reading the signs

Le Streak, C’est Chic

The high-contrast drama of Tulsi Gabbard’s signature hairstyle.

Photo: joe raedle/Getty Images
Photo: joe raedle/Getty Images
Photo: joe raedle/Getty Images

I find Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s streak of gray hair uncommonly arresting. A feathery-white swirl sprayed into place on one side of her otherwise deep-brunette mane, it’s a bit of hairstyling genius, illuminating her face while conveying gravitas.

Using gray hair as an adornment is the opposite of far-more-common practices such as getting highlights. Highlights are artificial—designed to simulate youth and leisure, to resemble the look of children’s hair turned golden by the sun. But gray streaks convey the absence of artifice, connoting realness and seriousness of purpose — the courage to show one’s age. To deploy them as embellishment is a contrarian move.

Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, is herself something of a contrarian — or rather, a cipher, with a bundle of mismatched ideas that never gelled into a clear political vision. Back in 2012, when she was elected to Congress, she seemed an obvious breakout star. Young, female, an Iraq war veteran, and the first Hindu member of Congress, Tulsi was a progressive media darling. But over time, Gabbard frustrated progressives and Dems in general. She made common cause with Republicans, joining them to demand that President Obama adopt the incendiary term “radical Islam,” and publicly criticizing his anti-terrorism policies (even comparing him unfavorably to Putin). She expressed some (reserved) support for Syrian dictator Bashar al–Assad. And although she later came to support LGBTQA rights fully, Gabbard also had a troubling early history of homophobic beliefs, in line with those of her activist father, Mike Gabbard — founder of an organization called Stop Promoting Homosexuality. The result was that Tulsi Gabbard largely receded from the national stage.

Given this, many voters know Tulsi Gabbard mainly as the Hawaiian congresswoman with that gray streak in her hair. And in fact, Tulsi’s gray streak dominated her debate performance last Tuesday, drawing far more approval and attention than anything the Congresswoman said onstage. Vox pronounced the streak “very cool” and “nothing if not chic,” pointing out how “modern” it was for women to embrace their gray. The Hollywood Reporter dubbed it Tulsi’s “trademark silver streak.” And the Twittersphere lit up with praise: “That little bit of grey hair Tulsi has is so fucking sexy.“@TulsiGabbard’s gray hair is really hot.” “Elizabeth warren for pres, tulsi gabbards grey hair streak for vp.” “Tulsi Gabbard’s glorious grey streak says, ‘I may be under 40, but I am ready to rule.’”

That last remark points to an underlying complexity in Gabbard’s coiffure. Was Tulsi accepting her age, or was she being disingenuous — playing up her tiny bit of gray to appear more mature, and hence presidential? Was her gray just as inauthentic as another woman’s obviously purchased blond highlights? Sure, it may be bold and anti-ageist for women to sport their gray tresses proudly, but what if the owner of the gray is, like Tulsi, only 38? How much courage does it take to flaunt gray that’s merely an exotic anomaly, a few rogue strands whose incongruity with an unlined face only emphasizes how youthful you are?

Anne Bancroft, Caitlin Moran, Susan Sontag: streakers all. Photo: Getty Images, Shutterstock

Consider the other Democratic women candidates of last week’s debates: Kirstin Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Marianne Williamson, and Elizabeth Warren range in age from 52 to 70. All of them would likely have copious amounts of gray if they went au naturel. But they don’t. Nary a gray hair was visible on any one of them. The pressure on older women — especially high-profile women — to obscure signs of ageing is still too great for any of those debaters to relinquish their carefully tinted locks. And while male politicians are not exempt from the pressures of ageism (Joe Biden looks unusually taut lately), the playing field isn’t even close to level. Can you imagine a 77-year-old woman politician permitting herself Bernie Sanders-style grooming? (For comparison, consider Nancy Pelosi’s impeccably maintained youthful look at 79.)

But Tulsi Gabbard is still comfortably young enough to have fun with gray hair. So young, in fact, that many even doubted its authenticity: “I am totally digging Tulsi Gabbard’s clip-in grey hair extension,” wrote one Twitter observer. “Is Tulsi Gabbard’s grey hair on purpose?” asked another, inviting followers to vote on whether it was dyed or natural.

To answer this pressing question, Gabbard’s sister Vrindavan Gabbard took to Twitter to proclaim the streak natural. “It happened,” she wrote, “after [Tulsi’s] deployment to Iraq. She keeps it as a daily reminder of her experience and her purpose.” The answer should surprise no one who heard Gabbard return repeatedly during the debate to her military experience. As a National Guard major who completed tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, Gabbard was the only one of the ten candidates onstage Tuesday who had any experience as a soldier, and she worked it into most of her responses.

