Once upon a time, David Bowie was a 17-year-old long-haired “activist.” This fantastic footage from Bowie’s possibly first-ever TV interview talking about the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men is priceless. Back in 1964, long hair on men was still an unacceptable style choice, but scissor eschewing gents like David “Davey” Jones, as Bowie was once known, and of course the most famous rabble-rousing mop heads, the Beatles, set out to change that.
“I think we’re all fairly tolerant,” Bowie says in the interview with Cliff Michelmore on BBC Tonight. “But for the last two years we’ve had comments like ‘Darling!’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now.” Cat callers harassed the long-hairs long enough, and David Bowie and his other shaggy friends had something to say about it.
“I think we all like long hair,” says Bowie, “And we don’t see why other people should persecute us because of this.”
It may have been a bit tongue in cheek and maybe the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men sounds a little much, but when you think about it, there’s some real and serious stuff going on here. For one, men were basically being called derogatory names because they were being more feminine with their choices in haircuts and fashion. The way American culture and society saw it at the time, by being more feminine, these chaps were weak and less deserved of respect. This, of course, not surprising when women were being seen the same way.
But if we know anything about David Bowie and his long, strange career, we’ve seen this fantastic performer morph into characters that bend all the rules and transcend any gender boundaries as well as some earthly ones, too. Was he a feminist, too?
Not exactly. This interview from 2000, conducted by his wife and fashion icon Iman, for BUST Magazine gives us a little insight on what he thinks of feminism, or any isms, and why he’s not a feminist (or any -ist).
What does the word ‘feminism’ mean to you?
Not too much anymore, I’m afraid. I’ve always had immense problems with “movements” or indeed, anything that can be put in quotes. Whatever the current manifesto, the personal definition is always subjective, which is, at the core, the greater reality. In general, I suppose, I find it intensely offensive to see women treated as chattel or appendages. I cannot think of a situation where a woman could not do an equal if not better job than a man. Possibly, a situation requiring only brute strength may be the exception, but here again, a woman would be smart enough to organize the right person for the job. In that singular case, probably a man.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
No. I’m stubbornly a nothing-ist. ists and isms irk me. It’s a British trait, I fear. We have a traditionally ambivalent outlook on social movements of any kind. But as with all ambivalence it has produced a kind of schizoid overview. A generous acceptance of eccentricity and, at times, an overbearing need to not stand out as being different. A complete understanding of the individual to command his or her own freedom yet a crushing failure to produce a jolly good revolution, even with Tom Paine at the helm.
Maybe David Bowie wasn’t/isn’t a self-proclaimed feminist, but his work has inspired generations to fight for gender equality and express their eccentricities without fear of persecution. It’s just common sense.