When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, I turned to my thirteen-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter and said: “Weird things happen around bald women.” My children have never been suitably impressed with the story of how I shaved my head at age sixteen. One time, we were at their father’s restaurant and saw a young woman with a fuzzy head just like I used to have between shearings. I grabbed my son’s ear.
I said, “Mommy used to look like that girl.”
He asked, “Was it the ‘90s?”
I said it was.
He said: “Figures.”
I still don’t know what he meant by that.
It was not easy to be a bald girl in 1993. G.I. Jane did not come out until 1997, so I didn’t have to deal with that joke. But not an hour went by without someone calling me Sinéad. Don’t get me wrong: I am a fan of Sinéad O’Connor, even though she walked off the stage after two songs the time I went to see her at the Austin Music Hall. But it got very tedious hearing strangers yell “Hey, Sinéad!” every time I went out in public.
To be clear, I am not that interested in Will and Jada. But I am interested in the violence that erupted around Jada at the Oscars, because it reminds me of the kinds of things that regularly occurred around me when I was bald. A woman without hair is a provocative, disruptive image — to people with a certain set of values, her very existence calls for corrective measures.
My baldness was not the result of a medical condition, unless that is what you call adolescent angst. I was a naïve teenager, not a savvy grownup celebrity. I really didn’t think shaving my head would be that big of a deal. I didn’t consider how not having hair would make it hard to get a job, or what it would be like to navigate public spaces where people questioned my gender. I certainly didn’t intend to launch a flaming arrow into anyone’s carefully constructed, highly combustible gender-based worldview. But that is sort of what happened.
Growing up, I knew there were guardians of gender norms even before I had the vocabulary to name them. When my married mother chose to revert to her maiden name in the ‘70s, bank tellers gave her the most grief. When I shaved my head, it was old women and young men. The women sometimes gave me the benefit of the doubt. When I visited a friend’s family for a weekend and his grandparents were uncommonly nice to me, he later explained that his grandmother thought I had cancer. I got no such courtesy from the young men who let doors close in my face and went out of their way to bump into me on the sidewalk. “Excuse me, SIR,” they would say with a smirk. Some of them creatively added, “Hey, Sinéad!”
For originality, I must acknowledge the unhoused man on the stretch of Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas known as the Drag who inquired of me, from across the street, “What are you, Alfred E. Neuman’s sister? Cuz you sure look like him!” It took me a second to figure out that he was comparing me to the boy on the cover of Mad magazine. My ears stick out. I think they are leprechaunish. More charitable people have called them ‘cute,’ ‘quirky,’ and even ‘fey.’ But this guy was not interested in my Irish heritage. I yelled back: “What are you, a bum? Cuz you sure look like one!”
I got used to hearing whispers behind my back and stunned expressions when I turned around and showed my face. I got confused for a man from behind so often that I tattooed a Venus symbol on the back of my neck. The tattoo came out looking more like an Ankh than a Venus symbol, so maybe it didn’t work. But I think the dudes who shoulder checked me on the sidewalk knew that I wasn’t one of them.
Back then, I spent a lot of time at nightclubs in downtown Austin. On most nights after closing time, I walked west on Sixth Street, past the Driskill Hotel and Congress Avenue, the luminous dome of the Capitol on my right, avoiding eye contact with street people and sloppy drunk frat boys as I made my way to Katz’s Delicatessen. Katz’s was a scene, by which I mean a collision of youth, desire, and a little bit of glamour. It was the best destination for coffee, French fries, and gossip about that night’s drama at the clubs.
On a Sunday night in September 1993, I sat with a group of friends at a round table in the middle of the dining room. It was 3:00 a.m. and the room was buzzing. Waiters tunneled through the crowd with trays of blintzes, eggs, and hash browns for the people who had money to buy breakfast. Our table was cluttered with packs of cigarettes, lighters, ash trays, coffee mugs, red plastic stir sticks, sugar packets, and empty plastic tubs of creamers. I was in my element, high on caffeine and the pleasure of talking with interesting people like Nate, a skinny older guy I’d met on the Drag, and Ethan, a young artist in Goth eye makeup.*
I was flirting with a guy in tight black leather pants when I caught someone’s gaze in my peripheral vision. I looked up to see Ethan, across the table from me, holding his cigarette aloft and arching one perfect eyebrow as he slid his head down and to the right, like a leopard about to pounce. Before I could ask what he was glaring at, I heard yelling from behind me.
“Are you looking at me? You better not be looking at me, you fucking faggot!”
“Excuse me? Excuse me?” said Nate, the only member of our party over the age of twenty-five.
I watched Ethan slowly, deliberately, stamp out his cigarette and start to get to his feet. And then there was this man — a full-grown man in camouflage military fatigues — gliding through the air. In my memory, he hung there for a moment, stationary, cigarette smoke whirling around him, before gliding through the air like a dragonfly skimming the surface of a pond. His closely shaved head, burly shoulders, camouflage legs, and boots passed me by, and then he landed with a crash on top of Ethan, who fell backwards onto his chair, slender legs in black tights kicking, artist’s hands clawing and scratching at the attacker.
The room exploded. A waiter ran to the kicking, hitting, cussing pair and pulled the soldier off my friend. Someone yelled, “Call the cops!” We helped Ethan to his feet. There was a scuffle. Nate tried to help the waiter wrestle the soldier to the ground, but he got away from them, and then he was out the door. Fortunately, Ethan only broke a nail. From the way the soldier limped on his way out the door, it looked like he might have suffered a greater injury.
That night was the only time I ever heard silence at Katz’s, and it was only for a moment. Once the soldier left and the other diners returned to their conversations, I learned how my shaved head had played a part in the assault. “That dude,” I was told, was looking at me “all fucked up and crazy, like you were from Mars!” I had not noticed the soldier staring at the tattoo on the back of my neck, but Ethan had.
I recorded the whole incident in my journal that night in one breathless, caffeine-jittery entry. “I’m going to cry if one more person calls me Sinéad,” I wrote. I felt embarrassed to be so upset when I hadn’t been directly harmed. “But in a way,” I wrote, “I hope that I never become so jaded that violence and stupidity don’t shake me up. It was horrible but it proved my innocence. The image of that horrible, mean, sad, sad man on top of [Ethan] will never leave my mind.” And it hasn’t. I’ve never been able to forget the way the soldier flew across the table, then hobbled out the door. The way he limped into the darkness, he reminded me of a June bug making crazy circles on the porch in the summertime. He was like the June bugs that little boys used to stick in my mother’s blonde braids when she was little. According to my mother, the bugs would tear their own legs off just to wriggle free of her tightly-woven plaits.
I see that soldier everywhere, especially in public education, where we’re still arguing about how to address gender identity in school; what books should be on the shelf; how long a boy’s hair should be. Sometimes, these issues feel like relics from a much older culture war; I can hardly believe that anyone cares so much about “boys looking like boys” and “girls looking like girls,” to paraphrase a conversation I recently had with a Texas school official. But then I remember that soldier, moved to violence by my bald head and my male friend’s eyeliner.
You could argue that, by slapping Chris Rock, Will Smith was defending his wife’s right to go out in public without having to hear dumb jokes about her lack of hair. If the soldier at Katz’s was thoughtful about such things, he might argue that he was also defending something: namely, his perceived right to live in a world where every person is easily identifiable as male or female. Either way, both acts of violence seem predicated on the idea that there is an old way of doing things, and it is the right way and must be protected.
Gender norms are changing. I would argue that they were never as fixed as they might have seemed. But the self-anointed protectors of the old world order are not going down without a fight. If you don’t believe me, ask a bald girl.
*Not their real names.