Sunday, December 17, 2006

How Did a Moustache Come to Mean Tough Guy?

A few brushes in my life with moustaches:

1) I remember while studying in Inner Mongolia, a friend of mine suggesting at one time I just keep a moustache (at the time I had a beard). He then commented "Of course, you'd look a little like a truck driver."

2) Being in New Jersey for the year, I have taken the New Jersey transit a few times to New York and Philly. Now on the trains are adds for "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" showing various hard men doing high-risk, hyper-masculine things around scantily clad young ladies. Funny thing is, those macho men all have moustaches.

And 3) this coin of the Gothic king Theoderic, who ruled Italy in the early 500s. In everything he is a Roman -- note the toga, the winged victory, the whole deal. But as Bryan Ward-Perkins points out there just one funny thing -- that extra bit of hair on his lips. Theoderic had a moustache. In fact, as he points out, only Goths and other assorted Germanic types had moustaches. A few Roman emperors adopted beards, but beards weren't moustaches; beards meant "thoughtful Greek philosopher scornful of artificial conventions and trying to go back to a more authentic way of life", while moustaches meant "Goth." And very often, to the Roman, "Goth" meant "tough guy who likes to cause pain."

Which brings us right back to the "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" ad. Isn't it amazing the way 1500 years later, beards still mean "thoughtful philosopher scornful of artificial conventions and trying to go back to a more authentic way of life," moustaches (at least certain kinds) still mean "tough guy who likes to cause pain," and no beard at all means either "all business, no nonsense" or else just "does what everyone else does conformist." (Of course Theoderic's toothbrush style moustache kind of says "dweeb," but leave that aside -- the bigger point stands.)

As I said in a previous post, I see a lot of parallels between the clashing conservative-liberal ethics of today and the clashing knight-clerk ethics of the Middle Ages. And of course to some degree the knight-clerk distinction tracks the Germanic warrior ruling class and the Roman civilian class distinction of the Dark Ages. So how much of our contrasting views of liberal and conservatives go back to resentful semi-vegetarian Mediterranean civilians writing books about how they hate being ruled by boorish, gloriously carnivorous, mustachioed, Germanic fighters?

Labels: , , , ,