The International Cinema of Mop Top Sexuality
Mop Top Nico. Heartbeats (2010)
I noticed something in film, and I have been noticing it for some time. I first started recognizing it when I was an adolescent, and I have been seeing it again in the new millennium. It has to do with hair, or more precisely how certain characters are coded with a certain kind of hair—namely, a mop top. Admittedly, “mop top” is not an entirely stable or universally recognized descriptor. What I am referring to is a style of hair that is longer and unkempt; it can be curly or straight or somewhere in between. This is especially the case for the older films analyzed for this post. And while mop top hair in newer films contains more product and is styled, the desired effect is to appear free and flowing. I propose that when this style has appeared on certain young men or adolescents, the mop top signifies a non-specific sexuality—not homosexual and not heterosexual and perhaps not something in between.
As an adolescent, I identified with two performances of the young actor Chris Makepeace. The first time I remember seeing him was in the 1979 comedy Meatballs (Do you remember Meatballs? Most people don’t.) directed by Ivan Reitman whose directorial highs include the original Ghostbusters (1984) and whose lows include Kindergarten Cop (1990). Made in the afterglow of Animal House (1978), Meatballs employs a comedic approach to late-1970s malaise by tracking the antics of a collection of angst-ridden camp counselors led by Tripper (Bill Murray) as they challenge the authority structures that manage a third-rate summer camp facility. While the not-quite-as-misogynist-as-Animal-House humor is the central theme, the film takes on a more serious note when focusing on Rudy (portrayed by Chris Makepeace, of course), who is awkward and isolated.
After an especially embarrassing incident on a soccer field, Rudy decides to head to the bus depot and return home. Tripper follows him in an effort to bring him back to camp. During the conversation, Rudy admits that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone and that he just wants to be liked. Tripper explains that if “you make one good friend a summer, you’re doing pretty well.” With this advice, Rudy is given permission, time and space, to remain undeveloped, or rather uncommitted to a developmental trajectory. Rudy remains largely distant from his cohort, but his friendship with Tripper grows. Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent that when Rudy is seen awake in his cabin early one morning. The other campers are asleep as Rudy stands by the window waiting for Tripper to jog by. Rudy then runs after him and the two begin a morning routine. While Tripper is decidedly heterosexual, Rudy is never depicted as being a sexual being. As such, Tripper can be understood as fulfilling a mentor or even fatherly figure, an interpretation supported by certain plot points.
Mop Top Rudy (on right). Meatballs (1979)
However, it is also possible that Rudy has a crush on Tripper, one that he does not understand but that Tripper just might. There are several indicators of such a possibility, not the least of which is the way Rudy looks at Tripper, which is not with any degree of longing but certainly with a hopeful intensity. Rudy will not fit in with the crowd through ordinary means; Rudy is not like the others. He needs the time and space provided by Tripper to develop. And since this space is not heteronormative, it is arguably queer.
The second Makepeace film is My Bodyguard (Dir. Tony Hill, 1980), another film in which no young male seems to have any real interest in dating or bedding anyone at all (the weird telescope scene should just be ignored). Though the film boasts a quality cast, the plot outline is remarkably trite. Adolescent Clifford (Chris Makepeace) moves to New York City with his widower father (Martin Mull) and spunky grandmother (Ruth Gordon) and hatches a plan to hire upper classman Linderman (Adam Baldwin) as protection against a squad of bullies led by Moody (Matt Dillon). Though this effort initially works, Moody hires an even bigger henchman (who cares?) to confront Linderman. Ultimately, the underdog duo defeat the bullies. Indeed, it is tiresome to say the least. But what makes the film so interesting is the relationship between Clifford and Linderman where the two adolescents begin to reconcile the events in their lives through a shared connection. This connection is too intimate to fit in the normal “buddy” category and yet also not sexual, as that dimension would be a distraction from the way these characters need to interact. In fact once everything is said and done, the only fault I find with the filmmakers is their failure to have faith enough in their convictions to not allow the film to return to petty violence in the final act. They should have trusted their audience to be interested in the lengths that Clifford goes through to connect with Linderman even after he has been warned off.
