Unbear(d)able: The Rise of Secondary Sexual Characteristics in Television

Vikings, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead. It seems no matter what trouble modern TV heroes find themselves in there is always one looming, dark bushy presence. But since when did beards begin taking over the airwaves? From Cyanide and Happiness to CollegeHumor popular websites have been satirizing the sudden rise of the masculine moustached malady that is attaching itself to the faces of today’s media.

But is this acknowledgement of the beard’s appearance itself merely a new popular trend in male fashion, or is it a subconscious effort to win over audiences with the rugged nature of primal human nature? Secondary sexual characteristics of human beings (IE, changes at puberty not directly related to the reproductive system) have often been emphasised in media (from squealing voices in anime to whiter skin in Bollywood epics) and the beard now in North America is securing its place as the face of our popular culture.

A Short History of Longing

The Picture of Dorian Grey
The man and his demon: Dorian Gray.

Since the dawn of art, people have been hiding their desires both innocent and not in corners of their creations away from all but the most devoted peeping Toms (just ask any advertiser). But although subliminal messaging (hiding messages so deep one has to know they’re there to notice them) has been discarded as an effective method of influencing audiences, blatant exposure of intended points made on the artist’s behalf still rage across human creativity. Yes, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is commentary on Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts, yes Dante’s Inferno was a direct attack on the people who kicked him out of Florence, but is Rick Grimes’ beard (and associated last name) a social critique of human waste in the 21st century? Perhaps Oscar Wilde would think so.

In the story of The Picture of Dorian Gray the titular (and titillating) character wishes for his picture to age while he remains young. As the picture grew hideous it becomes a message of the desires of youth to always remain thus and the elderly to return to a time of energy, beauty and the positives of being young. But then what message is being given from a slew of doers of great action today like Jon Snow or Dr. House and their grizzled appearances?

The increase of leading men today appearing haggard across all genres is evident if one looks at any television show or film up to the 1990s – before then all the furry faces were in westerns, even Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis sported clean-shaved looks in the manly action films that made them (though Rocky did have a facial wonder in the fourth movie…).

In the last few years everyone from Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) to Russell Crowe (Noah) has sported facial gruff of epic proportions. Now to be fair these both are remakes and in the context of historical events. But in TV the notice of beards and the heralding of each year’s “No Shave November” among other popular cultures is dominant and of course producers are jumping on the hot topic. It seems the bigger the beard the bigger the ratings. But is this a frightening statement on interest in media today: that we want more masculine shows?


Orange Is The New Black

Hold the phone. Several Girls may argue Orange is the New Black and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt would point out that idea is a Scandal. Shows with strong females are more popular than ever, and they have given what seems to be the first ever in-depth invasion of feminine truth to the media.

In fact feminism, along with support for not only major groups like gay and transgender members but also the recognition of non-traditional male and female stereotypes (IE, Big Bang Theory‘s nerd culture and Veep‘s bumbling leading lady), is hitting a new wave of popularity and outspokenness. While beards are growing fast so too are hard-hitting shows focusing on the new age of multiplying possibilities of gender identity (and the intensity of adhering to traditional ideas of each).

So are the beards then a response to this sudden rise of non-white-masculine-man-based shows? A counter-balance for the increase of media not just representative of one way of looking at a man or woman?

Blurring the lines that were once so clear to viewers of what they would grow up to be (Leave it to Beaver wannabes would turn into Welcome Back Kotter sweat-hogs followed by becoming parents of The Brady Bunch and finally something refusing to die like Archie Bunker of All in the Family) shows took a turn slowly, then faster, presenting offbeat untraditional roles. Films like the James Bond franchise or Mission Impossible still give dashing rogue white men in power, but then they are often criticised as being simplistic and repetitive while others such as Girls are getting rave reviews for being so unique and deep.

So what is the future then of those poor battered bearded bastards of the boob tube?

Well, probably nothing serious.

Though television has taken a notable shift in presenting newer ideas of gender identities in traditional roles (and even in niche roles like “computer geek”) since the hallmarks of shows in the last century, there will always be the desire for a simplistic clear-cut illustration of the picture-perfect ideals of man and woman. It is just a nice breath of fresh air that new shows are coming in to give a new outlook on changing society. In short, the beards are a trend, perhaps a response to the growing number of non-traditional role models coming out of new tv shows, and will fade back to their usual place as a cheap gag for the passage of time and model of what real men can push out of their jaws.

A Word on Other Secondary Sexual Characteristics

True Beauty?

While the focus of this was to point out the beard’s growing popular cultural place in TV, there are dozens more secondary sexual characteristics in the shows listed here that aren’t as noted but equally as important.

Modern Family showcases youth growing up to deal with becoming adults while the adults around them seem childish at times and of course issues like what makes a girl pretty to how can a boy be attractive if he is not good at sports are risen, and the entire premise of Big Bang Theory is based on sex and sexuality. These all point to the major trend discussed before of shows giving a new look at who can be in what roles, adopted more and more by people in a world growing kinder to differences.

