Nattering Social Justice Cook: Celebrating Rainbow Hair

And as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap with flames of many colors over me. -Black Elk

One place recent culture wars have been being played out has been the virtual space occupied by Twitter and its adjacent social media. Examining a particular hashtag or recurring phrase often provides insight into what the topic of the moment is, as well as what tropes and memes are being deployed.

A common adjective in many of the more conservative, alt-right, and other theater-of-outrage rants I’ve seen in the past couple of years is “rainbow-haired,” never in a positive sense. It’s usually paired with some form of “social justice warrior,” and often accompanied by an emotional catch-phrase or verbiage like “feels” or “drinking the tears.” There’s a lot of interesting stuff built into that particular fixation. So let’s dig around to find what’s contained in the phrase and its use in this pejorative sense.

The rainbow itself has plenty going on, symbology-wise. In many mythologies, it’s the bridge between heaven and earth, used by gods, heroes, and shamans. In the Christian allegory of Noah, it’s the sign of God’s covenant with humanity. Leprechauns hide their gold at the rainbow’s foot, Indra uses it for his bow, and in the Australian Dreaming, it adorns the scales of the Rainbow Serpent who created the world. It’s also got a maxim built into it: something positive that cannot appear without something negative happening first. There are no rainbows without rain, at least a little of which must fall into every life.

In 1978, this metaphor for something containing a multitude of variations became associated with gay pride and diversity, through the efforts of artist/drag queen Gilbert Baker, who said of it: “We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexilography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had.”

And we should not forget Skittles and the slogan “verb the rainbow.”

What happens when it becomes hair color that makes it particularly hate-worthy for dour conservatives? It’s something I’m fairly familiar with, since I started dying my hair with streaks of pink in 2006 when I found Loreal’s Color Rays on a Bartell’s shelf. The dye requires no pre-bleaching; it is alarmingly, wonderfully bright when it first goes on, and fades over the course of the next couple of months. While it only comes in three colors rather the multitudes other lines hold. I have yet to find another dye that lasts as long and well. I’ve tried plenty over the years, including Manic Panic, Ion, Arctic Fox, and Vibes. I wrote at length about the (over a decade-long now) experience in The Pink Hair Manifesto so I’ll avoid saying anything other than it’s something I anticipate continuing to do, particularly since it’s become part of my authorial brand.

Let’s ground the recent phenomenon of chemically-colored hair plumage historically, since it happened a few decades earlier than my decision. Fabulous colors required science to make it possible, but the earliest adopters were the punks, particularly Cyndi Lauper. This was considered pretty shocking; I can remember a girl at my high school dying a small patch of hers blue and having her father threaten to kick her out of the house as a result.

Rainbow hair, rooted in a counter-culture movement, revels in individuality and a certain DIY spirit (there is no shame in going to the salon for it, but I find it much more fun to do my own). It celebrates one’s appearance, draws the eye rather than shrinking away from it. It is something beautiful that those who don’t fit inside normal standards of beauty can have. It is playful, joyful, delightful at times.

Very recently it has spread like wildfire, and many of the people adopting it are millennials. This gives the anti-rainbow hair sentiment a double-whammy, providing an “oh these kids nowadays” moment while slamming anyone older for acting overly young. (Which implies that’s a bad thing, which isn’t a notion I agree with).

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 10.19.06 AMHere’s something that I think also often makes conservative minds bristle: it confuses gender norms. In traditional thinking, men aren’t supposed to care about or celebrate their appearance in the way women are. But rainbow hair appears all over the gender spectrum. Pull in the strand of meaning associated with gay pride, and the objectionability quotient increases.

There’s a reason alt-right and other manifestations of conservative trollish rhetoric so often focuses on appearance, on fat-shaming or fuckability or even how a new Ken-doll wears their hair. It’s a reversion to the schoolyard insult, the way insecure children will be cruel to others in order to try to build their internal self-worth, a behavior many, but sadly not all, outgrow. Worthy of an essay in itself is the fact that it’s also behavior advantageous to advertisers: anxious consumers who want to fit in are willing to spend money in the effort.

This strategy of playground taunts based on a) something most people have little control over and b) a rigid set of norms is curious when we go back to the associated ideas of emotion and “feels” (I do want to talk about what additional stuff is built into the latter, but let me return to that in a second.) Emotion is traditionally seen as the domain of women and children; men keep a stiff upper lip and a silent heart of winter. Often emotionality is built into the verbs used to describe speech: shrill, shriek, and scream are favorites.

Big boys don’t cry. Women and other non-males do, and there is a Smeagol or Renfield-level insistence on the deliciousness of such tears, as with so much of the writing, which depends on mockery of other people’s passions or even what’s portrayed as their rude insistence on co-existing in this world.

It would be nice if pointing out the gender and other biases BS built into such language defused it entirely, but certainly it’s easier to keep it from affecting you if you’re aware of it. Life for many non-mainstream groups is a constant course of avoiding the particular lumps of low-level radiation scattered throughout our daily landscape. I’m aware I’ve got some shielding from that denied others.

So what’s built into “feels” beyond that? It’s a denigration of the memespeak and emoticons of the millennials, as far as I can tell, a curious mockery of Tumblr and lolcat culture. And there’s a reason that they fear that group, which is better (IMO) at seeing through the clouds of Internet argument than some of the other generations.

Literally four decades ago, when I was a kid, we saw football player Rosey Grier singing that it was all right to feel things:

I’m bemused that the people in the world I inhabit remain so wedded to a norm that seems harmful to men and makes them less capable of understanding the world. Maybe the feelz aren’t such a bad thing after all.

Which leads me to my conclusion, which is that it seems like an ineffective and overly dour point to hammer on. Overall, I can’t read any of the negatives being packed into rainbow-haired as actual negatives. Celebrate the rainbow connection, I say, and close accordingly with that.

Who said that wishes would be heard and answered when wished on the morning star?
Someone thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing and what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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