It would seem ironic that Clifford overcomes his personal fear and some potential material threat of danger when reaching out to Linderman since that plucky spirit ultimately allows him to overcome the bullies. So his striving to make contact with an older and larger man, especially one purportedly with a homicidal past, must be for some other reason. Much like Makepeace’s character in Meatballs, it is very possible that Clifford does not understand the reason himself. Linderman’s acceptance of Clifford’s outreach may also not be understood by that character either. But Clifford becomes important to Linderman in a non-heteronormative way, specifically non-heteronormative in terms of the traditional American family. As it turns out, Linderman did kill someone; he accidentally shot his younger brother and then staged the scene to make it look like the younger sibling accidentally shot himself. By occupying the place of the missing brother without replicating him, by standing in the place of the dead brother but in a way that remains different from a familial bond, Linderman begins to find passage out of his isolation by responding to Clifford and thereby starting to address the trauma that caused it in the first place. Again, this non-specific sexuality allows for an intimacy unavailable through heterosexual paradigms or homosexual tropes. To be honest, I remember watching this movie as an adolescent and having a certain undefined curiosity about what would happen between Linderman and Clifford as the two headed off (with a couple of friends) in the same direction at the end of the film. But such adolescent fantasies are made possible only because the two characters have granted one another time and space to negotiate their circumstances.
Mop Top Clifford (on left) and Mop Top Linderman (on right). My Bodyguard (1980)
I admit that hair style is a changeable fashion that has seasons of its own. It is well known that hair during the Nixonian era was often a political statement, especially for anti-war protestors. It is also true that men wore their hair longer and fuller in the late-1970s. Both Meatballs and My Bodyguard feature these looks. I argue that there is something different in the unkempt look, in the mop top. I do not propose that a non-specific sexuality is present in every example of fly-away hair, but that it is present in some. And if I am right, then I argue that it may be a (perhaps coincidental) manifestation of what Kathryn Bond Stockton describes in her 2009 book, The Queer Child: “There are ways of growing that are not growing up. …Against the backdrop of crucial arguments made by Lee Edelman, James Kincaid, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, I stake a different kind of claim for growth and for its intimate relations with queerness. Overall, I want to prick (deflate, or just delay) the vertical, forward-motion metaphor of growing up, and do so by exploring the many kinds of sideways growth depicted by twentieth-century texts” (11). In other words, heteronormative development, like the development of the human body, can be understood as proceeding vertically, as growing up. But when that development is queer, social forces prevent a linear, upward development. The queer child (or adolescent, or young adult) then finds pathways of development that are horizontal or to the side. I propose that such sideways growth is signified by the mop top, by the untamed hair that grows sometimes up, sometimes down, and sometimes to the side. This conceptual sideways growth can be productive as in the two films already discussed, but it can also lead to murkier territory.
In Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats (2010), two friends, Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Xavier Dolan), compete for the affection of Nico (Niels Schneider) to no avail. Nico’s mop top accentuates his non-specific sexuality that is certainly non-receptive to the overtures of Marie and Francis. He is a sensual being—the three sleep in the same bed at one point—which leads both Marie and Francis to understand him to be available. The French title of the film, Les Amours Imaginaires (Imaginary Lovers), actually suits the film better as both Marie and Francis purchase lavish gifts and heap all the attention they can muster on a character who seems to accept these things without even knowing their value. Interestingly, there is also never a definitive reason for Nico’s rejection of each of them. When Francis confesses his feelings to Nico in a climactic moment, Nico responds with a question: “How could you think I was gay?” True, this question can be read as an exasperated “no,” which is certainly how Francis takes it. But the question is delivered with a relatively flat affect. It might really be a question, one for which Nico does not have an answer. Maria and Francis, who at one point engage in a physical altercation in their competition for Nico, ultimately heal their friendship. At the end of the film, Nico returns from travelling one year later and approaches both Marie and Francis who are standing together as a unified force. Nico appears to be ready to deal with them together and is frustrated and disappointed when rejected.
On one level, Heartbeats is about failure. Most notably, Maria and Francis are engaged in a relationship that is actively in search of a sexual dimension, which could be satisfied through the vessel of a third person. Ultimately, it is Marie and Francis, each with their consistently manicured coiffures, who have failed to grow up—opting instead to grow sideways in their relationship to one another. But this failure is perhaps not something to scorn or lament. Basing an argument on childhood development much like Stockton, Judith Halberstam explores new ways of considering failure in The Queer Art of Failure. Arguing that “success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2), Halberstam asks and answers a key question: “What kinds of reward can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods” (3). With this in mind, it is certainly possible to view Francis and Marie’s sideways-grown relationship as being defined by cycles of catastrophe and renewal focused on the fantasy of shared imaginary relationships with people of non-specific sexualities. Indeed, in the final scene immediately after Nico’s banishment, the two turn their attentions on a new figure whose potentially unruly hair can already be seen slipping out from under his hat.