Whether trying to please audiences by drawing female characters with differing faces (Pixar) or having male characters who don’t need to be buff (30 Rock) more and more producers are appealing to this demand for better content at the cost of traditional roles (The Muppets are back, nothing traditional about THEIR identities). Thus the change in displaying characteristics we inherently recognize as female or male are also being tweaked.

In this constant swirl of changes the beard is finding a new outlet for the same role as a secondary sexual characteristic. But rather than naturally displaying the heightened level of a man’s testosterone, it’s now doing just that for TV shows in this new environment.

It’s a complicated science of evolving human adaptations but definitely one that will be important in the upcoming decades of television. Is it a good thing to change pop culture’s encouraging of traditional roles into more liberal and new unforeseen displays of identities, or will it confuse and cause problems for us? Time will tell, and at the same time we’ll be stroking our beards puzzling over it for sure.

Works Cited

Brown, Kat. “Disney and Pixar’s Female Characters All Have the Same Face.” The Telegraph, June 29, 2015. Web.

Canadian Press. “CBC’s Transforming Gender Comes Amid Headlines Over Gender Identity.” CBC, February 26, 2015. Web.

Collegehumour. http://www.collegehumor.com/tag/beards, August 28, 2015. Web.

Cyanide and Happiness Shorts. “The Beard.” Youtube, February 13, 2014. Web.

Vokey, John R. and J. Don Read. “Subliminal Messages: Between the Devil and the Media.” Psychology in Action, Vol. 40, No. 11, 1231-1239, November 1985. Print.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Writer of both fiction and non-fiction with specific studies in History, Performance Art (including film/TV, animation and videogames) Writing, and Japanese Culture.

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  1. Ami Wicks

    Its good to see that beards are making a comeback, although I would like to see some more growth.

  2. unshaven beard for a couple days doesn’t make it a beard.

    • rod dortch

      A beard is something you can grab onto and see clearly, it should not count as a beard unless the hair is at least 1/2 an inch long.

    • Exactly. Six months of growth without any trimming is the minimum to be considered a full beard.

  3. Lenna Noble


  4. DClarke

    This is really one of the most fun articles! I think you actually hit on a very interesting but “important” topic. There has been so much made of beards in the last few years that they really are pointing to something cultural and it is nice to see somebody pick up on it and write about it. Informative, enjoyable and in a weird way, serious! Great job.

  5. YsabelGo

    When I think of beards, I think of a rugged, untamed man. I think a beard can also represent a character, as a shaved man usually indicates professionalism. Great job on this quirky subject!

  6. Bledsoe

    Son’s of Anarchy co-star Ryan Hurst had the best beard

  7. How can we discuss beards and not even bring up Jared Leto!?!?!? That man is beautiful and it is only improved by his beard.

  8. So funny! Thanks!

  9. Isiah Liu

    I would have to say beard growing is stronger than most actors acting these days…

  10. Such a great article and so interesting to read. Not only was it funny, but it also points out some serious cultural changes that people should keep in mind. Never thought about the beard as a representation of cultural politics, but now that you’ve talked so thoroughly about it, I just can’t stop thinking about it. Thanks for this piece!

  11. George Michael made the fuzz beard popular 20 years ago – what a trendsetter

  12. Arguably the most awesome beard ever seen on the silver screen. Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson.

  13. Slaughter

    Maybe it’s just my age, but one of the best was Steve Reeves’ beard in ‘Hercules’ and ‘Hercules Unchained’. I’ve trimmed my beard to approximate Sean Connery’s in ‘The Rock’, ‘Hunt for Red October’ and ‘Rising Sun’. It’s getting gray in the right places.

  14. Pa Abel

    Kurt russell in the thing. Hands down best movie beard.

  15. Facial hair can really take a man to a whole new level!

  16. I feel like pinpointing the last few years as “the rise of the beard” kind of misses the point…beards come in and out, just like hairstyles, and they’re actually on the way out now. The now-dead “bearded/mustachioed hipster” has become the mainstream, and it’s not surprising that television reflects that.

  17. I cannot help but think that for most shows, beards are, as you said, simply there for historical accuracy or to depict a passage in time during which the character was unable to access a razor. However, it is an interesting point that there is a potential link between beards and the rising popularity of shows that do not have white males as their leads. Overall though, I have to say it seems that beards are just in right now because it’s a fad and this too shall pass.

  18. Francesca Turauskis

    I read an article a little while back about why beards were so popular in fashion and it suggested it was down to evolution. People started to find men with beards attractive because it went against the norm (of the time), and those who have slightly different appearance/genes than their rivals are more attractive because they would make stronger babies (particularly if they can grow a good beard.) It also stated that soon, clean-shaven men will once again be more desirable for the same reason and we will say bye to the beard… We shall see…

  19. Although female-driven shows are gaining in popularity as of late, I wouldn’t say that shows like Girls or Orange is the New Black are setting the standard for the entertainment industry. Yes, feminism and LGBT-rights are seemingly getting more and more popular, but when the entire demographic is looked at, rather than simply young adults, preferences of yesteryear are still quite prevalent. The beard boom seen in media today is simply the industry’s way of grounding us in traditional masculine images. Characters like Jon Snow or The Hound are only pushing for more facial hair, but also men who are more broody, serious, and stereotypically “manly.”

