In Defense of the Mullet

The banning of mullet hairstyles in Iran as “decadent” has spawned a surprisingly fast-moving discussion about the hairstyle in the United States. Across the country, people have been busily, and often colorfully, reflecting upon not just Iran’s cultural politics but the short-in-the-front, long-in-the-back hairstyle itself in every from of media you can think of.  Americans have been talking mullet in newspapers and blogs, on television and radio, via twitter and discussion boards.

It’s always true that our perceptions of style and fashion, and the ways in which we choose to talk about them, serve as expressions of our feelings about the group of people for whom that style matters, from the zoot suit on Mexican Americans in the 1940s to long hair on hippies in the 1960s to baggy jeans on African American youth in the present. The current mullet frenzy is no exception. As filmmaker Jennifer Arnold has shown in her excellent 2001 documentary American Mullet, the three groups of people who wear mullets in large numbers are working-class Southern men, lesbians, and Mexican Americans.

Conveniently—and, I would argue, dangerously— concealing the mullet’s class associations underneath its role as “just fashion,” commentators have used this piece of international news as permission to take part in the all-too-familiar stigmatizing of the U.S. working class (with more than a dash of homophobia and/or racism thrown in for good measure in some cases)— in this case through the also all-too-familiar marshaling of that slippery and pernicious category called “taste.” The result is an unspoken argument that, in the words of journalist Annalee Newitz, “class becomes a choice—just like a haircut.”

Here in New England, the mullet fantasy involves the symbolic denigration of poor U.S. Southerners. The local newspaper, the Boston Globe, has jumped on this bandwagon with both feet, running an editorial opining that the hairstyle “deserves to be banned” (“Iran: Ahmadinejad’s Fashion Police”) and a snarky feature article called, “Why Do We Loathe the Mullet?”

The derisive and elitist tone of these articles (and the numerous others like them) makes it clear that presenting the mullet as somehow humorous is operating here as permission to engage in out-and-out class-based mockery and dehumanization of the poor. For instance, “Why Do We Loathe the Mullet?” approvingly quotes an “expert,” Professor Tom Connolly of Suffolk University (a private university in downtown Boston). Connolly makes this banal but disgusting regionalism and elitism unusually explicit, “gleefully” imagining a mullet-wearer crawling out from under his trailer home in order to “grin at you through gray teeth.”

Connolly efficiently hits on two of the most iconic images of the supposed degeneracy of working-class and poor people: bad teeth and a trailer home. (Plastic versions of these “bad teeth” are sold every Halloween under names such as “hillbilly teeth,” and the term “trailer trash” is so significant as a term of class-based ridicule that it has its own wikipedia page, turns up millions of google hits, and a supports whole genus of supposed humor, from greeting cards to stand-up routines to facebook applications.) We’d all do well to remember that if you make fun of someone for having bad teeth—especially someone living in a trailer—what you are really saying is, “Isn’t it hilarious—that person doesn’t have access to health care! And I do!” As an experiment, I would like to suggest to Professor Connolly that the next time he wishes to make a contemptuous comment about people living in trailers, he stick the word “FEMA” in front of the word “trailer” and see if he still wants to utter the sentence. I’m afraid he still would, though: the suffering in New Orleans after Katrina has only served to amplify class-based mockery of its residents from some quarters; Connolly, here—and by extension the Globe—has placed himself on the far end of this particular spectrum of ridicule by imagining his mullet-wearer crawling out from under his trailer—what the hell would he be doing under there?—which casts him as something inhuman, like a lizard.

The article’s glib use of “we” in the title—in which it is far from alone—is revelatory as well. When my students use that word, I always ask them if they can tell me exactly who “we” is—and who is the implied “they.” “We” cannot hate the mullet unless “they” are wearing it. This establishing of the working class as permanent and inferior “other” has practical implications, the most important of which is, of course, how much easier it becomes to justify their continued economic exploitation.

The class-based ridicule of mullet-wearers has regional particularity that is further divisive. In Boston, the focus may be on working-class Southerners, but in California, a number of satirical blogs and columns have men of Mexican ancestry in their sights. For instance, the author of the blog “Weird Fresno” writes:

Apparently they are banning several hairstyles and one of those is the ever-popular mullet. Now normally I’m for freedom of expression…but the fact that they are banning the mullet is probably the best thing that country has done in a long, long while… Maybe others will take note and follow the example that Iran had started. Imagine if Chowchilla banned the mullet?

Since Chowchilla is a city in the San Joaquin valley, one of California’s most important centers of Mexican and Mexican American life since World War II, when Mexican workers were brought to the region to provide cheap farm labor through the government’s bracero program, it is plain here how “mullet” is operating as a code—if barely.

I should disclose my personal stake in this. My brother in Raleigh sometimes wears a mullet. He hasn’t really had one since 2006, though, when he cut off his long-in-the-back hair so he could join his pre-teen daughter in donating to Locks of Love. He’s like that. In his honor, I invite readers to take the small but emphatic step of singing this petition to call the Boston Globe, at least, to account.

Rachel Rubin

Rachel Rubin is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Immigration and American Popular Culture (with Jeffrey Melnick).