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A Cultural History of ‘TERF Bangs,’ Beauty’s Most Puzzling Term

TERF bangs.
Lord Farquaad, Amelie, and Emma Watson.

During one sweltering week in July, Pikachu — as in, the Pokémon — made the understandable yet unfortunate decision to chop off some of his bushy pixelated hair into blunt baby bangs. The internet was quick to condemn his choice. Some Pokémon fans unkindly characterized him as someone who “shops at Whole Foods,” while others expressed disappointment in no longer finding the anime character attractive (a little weird!). But out of the surreal outrage arose one resonant take, one that inspired everything from Tumblr posts to dedicated Twitter accounts: Pikachu, either unintentionally or deliberately, got freaking TERF bangs.

At some point in the past half-decade, short, chunky bangs have become associated with TERFs, an acronym that stands for “trans-exclusive radical feminists” and is used to describe feminists (typically second-wave) who argue that trans women aren’t “real” women. TERFS also like to insist that TERF is a slur, although others would say it merely sums up their world view. It’s unclear whether self-proclaimed feminists who don’t respect others’ gender identities are more likely to sport short bangs, but the concept of “TERF bangs” has nonetheless become so deeply embedded in certain parts of the internet’s consciousness that when Emma Watson cut her fringe short, she inspired at least one mournful “Hermione got TERF bangs” tweet.

Some of the most iconic wearers of TERF bangs had them long before the term existed, such as René Descartes, Joan of Arc, Amelie, Spock, and style icon Lord Farquaad. Most of these people, to common knowledge, were not gender essentialists. According to multiple sources, the term TERF has only been in common usage for around a decade; one of the earliest published usages of the word was in 2008. It took another five or so years for people on Tumblr to begin referring to the above-the-eyebrow crop as “TERF bangs.” On November 21, 2015, Twitter saw its first mention of the phrase — which was, fittingly, “What are terf bangs?”

Ivy Augusta Smith, who was active on Tumblr from 2009 to 2015, told the Cut that she remembers hearing the term around 2014.“It was around the end of my Tumblr usage, 2014 if I had to guess, that I became aware of the term,” she said.

Now it’s impossible to sport the hairstyle without facing the reality that some people, often subconsciously, will look at you and instantly think: TERF bangs. Earlier this year, Watson’s aforementioned decision to crop her fringe inspired the article, “Emma Watson’s baby bangs provoke fierce online debate.” Even Beyoncé, who rarely does wrong, once wore the super-short bangs and inspired related tweets. And as evidenced by Pikachu, you don’t need to be either human or real to face criticism for trying out the hairstyle.

The source of this association has troubled trans-exclusionary radical feminists for years, some of whom have taken to dark corners of the internet to debate the subject with others of their kind. In the opinion of Tumblr user antiewanda, who runs a blog called “Not Your Safe Space,” the phrase and concept was created by “libfem tumblrinas” who are now “afraid of having or expressing a like for cropped bangs.”

But as a handful of both transphobes and feminists who advocate for trans rights have independently noted, while the bangs may be synonymous with gender-essentialist feminists, not many TERFs actually have super-short bangs. It’s not the same case as, say, the Hitler haircut that proud fascists wear. If one was going to generalize, one might even say the bangs are more popular among 20-something cisgender white women who likely have generational wealth, a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts college, and the conviction that they’re more socially aware than they actually are. Taking that into consideration, it could be argued that the bangs are foremost associated with believing one’s politics are more radical than they actually are — which is a quality that also applies to TERFs. Of course, it can be hard to read politics into a person’s decision to get bangs — maybe they’re trying to make a radical statement, or maybe they’re just trying to make their forehead look taller.

But some people believe the association to be accurate. Salem Xander, who once was in a short-lived punk band named trf.bngz, told the Cut that she first heard the phrase in 2016 on “trans Twitter,” where she recalls entering “a world of memes and shitposts about terf bangs and rightfully making fun of cis people.” To make her argument, she brought up the case of 2015-era Grimes.

“In 2015, the last year Grimes had TERF bangs, she had this to say about SOPHIE, a trans woman who produces next-level pop music: ‘It’s really fucked up to call yourself SOPHIE and pretend you’re a girl when you’re a male producer [and] there are so few female producers … I think it’s really good music. I probably shouldn’t have said that,’” Xander wrote the Cut in an email. “That’s so TERF-y! But expected. She got rid of the TERF bangs shortly after and has since made a pact with Elon Musk to be blasted off into space.” (Grimes says she made this statement three years before SOPHIE came out, and she claims to have apologized “profusely” since.)

Jason Frazier, who once tweeted that “terf bangs is the funniest term” to describe someone, also believes there to be some truth in the term.

“I feel like it can all stem from the ‘pussy power’ ideology that gets passed around a lot amongst white feminists as the end-all be-all saying to represent feminism,” he told the Cut. “Which, as you can probably tell, is obviously trans-exclusionary.”

Accurate or not, hairstylists aren’t fans of the phrase. Sean Flynn, who works at New York City’s Fringe salon, told the Cut that he has certainly given many people what would be considered “TERF bangs,” but that he’s never heard of the phrase — one that he finds to be “slightly problematic.”

“Short bangs kind of come out of a reactionary or revolutionary standpoint, and if you look back in history, from Joan of Arc to Louise Brooks in the 1920s to Betty Page and the sexuality she represented to women with Chelsea cuts, bangs have always represented physical defiance,” he told the Cut. “But when you qualify them as TERF bangs, I think that creates a problem because it’ll frighten people from getting short bangs.”

In his many years as a stylist, he’s never before been explicitly asked to cut TERF bangs, which isn’t all that surprising, given it’s hard to imagine someone proudly proclaiming such a desire. And anyway, in his opinion, “people should express themselves however the hell they want.”

Or, as Xander argues, perhaps the fate of TERF bangs is best left up to trans women. “As a trans girl,” she said, “I kinda really love the idea of reclaiming them.”

When Did ‘TERF Bangs’ Become a Thing?