite number of overheated Facebook updates. And though his cherubic charm, boy-band dance moves, and rumored employment of a “swagger coach” offer compelling pop culture–crit fodder, it's his hair that may be his most lasting influence.
Swept forward to form a series of cantilevered feathers, Bieber's hair acts as a Baroque frame for his face—ornate, superfluous, and the result of much labor. His bangs angle ever so slightly over his eyes, allowing him to peek coyly out from under them. The bulk of his 'do is pushed so far toward the front that it's as if an invisible stylist is following him with a hair dryer gunning full blast. This is a head of hair, as Tina Fey noted during Bieber's SNL appearance, that “really knows where it wants to go.” Coupled with his penchant for hoodies and sideways, flat-billed baseball caps, Bieber's hair is not just your average coif, it's a trademark. But it's a trademark that's already been claimed—by dykes.
Androgynous and butch-leaning queer gals, after all, were sporting this look well before “swagger coach” was a plausible job title. And the fact that this kid is dancing into occupied territory hasn't gone unnoticed: Not one but two websites celebrating “Biebians” (lesbianswholooklikejustinbieber.tumblr.com and boyswholooklike19yolesbians.tumblr.com) have pushed the phenomenon from a dyke in-joke to a cultural meme. Suddenly, all the ladies who love ladies look like him, not the other way around.
The connection, while undeniably funny (sample comment from LWLLJB: “I feel like every lesbi i know can say the phrase 'My ex looks like Justin Bieber.'”), is more complicated than you'd think. This isn't just about coincidental haircuts and the appropriate use of product; it's also about the nexus of above-ground popular culture and a community whose visibility, while rising, still might be considered a world unto its own. Because the fulcrum of the connection is a 16-year-old boy with questionable dance moves, it's easy to dismiss it as just another one of those occasional, goofy pop culture mashups. But a closer inspection suggests a radical possibility: Could Biebermania offer a roundabout way for heteronormative culture to accept the liminal spaces of queer sexuality? Considering this admittedly far-fetched possibility requires some historical review of both lesbian haircuts and teen idols.
For better or worse, hair has always been a grand signifier for butch dykes, and there's no example more notable than the most well-worn, stereotypical junction of lesbian sexuality and hairdos: the mullet. Popular in dyke circles throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s, the mullet's no-nonsense, 90-degree shape was, in its heyday, a metaphor for delineated lines of lesbian sexuality and gender constriction. The definition of the straight-man's mullet—“Business in the front, party in the back”—could have been reworked for the sapphic set as “Dude in the front, chick in the back.” In short, a manifestation of the feminine/masculine binary, captured in a hairdo.
For many lesbians these days, that binary is as outdated and useless as a pair of TV antennae, comfortable as so many of us are with the protean nature of sexuality and gender. Some people born biologically female identify and present as men. Some present as men and still identify as women. (I, for instance, appear pretty dude-ish, but I identify as a female: There's nothing more transgressive to me than wearing a tie while also sporting a super-plus tampon.) Some identify as genderqueer. Some trans men are attracted to straight women, others to queer women, others to straight men—the possible amalgamations of gender and sexuality are as infinite as Rubik's Cube combinations. Hard-and-fast lines surrounding gender, identity, and sexuality—boy/girl, gay/straight, butch/femme—may still exist, but queers have filled so much of the space in between that such lines are rendered meaningless. Instead, there's a vast borderland of infinite space—liminal space. What that means for queers depends on your perspective. From a heteronormative viewpoint, where the binary is still in play, the space in between the boundaries of gender and sexuality is a shadowy zone, full of scary things like girls who look like boys. For queers it's more like, This is where we live.
And maybe that's why dyke/queer haircuts have evolved from the mullet (and the rest of the “seven lesbian haircuts” referred to in the satirical Roberts' Rules of Lesbian Living) to a mélange of shags with less clearly defined boundaries. As we've evolved our concepts of sexuality, gender, and identity from rigid definitions into much more nuanced ones, so has our hair grown, from the harsh, unbending lines of the mullet, through the spiky Shane iterations, to the soft, feathery, rounded edges of the Bieber cut. As we begin to recognize and embrace our own liminal existence, it makes sense that our signifiers would change too. So it's no surprise that a visit to any queer bar in any town becomes a study of Biebercuts, confirming the fact that the Justin is to millennial lesbians what the Rachel was for straight women of the 1990s.
What does this have to do with teen idols? Well, they exist in their own liminal spaces, ones that overlap with queer spaces while at the same time worming their way into the zeitgeist the way queers rarely do. There's no doubt that America has a longstanding infatuation with young, androgynous crooners. Anyone who ever had a crush on Shaun Cassidy (or Fabian, or Davy Jones, or Leif Garrett, or Nick Carter—the list of well-coiffed white boys is endless) can attest to their power over us, both as individuals and as a culture. It's often been said that crushing out on a Tiger Beat pinup is a safe way for young girls to express their burgeoning sexuality: Bieber and the boys who came before him are cute, but not in a virile way that's real and potentially scary. Bieber is a tween heartthrob because he's soft, cuddly, huggable. Minus the harsh edges and chiseled features heteronormative society defines as the province of a full-throttle man, Bieber looks like, well, a girl. Or, wait, a boy. Wait…or someone in between.
The Biebs may exist in the borderland between genders right now, but (again, according to heteronormative culture) he's unthreatening because his gender in-betweenness is trumped by yet another in-between space: adolescence. Mainstream culture can accept Bieber's ambiguity because it's temporary. He's a cuddly, crooning little cub now, but soon enough he'll turn into a man, which, although potentially sexually threatening to the parents of his tween-girl fans, still merits some parental comfort—he's supposed to turn into a man.
What's scary to those moms and dads—and potential employers, and the lady at the Verizon store—is when that growth spurt never comes. A 16-year-old boy-man whose testicles don't seem to have dropped, with a strange haircut and a baseball cap that's three sizes too big? Cool. A thirtysomething woman rocking that same look? Cue the panicky reactions. Why is that person wearing a tie buying tampons? This person is not fitting into my regimented paradigm! What happened to the rules?
But those spaces between girl/not girl, boy/not boy, growing up/not growing up are where queers belong, and here's why: They're not cramped crevices into which we are shoved, but rather spaces we have carved out for ourselves. Justin Bieber is just the normalized version of that existence. And, like Bieber's now-famous hair, this generation's crop of queers really knows where it wants to go.
Jonanna Widner is a frequent contributor to Bitch.