The XX Factor

Paul Ryan’s Manly Beard Is a Semiotic Wonderland

House Speaker Paul Ryan and his beard leave his office on Dec. 16 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ever since he famously posed with some free weights for Time, Paul Ryan has quickened the pulse of any American with a circulatory system. And since the new House speaker has let his facial hair grow, his sex appeal has risen to new heights, says the Federalist’s Nicole Russell in a piece titled “With a Beard, Paul Ryan Exudes Manliness.” In a Congress full of wimpy beta males and girly-men, Russell argues, Ryan has proven that he has the manly genetic makeup required to grow hair on his cheeks and chin.

Of course, craven liberal urban-dwellers, also known as lumbersexuals, have embraced this style for years, to much fanfare (and at sometimes great personal cost) but lesser leadership capacity. Perhaps, however, these lefties have proven to be poor forest rangers. Think of all the beautiful beards we lost this year, and all the bad publicity that the surviving beards have received: a study claiming men with beards are more likely to have sexist attitudes, another study purporting that men with beards are more likely to cheat, steal, and brawl; a debunked but well-traveled report that beards are disgusting vats of feces. In this anti-beard climate, Ryan’s commitment to follicular fortitude is refreshing, even brave.

Beards are an indicator of manliness in many species, including betta fish. (Don’t let their name fool you—those little guys are alpha as anything.) In humans, they also imply the strength of a savior; Jesus had a beard. “Perhaps a lack of bearded House speakers recently is a hallmark of the obvious leadership dearth in Washington,” Russell writes. “Is Ryan mirroring with his physique his call for an end to comfy little bipartisan, nicey-nice business as usual where Republicans and Democrats preside joyfully over our civilization’s slow suicide?”

She’s right—all the friendly, bipartisan cooperation in Congress is holding our country back. Recent research indicates that a beard could turn things around. In battle, clean-shaven Civil War commanders fared worst of all facial hair types save for the smarmy goatee. (“Muttonchops with moustache” was the winner, obviously.)

But beards can be misinterpreted. In 2001, Michael Brus considered the feel of former vice president Al Gore’s face in Slate: “Would Gore’s beard soften his image as the attack dog of last year’s presidential debates or accentuate his image as a beta-male softie?” He went on:

A beard-wearer can’t always control the perception of his facial hair. A five o’clock shadow was cool on Bogey and Don Johnson, but on Nixon it symbolized his shiftiness. Castro’s beard connotes proletarian solidarity; Marx’s beard, a sort of professorial absentmindedness or radicalism. Bushy beards may convey wisdom and patriarchal authority (think Charleton Heston as Moses, or any popular depiction of God or Zeus), hippie looseness (Alan Ginsburg), religious devotion (Hasidic Jews), or backwoods technophobia (Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski).

The man bun started out as a signifier of manliness (Me has testosterone! Me grow hair!) but as soon as it became a trend, it morphed into a sign of the weak, passive follower. Could Ryan’s beard be doomed to the same fate?

There’s a troubling contradiction embedded in Russell’s piece: “In a world of Ray Romanos, women want Don Draper,” she concludes. But Don Draper kept his face bare—unlike his boss, Bert Cooper, whose repertoire of alpha moves included making people take their shoes off before entering his office and that time he totally shut down Pete Campbell’s trifling. The meaning of a beard shifts according to who is wearing it, and when. Today, that meaning is beyond even conservatives’ control. In fact, some have worried that, with his new beard, Ryan has actually become the ultimate insecure, overcompensating beta male: a devastatingly handsome radical jihadist.