The beard as sign

john_ruskin_1894Tonight, while taking a break from writing a paper on an entirely different subject, I was dipping into Sharon Weltman’s book Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science, and Education. She recalls how Ruskin did not object to women playing men in the pantomime; not object, that is, ‘until they whip out their cigars’. The problem for Ruskin (as for his contemporaries, it seems) came down not only to those cigar-smoking women but also to the presence of that wonderful gift – a gift which Ruskin himself cultivated over the years – ‘the beard’. The problem with ‘the beard’, as with ‘the cigar’, Weltman suggests, is that it ‘symbolizes masculinity too forcefully for critical comfort. A conventionally feminine pantomine boy poses less of a sexual threat, especially since tights show off shapely female legs, often specifically admired by Victorian theater critics. But women with beards and cigars symbolically suggest morphological possibilities too unsettling and compromise gender boundaries too bluntly to pass unremarked’ (p. 32).

This got me thinking about what other kinds of ‘morphological possibilities’ beards might communicate – like how sheer laziness with the grooming side of things can communicate a lack of consideration of a partner’s longing for smooth chins – and of the ways which such might serve as social and ideological signs; and that led me to a couple of amusing images (from here and here) that I thought worth sharing:

Growing beards

The beards of ministry