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There’s a scene in the new comic book movie Doctor Strange in which the film’s hero, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, starts shaving his wild, unruly beard. It’s Strange’s obvious turning point: He's gone from skilled but cynical surgeon to emotionally broken car accident victim to still-somewhat-arrogant-but-marginally-more-open student of the mystical arts. His outlook is on the upswing. You sense this in every stroke of his razor blade — he begins at the ears and works inwards, but he puts his razor down before reaching his mouth and chin. A goatee survives. Excuse me?
The goatee is an oft-maligned facial hair style. It has the power to turn the why-is-he-hot Cumberbatch into he’s-not-hot Cumberbatch. And yet the goatee is associated with enough superheroes and villains that they could all be grouped together, Avengers-style, in a superhero team movie: Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Green Arrow, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul, Aladdin's Jafar, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Evil Spock, and, for a brief time, Brad Pitt. The goatee has become this weird symbol of power, and yet there are few real world examples we can point to except for Kanye West. Which, of course.
Fred Holmes, senior barber (and a comic book junkie himself) at Otis & Finn, says that beards and goatees are “facial power plays, that outward symbol of masculinity,” he explains. But why a goatee and not literally any other facial hair style? The roots of the goatee’s power date as far back as Dark Ages, when Dante’s Inferno associated the goatee with Satan. So there is a very logical reason for it to be connected to power and villainy. Holmes also points to the goatee’s more ornate nature and asks us to consider something like The Hunger Games. Almost all of the movie’s evil bourgeois is depicted with a carefully groomed beard. The act of careful grooming is what separates these heroes and villains from the common man. And although the goatee is trending down in popularity, Holmes says, he still notices shared qualities among people who do request it: “reserved,” “not as outwardly friendly,” “punctual,” “purposeful,” or, on the wrong person, “40-year-old virgin”-esque. And he’s not talking about the movie.
That’s why it takes a certain sort of comic book star to pull off the goatee. Polygon’s entertainment editor Susana Polo explains that, in general, facial hair isn’t all that common in comic books because most were created during a time when having it “was a sign of being a dirty hippie or a communist.” Doctor Strange and Iron Man were both created during the ‘60s and their goatees are extremely purposeful. “Strange was in a lot of ways explicitly created as a counter culture character,” Polo explains. His goatee signaled that he was a comic book hero for the hippie set — you can see this not only in the trippy and beautiful original comic book drawings, but also in the content. “All that ‘expand your mind’ stuff,” Polo explains. It’s no wonder the movie Doctor Strange focuses on an alternate dimensions and universes. “The creative team has always denied that [Strange’s] stories were written under the influence but they were VERY popular with *ahem* a certain set,” Polo says.
And if you doubt that the symbolic heft of the goatee remains 50 years later, look no further than this Norelco razor set that comes with a free ticket to see Doctor Strange. Norelco did not return our request for comment.
Strange’s status as a counterculture figure and his flirtation with the dark side is also key to understanding his facial hair. The goatee typically lands on the face of characters who aren’t 100 percent heroic or noble, like a Superman. Think Robert Downey Jr.’s arrogant prick Iron Man as a great example of this. The goatee symbolizes “a brush with darkness or that other side,” explains Holmes. And for that we can thank Star Trek, which transformed Spock into Evil Spock in its alternate reality episode by throwing a goatee on him. “Star Trek pretty solidly cemented the goatee as the facial hair of the Alternate Evil Universe,” Polo says. Even Breaking Bad had Walter White grow the dorky mustache he started the series with into a goatee by series end to add a physical element to his transformation to Heisenberg.
Other reasons for the goatee are based more in reality. “The beard is often used as a way to represent a character's slide into a period of emotional darkness, or moral grayness, or relative savagery — like if they've just been through a big life event,” Polo says. Holmes says this rings true among his real world customers, too. “You see it with depression, sometimes people just don't feel like doing anything. You see people when they get out of rehab, the first thing they do is come to the barber shop. He gets cleaned up and feels better and he feels renewed.” Even in less dramatic instances, shaving is representative of major life changes. “A lot of men go through that at one point in their life or another,” Holmes says. “Even if it's their first time shaving, they're entering adulthood. It stands for so much.”
This makes it an easy trope for comic book and the movies they spawn. Shaving a beard down into a goatee is a way to capture two common narratives — the character just underwent a dramatic change and they’ve emerged a superhero or villain, but not the kind you’ve come to expect — in one swipe of a razor.