  20. Gimli: It’s true you don’t see many Dwarf-women. And in fact, they are so alike in voice and appearance, that they are often mistaken for Dwarf-men.
    Aragorn: [whispering to Eowyn] It’s the beards.
    Gimli: And this in turn has given rise to the belief that there are no Dwarf-women, and that Dwarves just spring out of holes in the ground!
    [Eowyn laughs]
    Gimli: Which is, of course, ridiculous.

    Nothing beats a dwarf’s beard from LotR

  21. Valeria Sharivker

    Very unique and interesting topic. It is true that a beard can really shape a persons face, and personality. Interesting read, and nice touch of the feminist show push.

  22. What a fun topic! I’m so interested in the “hot dad” archetype, mostly because a) I seem to have so many friends who are into it and b) it provides a new lens through which to view gender representation. The hot dad image, which is very often a manly dude sporting a beard or scruff, grows more and more prevalent in fandom and canon. As “laid-back,” sloppy looks are found sizzling on males, women are still expected to look polished. Even in the case of “natural” looks on women, there is almost always a good hour or two of makeup and clothing time having been spent. Perhaps this is part of why I can’t stand the new trend of bearded slouchy guys? Anyway, beards are hella unhygienic.

  23. Beards are sexy! It’s primal! I married my husband because of his beard! (Just kidding) But actually, beards can be the result of not wanting to shave every day? Do men finally understand our pain and will we finally be able to walk outside and even go to the beach without needing to stress out over our bikini lines?? I wish!

  24. Very true!! I enjoy that traditional roles are changing and adapting because that’s what people need nowadays. The ability to draw in a relatable audience is achievable through this.

  25. I am so glad Orange is the New Black was brought into this discussion. Personally, I feel like shows that show the diversity of women are breaking gender stereotypes, while the rise of the beard is reinforcing them. We shall see.

  26. It seems to me breads are a backlash against them effeminization of men in Western culture, although what followed was also a domino effect which became a trend. I also wonder if its roots in contemporary fashion can be traced to professional baseball.

  27. cwinegargarrett

    This article brings up interesting points, but many times it deviates away from a point, and by the end I’m not sure what was stated. However, the idea of beards dominating a vast amount of character portrayals is good to observe, especially because of the idea of an ultra-masculine tidal shift, or a contrast from ultra-feminine waves in TV.

    It seems like even with the rising interest in intense beards in TV nowadays, most characters in a positive light are rather feminine. I’m thinking of shows where guys sport the scruffy half-shaved look, and usually there is a level of emotion and feelings that seems to juxtapose the testosterone-filled beard appearance. Maybe everything in this time has to be ultra-everything, because with streaming television and instant gratification, it’s impossible to keep things subtle and still have an audience…

  28. Morgan R. Muller

    Really intriguing topic for discussion. I love your voice and analysis, great job!

  29. Interesting stuff! I had a hearty chuckle when I saw a still of The Mountain as the picture accompanying this article. This beard revival could be in part a response to the feminization of the modern man in through other mediums (skinny jeans, man-buns, manscaping, and “guyliner” to name a few) and the old black coffee drinking, log-splitting hairy man has been somewhat dormant of late, dare I say hibernating? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against androgyny or similar things by any means. However, there is a connotation for heavily bearded men being one or more of the following: unemployed, recently dumped by a significant other, or just plain dirty. It is good to some semblance of a balance after the somewhat recent 180 with regards to portraying men, which way too gun-ho when it came to reversing the stereotypes of masculinity established so long ago.

  30. Morgan R. Muller

    Very interesting article and intriguing topic for discussion!

  31. There does not seem to be a central, underlying thesis in this entire article. The general statement that cultural shifts exist is not a terribly original point, and does not seem to be in dispute from any figure that I could conceive. Further, the point that seems to be most central, that television shows with female protagonists are more popular than ever, was not argued well, because he did not provide any evidence to quantify this, besides the fact that the television shows exist. This does not tell us anything about how many people actually watch the aforementioned prorammes. The implication that one could reasonably take from the piece is that shows with such female protagonists did not exist until the decade before last. The late 1960s, and 1970s had television shows that had self-sufficient female protagonists. The most prevalent one would be The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but the shows, That Girl, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. also were around in that time. Further, the entirety of the second section of the article seemed superfluous. As such, this article, on a number of levels, contains poor argumentation.

  32. Emily Deibler

    Love the title and closing statement. Great analysis.

  33. While I enjoyed your topic, I also thoroughly enjoyed the puns. Your writing is engaging and I appreciate the wordplay!

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