The name “bearded lady” is at once complicated and often problematic. The Bearded Lady Project engages with this problematic history through the playful queering of the performative bearded lady figure. The women of this project align themselves as bearded ladies in a metaphorical sense: a long history of women accused of possessing too many “masculine” traits such as an education, a desire for independence, and the pursuit of nonheteronormative gender roles. While these women do not experience the material realities of hirsutism or hypertrichosis, they do exercise the types of gender disruptions that have followed the bearded lady as metaphor and lived reality in Western cultures for centuries.
Though most people associate the bearded lady with circuses and sideshows since the nineteenth century, the history of bearded ladies actually goes back thousands of years. Macrobius’s Saturnalia (fifth century CE) references a statue of a bearded Venus on the island of Cyprus. Many early female Christian saints also reportedly possessed beards. According to legend, Saint Galla (sixth century CE) grew a beard after being widowed. The story of Saint Paula (fourth century CE) tells of a young virgin who grew a beard to deter a would-be rapist. References to Saint Wilgefortis first appeared in fifteenth century literature and relate the tale of a young pagan princess in Portugal who grew a beard to prevent herself from getting married and was subsequently crucified by her father. In England, she was known as “Saint Uncumber” and was a symbol of women “unencumbering” themselves of husbands. Though the story behind the bearded Venus is unclear, bearded Christian saints tend to be associated with women’s refusals to get married and enter the patriarchal order.
Unfortunately, hegemonic society today finds the bearded lady no less condemnable in her disruptions of standards of “beauty” and “femininity.” For many women, facial hair is not just a fear. It is a source of shame that they secretly try to obliterate with painful and expensive solutions. The media and hegemonic society still represent female facial hair as an imperfection that needs “fixing” and that still, uncomfortably (for many), challenges gender “norms.” Male facial hair, however, is a sign of virile masculinity that often connotes age, experience, and expertise.
The bearded lady, it seems, is still a complicated reality in the twenty-first century. As metaphor, she disrupts gender norms and challenges patriarchal assumptions. As lived reality, women with facial hair still face very real social stigmas with material consequences. The name “bearded lady” plays into complicated and problematic histories that have challenged and subverted, but that have also caused pain, shame and often reinscribed women into patriarchal orders. In demonstrating the ridiculousness of associating expertise, authority, and virility with male facial hair, The Bearded Lady Project seeks to empower women in traditionally male-dominated fields as well as the hyperfeminized standard of beauty still portrayed in the media. The documentary and its accompanying photography illuminates an underrepresented aspect of paleontology (with implications for other academic disciplines), questions the types of signifiers that privilege male-knowledge production, and recontextualizes the bearded lady figure in the twenty-first century. In playing the bearded lady, we look for new possibilities in what facial hair signifies, whom exactly it benefits, and how it disrupts obsolete gender binaries.
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Amy Guenther is a PhD candidate in Performance as Public Practice at The University of Texas at Austin with a graduate portfolio in Women’s and Gender Studies. She received her MA in Theatre Studies from Miami University and a BFA in Musical Theatre from Catawba College. Broadly, her research examines the adaptation of cultural texts in American popular culture and performance as they pertain to identity/subject formation. Her dissertation is entitled “Pilgrims, Puritans, and Popular Culture: Policing the Boundaries of (Dis)Belonging in the National Imaginary.” She is a member of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) where she is also the Chair of Outreach and Development for the Women and Theatre Program and the secretary for the Theory and Criticism Focus Group. In addition to her scholarship, she works as a dramaturg and teacher. She has also traveled extensively and seen and/or studied theatre in Japan, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and France.