The Appeal of “Hair,” Then and Now
At its core, in 1968 “Hair” was a protest against the Vietnam War. Or more exactly, it was a protest against being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
The war is long over – the Vietnamese won. We now send them tourists, including war tourists. They grow much of our cheap coffee.
The draft is long over. Though we have fought many wars since then, we have done so with a volunteer military. The U.S. Army goes to war often, but the people of the United States no longer do. This is the biggest change, I believe, between the context of “Hair” and today.
“Hair” protested the racial segregation still normal then, including the deep-seated fear of sex between black people and white people. This was highly controversial in its day. The Supreme Court had only struck down state laws against racial intermarriage the year before.
The country has enjoyed a sea-change in race relations since 1968. For young people today the world of legally enforced segregation is ancient history, as ancient as Prohibition was to the young people of the ‘60s. The automatic and violent opposition that interracial sex and marriage provoked then is beyond imagination for students now. This change is a great good in our national life.
The hippies who made “Hair” were, in the broadest sense, against being told what to do. They were reacting to the conformity of men from the G.I. generation, who traded in the uniform of soldiers for the uniform of business. The hippies were not so much for long hair, blue jeans, and mind-expanding drugs as they were against conformity to their parents’ norms.
The genius of capitalism turned most of these protests against conformity into fashion-driven commodities. Protest jeans turned into designer jeans within a decade. The middle-class wardrobe expanded enormously – most especially to display the wearer’s favorite consumption items, such as the musicals they attended. Marijuana is still about as popular as beer, and its days as a prohibited recreation are probably numbered. The more exotic hallucinogens were never all that popular, then or now.
Ironically, hair itself is the most innocuous of protest tools. The clean-shaven, crew-cut norm that spelled masculinity after World War II has given way to a huge range of acceptable bourgeois styles today. In the ‘70s, long hair became so fashionable for men that the ‘80s had to go to the extremes of spiked and dyed mohawks to remake hair as a protest tool. Unlike long hair, you can’t undo a mohawk overnight for a job interview.
Unrestrained sex was one of the most shocking elements of the show’s lifestyle. “Hair” opened midway between the advent of the birth-control pill and the legalization of abortion. This was a little too soon for a serious challenge to sex roles – “Hair” centers on the decisions the men make about war. But “Hair” did promote polymorphous perversity about sex.
Today there are so few cultural and legal restraints on acceptable sex that we have widespread sexually transmitted diseases. Marriage, as an institution, is threatened not so much by new forms of marriage, as by sex without commitment, especially among the young.
Which brings me to what I think is the most enduring appeal of “Hair,” why it gets revived even though its cultural struggles are almost defunct. The actors and other East Village bohemians who created “Hair” delighted in outraging the bourgeoisie. Their main motivation was to bring the free-form experimentation of their adolescent “tribe” into the faces of the middle-class masses. They improvised the action, cast right off the street, roamed through the aisles, and invited the patrons on the stage. The single most controversial element of the show, the nude scene, was based on a couple of hippies getting naked to protest (something) to the police.
These days, it is hard to find a bourgeoisie that will play along. The rise of the “bobos” – the educated classes who combine bohemian cultural consumption with a bourgeois work ethic – means that there isn’t much of a middle class that will be outraged by “Hair.” So we can hear “Let the Sunshine In” as a happy ending.
By William (Beau) Weston
Centre College Van Winkle Professor of Sociology
Beau Weston joined the faculty at Centre College in 1990 and was named Van Winkle Professor of Sociology in 2008. He is an energetic and active teacher, known for getting involved in the lives and activities of his students on campus. Born in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, Weston earned a B.A. with high honors from Swarthmore College and subsequently completed an M.A.R. from Yale Divinity School and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Yale University. Prior to coming to Centre, Weston served for three years as a research associate in the Office of Research of the U.S. Department of Education.
Weston has a special interest in the sociology of religion, especially in the Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House (1997, University of Tennessee Press), Leading from the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church (2003, Geneva Press), and editor of Called to Teach: The Presbyterian Mission in Higher Education (2003, Geneva Press). Weston previously was an editor of and contributor to Education and the American Family: A Synthesis of Research, published by New York University Press in 1989. He is now completing a history of Centre College. Weston also writes the blog The Gruntled Center: Faith and Family for Centrists.
This Centre professor has pursued research and taught courses on a number of topics related to family life and major contemporary social issues. He recently served on the national task force on Changing Families for the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 2004, he won the Kirk Award for Excellence in Teaching. Weston has presented papers at a number of professional meetings and has participated in the Kentucky Humanities Council speakers bureau. He has received honors including membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and he served a term as president of the Anthropologists and Sociologists of Kentucky.
Weston is an elder in the Presbyterian Church. He and his wife, Susan, have three children: Molly, Nora, and Joe.