And so, even Tulsi’s hair wound up reminding us of her military credentials. In this way, the streak was not so much a sign of advancing years as it was an attempt — ex post facto — to suggest a badge of honor, like a Silver Star medal “pinned” to her hair (in the absence of a uniform lapel).

Inevitably, Tulsi’s hair reminded viewers of other famous women, real and fictional, known for their gray streaks — a list that ranges from Anne Bancroft (especially as the iconic Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate), Susan Sontag, and Caitlin Moran, through the bride of Frankenstein, Lily Munster, Rogue (the Marvel comics superhero later associated with the X-men), and Cruella De Vil.

What do these women have in common? Well, a desire to showcase their powers. Bancroft’s gray streak in The Graduate lent her a kind of irresistibly feline, mature sexuality as she pursued her much-younger love interest (although in reality she was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman, who played her recent college-grad paramour.)

Susan Sontag used her hair as both intellectual and sexual provocation, a way to signal that she considered her striking beauty part of her personal arsenal, and was unafraid to show its alterations as time passed. “Look at me,” her streak seemed to say, “I’m lush, gorgeous, aging, and brilliant.” (Later though, she created her streak artificially, dyeing the rest of her hair dark and separating out that one strand.) I think Caitlin Moran, arch feminist that she is, employs her artfully dyed streak in homage to Sontag. These writers’ streaks suggest a canny melding of age with allure, a refusal to fade into invisibility or uniformity — of either thought or hair color.

Fictional touch-of-gray characters: The Bride of Frankenstein, Lily Munster, Rogue, and Cruella De Vil in 1996’s live-action 101 Dalmations Photo: Everett Collection, Getty Images, Shutterstock

For the fictional ladies, gray streaks also underscore power, sometimes even menace. As the Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, actress Elsa Lanchester wore a huge wig shot through with two spiraling streaks of gray “lightning,” one on either side, conveying the dangerous electrical current pulsing through her. Her streaks were the analog of her monster-husband’s eerie neck bolts. Lady-vampire Lily Munster (played by Yvonne de Carlo) had similar taste in men and hairstyles, although her white streak was more camp quotation than threat. And reminiscent of Frankenstein’s ‘electrical’ bride, the gray-streaked mutant Rogue can injure anyone who touches her with the high-voltage current produced by her skin.

I find Cruella de Vil the most fascinating pop-culture ‘streaker.’ She’s a Disney-created virago — unusual in that corporate-cartoon pantheon for being neither a virtuous young beauty (à la Cinderella or Snow White) or an outright witch or crone. Instead, Cruella is in between: a rich, fashionable, childless, middle-aged woman whose allure is supposed to feel unnatural and overbearing (the character affectedly calls everyone “Dah-ling,” and was based on Tallulah Bankhead’s famously campy persona). Cruella’s hobbies include skinning puppies for their pelts, incessant smoking, and dominating her weak husband. Her last name, “de Vil,” is of course the word ‘devil’ in aristocratic form. It also contains the word “evil,” and was a nod to Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, whose title character uses the pseudonym “Count De Ville.”

In other words, Cruella is a bit of a vampire — not entirely human, a potentially deadly seducer. Her white-streaked hair is a visible sign of this deviance — this in-between state between human and inhuman, feminine and monstrous.

In-between-ness, liminality, may just be the key to the gray streak. After all, one can only wear this look (naturally) for the brief period between youth and old age, when hair just begins to change color, like autumn leaves. And just as fall foliage makes us appreciate the warmth of waning summer, the streak foretells age while showcasing the last traces of youth. There’s an anticipatory nostalgia to it — a poignant awareness of something precious soon to disappear. To make of this streak a “look,” is to acknowledge the passage of time, while also appearing to press the pause button on ageing.

This is why wearing a streak suggests implicit power — one is exercising some (at least visual) control over mortality. Women are perceived to be creatures of transformation, in general far more than are men. And the transformations we associate with women’s lives (menarche, motherhood, menopause) seem so much more pronounced and demarcated than the various life stages that men pass through as they age. What’s more, women are encouraged to transform ourselves culturally — through dress and adornment — more elaborately, too. There is an implicit, theatrical power, a seductiveness, in being able to embrace — and physically demonstrate — such diverse stages of life and appearance.

A single gray streak on a woman’s head confirms the dramatic power of change. It’s a snapshot of physical transition. This is why the streak appears in so many guises on powerful women — both real and imaginary, benign and villainous. It’s a reminder of the inherent and fascinating changeability that we ascribe to women.

Sexism and ageism conspire to make the passage to old age the hardest transformation for many women, which is why female politicians (in America) seem still to shun gray hair. This is why only the youngest female candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, dared let her gray-streak flag fly.
Perhaps, though, as women gain more cultural authority, perhaps if one becomes the president (!), gray streaks will abound everywhere. A powerful new transformation to celebrate.

Le Streak, C’est Chic