by Emma Tarlo
11 May 2017
When it comes to hair, these are troubling times. Gone are the days when the prize for blond male political buffoonery went hands down to Boris Johnson, then London Mayor, now British Foreign Secretary, for his self-consciously tousled straw-like stack of natural blond hair. Today his attention-seeking tufts pale into insignificance beside the greased golden quiff of American President Donald Trump and the undulating meringue-like swirl that tops the head of the far right Dutch politician, Geert Wilders. Alongside fake news we have an abundance of fake blond hair.
Our response, naturally enough, is to laugh. Images abound of Trump’s hair taking flight in the wind and of his painfully exposed white hairline while cameras enjoy honing in on the black roots poking stubbornly through the dense undergrowth of Wilders’ bleached mop. There are even websites where the hairstyles of both politicians are placed in comic competition. But are we right to treat their hair as mere entertainment? Or are we missing something more sinister? We are not, after all, dealing with accidental blondness here but with an unashamed flaunting of unnatural blondness.
Hair has always been an important means of asserting power and influence. Louis XIV’s luxurious long black curly wigs were designed not only to conceal and compensate for hair loss but also to magnify his grandeur. They set a trend in the French court and beyond. In China imperial power was consolidated by the Qing dynasty in the 17th century by forcing Han Chinese men to shave their foreheads whilst maintaining a long plait in imitation of the ruling Manchu elite.
Hair makes an impression and embodies ideals so when right wing men of power adopt blond bouffant styles that most men in Europe and America would be ashamed to sport, we need to ask, why? What is the relationship between their hair and their politics? Is this a straightforward case where the medium is the message?
Hair colour and texture have long been entangled in racial and racist politics, from scientific debates in the 19th century over whether ‘Negros’ had hair or wool to ambitious projects to classify the entire world population into racial categories through their hair. For this purpose the German scientist and founder of the Society for Racial hygiene, Eugen Fischer, developed an instrument known as a haarfarbentaful (hair gauge) to measure and classify different hair types. He used it in South-West Africa (now Namibia) and Germany where he advocated the sterilization of people of mixed race. An updated version was later put to use by Nazi scientists during the Second World War to help identify people with supposed Jewish traits. Having the wrong hair type could consign a person to prison camp and almost certain death.
Yet the relationship between hair and race has always had a fictional quality as our own blond trio of politicians highlights (excuse the inevitable pun). Trump appears to have had mousey brown hair for much of his adult life. It is only in youth and old age that his hair is blond. Wilders, the arch proponent of preserving Dutchness, appears to have naturally dark hair which matches his brows.
Whilst Trump is accused of using blond dye out of vanity and to preserve the illusion of youth, Wilders is suspected of using it to conceal his part Indonesian ancestry. But origins are not readable through hair. Boris, our only natural blond, does after all have Turkish roots. The point is that all three men are of mixed heritage in spite of their ardent embrace of narrow nationalist agendas.
Today the overtly racist anti-foreign, anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump and Wilders is targeted not at Jews but at other dark haired foreigners, especially Muslims. Could this be another clue to the unexpected emergence of the blond bouffant style in right wing politics? The archetypal foreigner against whom they rail is the covered Muslim woman whose hair is concealed under a headscarf or veil which is assumed to symbolise the incompatibility of Islam and the West according to their xenophobic reasoning.
By flaunting unnaturally big fake blond hair Trump and Wilders are quite literally wearing their politics on their heads. Their exaggerated hair stands as a public declaration to all who dare to cover their heads or have the wrong hair colour or type that they are not ‘our sort’ and are not welcome. In this blond buffoonery lurks a pernicious message of racial intolerance.