Category Archives: Civil rights & social movements since 1945 (HL)

“Hair” shows how subversive the Sixties counterculture was

Milos Forman’s 1979 film version of Hair got no love from Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who wrote the script of the original Broadway play,  Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. The movie scraps the play’s non-narrative concept and re-writes several major characters, but it does capture vividly the multiple ways in which the counterculture of the Sixties subverted the conventional values of American culture and society.

Instead of sexual exclusivity and the sacredness of marriage, for example, we see Jeannie wondering whether Woof or Lafayette/Hud is the father of her unborn child. Furthermore, she never considers marriage to either of them—but offers to marry Claude to help him escape being drafted into the army. The judgment of Lafayette’s hometown girlfriend (and mother of his child) expresses the majority view succinctly: “I think you’re crazy!” she tells Jeannie.

And of course, Woof is white while Lafayette/Hud is black, but contrary to the racist conventions of middle-class America, this does not faze Jeannie or either of her two lovers. Instead of racial divisions and conflict, we see multi-racial, multi-ethnic groups of hippies dancing together ecstatically in Central Park.

Conventional attitudes and stereotypes about race and sex are turned on their heads even further, and then sent spinning, in the scene featuring the medley of two songs, “Black Boys” and “White Boys.” First, both songs feature men, not women, as objects of sexual desire, reversing the cultural norm. Then, a group of white girls singing of their attraction to black boys both exposes and undercuts perhaps the most emotionally charged myth of American racism: the idea that black males are sexual predators out to rape white women. This myth is, of course, the opposite of the historical reality, in which thousands of African-American women have been raped, prostituted, and impregnated by white men for centuries, beginning in the earliest days of slavery.

As the audience is trying to process the shock of hearing white girls openly lusting after black men, they are shocked again when a chorus of white men join in: inter-racial lust suddenly becomes inter-racial homosexual lust! When the medley moves into “White Boys,” these convention-busting provocations are racially reversed: a group of black girls celebrates the sexiness of white boys, soon to be joined by a group of black men also celebrating the sexiness of white boys.

These provocations are compounded by the identities of the black men lusting after white boys, and the white men lusting after black boys: all of them are U.S. Army officers! To admit that some men in the U.S. military were gay remained taboo well into the 21st century, and in the 1960s, gay men were stereotyped as sissies. Two choruses of army officers singing enthusiastically of homosexual love not only violates the taboo by suggesting that the U.S. military might be full of gay men—it also plays subtly to the stereotype by suggesting that the U.S. military was not quite as “manly” as patriotic Americans imagined.

Probably the least shocking of the film’s provocations against convention is its anti-war stance. The Vietnam War caused fierce debate and bitter, often violent conflicts among Americans. The claims that the war was immoral and illegal, the charges that it was part of a long history of American racism and imperialism (“the draft is white people sending black people to make war on the yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people”), the angry retorts that anti-war protestors were unpatriotic and un-American—all of this was familiar to audiences of the time. The sly suggestion that the U.S. military was filled with gay men, however, would have been more shocking, along with the suggestion that many U.S. soldiers were using illegal drugs.

In Hair, drug-use is celebrated as enthusiastically as sexual liberation and opposition to the war. Drugs are associated with anti-social behaviour in general, but especially with an aversion to work. The hippies in the film are unemployed, as far as we can tell. We presume that, like George Berger, most of them come from middle-class or working-class families. Perhaps, like Berger, they borrow money from their parents, or beg spare change on the streets. Whatever they do to feed themselves, it does not involve getting up every day and going to a job. So much for the Protestant work ethic, honoured in American mythology as the source of the nation’s success and prosperity. Within hours of arriving in New York City and meeting Berger and his friends in Central Park, the Oklahoma cowboy Claude Bukowski smokes hashish and drops acid, leading him into wildly hallucinogenic visions. Contrary to expectations, however, he emerges from these novel experiences pretty much unscathed and unchanged. He does not “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” as Timothy Leary famously advised young people to do. He does not become an addict. Instead, he proceeds the next morning, as planned, to enlist in the army.

At this point the film’s omissions start to pile up. After puncturing the illusions of middle-class Americans about their country, it spins its own mythologies about the counterculture. Work, it turns out, is not simply what squares do because they are so square; it is an essential and (if well managed) positive part of life. Bumming money from your parents or from strangers on the street, selling drugs, and petty crime turn out to be unfortunate life choices. Similarly, “sexual liberation,”  however joyously depicted in the film, created a tsunami of sexually-transmitted disease that reached a horrific peak in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and remains with us today. (To be sure, STDs were with us long before the Sixties, but changing attitudes and the invention of birth-control pills spread them from the margins of society to the mainstream.) And drug use, time has shown, is not the interesting, harmless experience of Claude Bukowski; it is a plague of addiction, crime, homelessness, damaged lives, and overdose deaths.

So, the counterculture can be critiqued, too, and should be. Nevertheless, Hair raises some powerful questions about middle-class culture in America. Some of its questions—Why do we have to work? Why can’t we just sit around taking drugs and listening to music?—feel pretty dated. Others, however, continue to resonate. Why are looks and clothes so important? What’s with all the racism? And sexism? Why are so many people still uptight about who is attracted to whom? How the heck are we supposed to navigate the confusing waters of sex, love, romance, marriage, and parenting? And why have so many of America’s wars since 1945 involved killing brown-skinned people in poor countries? For its wonderful dance and music, and for raising these questions so memorably, Hair remains a notable work of art.