Another use of the mop top is in the Danish film You Are Not Alone (dir. Ernst Johansen and Lasse Nielsen 1978). If the cover blurb on imdb.com is to be believed, the Seattle Times declared the film to be “gentle and funny in the best style of Truffaut.” I personally am not quite prepared to elevate the film to the level of French New Wave cinema. In fact, the constant references to the intricacies of competing political ideologies circulating in late-1970s Denmark somewhat limit the film’s universal appeal. The film, which takes place in a boarding school, deals with the burgeoning relationship between mop top adolescent Bo and Kim, a younger adolescent male. The film depicts this youthful relationship as gentle and affirming with the younger adolescent seeming at times to understand the nature of the developing situation better than the older one. To be clear, the relationship between Bo and Kim is depicted as romantic but not sexual. However, the film contains one highly controversial scene in which Bo and Kim take a shower together, something that would occur naturally at a boarding school. There is some full-frontal nudity by the young actors. No sexual act is depicted or alluded to. All touching takes place from the shoulders up. It is an innocent scene with the added tension of burgeoning romance and budding sexuality. Again, the younger Kim, through looks and responses, seems to know more about what is going on that the older Bo. However, Bo does initiate discussions about hygiene and what is learned about sex by the older teens. At the end of the scene, Kim is seen sitting in the bottom of the shower splashing in a large quantity of foam resulting from a deliberate over-pouring of shampoo. Without question, the foam is evocative of ejaculate, of orgasm. But it is not a metaphor for an actual orgasm nor is it an indicator of other ongoing activities between the two. The foam represents the failure to complete a sex act, a failure indicating that Kim, though curious and aware of certain things, is not yet ready to engage in sexual activities. Though developing as a sexual being, a key aspect of adolescence, he is for the moment a boy playing in the bath. Bo, though older, nevertheless embodies a non-specific sexuality granting time and space to allow their relationship to develop.
Mop Top Bo. You Are Not Alone (1978)
Other recent examples include the Brazilian film The Way He Looks (Dir. Daniel Ribeiro, 2014) where two adolescents, Leo (Ghilherme Lobo), who is blind, and mop top Gabriel (Fabio Audi) slowly fall in love with one another. In what appears to be a common trope of gay adolescent films, there is a shower scene during which Gabriel experiences some “stirrings” while gazing at Leo’s body. But rather than depict Gabriel as lascivious or voyeuristically staring at the unseeing Leo, he seems not ready to accept his longings. He is embarrassed and conceals his erection even though he will be the only one to see it. The last film I will mention is A Bag of Hammers (dir. Brian Crano, 2011) where two young men, Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig), have aged into adulthood while retaining their adolescent tendencies which include petty crime. Neither dons one of the true mop tops discussed throughout this post, but they each have longer and unkempt hair. When an abandoned boy enters their lives, they manage to form a queer kind of family. One of the final scenes advances several years as they drop their now adult “son” off at college. Yet their sexuality remains non-specific even if their parental bond has proven unshakeable.
Mop Top Gabriel. The Way He Looks (2011)
Who knows? Maybe I’ve lost it. Too many Watershed posts, too many theory books, too many job applications. Maybe I’ve literally picked up on the only examples of what I am calling mop top sexuality to ever exist. Who knows? This is just something I noticed once and noticed again. I would appreciate it if those reading this post would consider it an invitation to keep an eye out for the representations of mop tops and to contribute to the conversation if you find one and are so inclined. If you think I've gone round the bend, please let someone know. I fully admit that my examples are mostly white adolescents and certainly cis-gender, but if I am on to something, this type of representation should cross all spectrums, all walks of life, and all communities with members that have non-specific sexualities (all sorts of non-specifics actually). As a queer person myself, I also believe we need things like this, representations like this. As the queer community is most likely about to be tested in manner and intensity that has not been experienced in a generation, we must remember the tremendous pressure that falls on non-heteronormative adolescents and young adults—pressure that can break, pressure that can kill. Examples like this may offer ways to understand and ways to help this community. If Vito Russo is to be believed (and I do believe him in many regards) then queer representation on film is as old as the medium itself. As such, I find that I am increasingly on the lookout for mop tops on the screen.
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child: or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Duke UP, 2009.