The Mullet: Business in the front, anti-establishment in the back?

Mullets, skullets, (shaved-mullets) and chillets, (chill-mullets). No, not the fish -the hairstyle with many guises, and an arguably complex meaning.

WORDS Sophia Ball
IMAGES Header image courtesy of Colourfullness of Proton

No longer a harbinger of bad taste in the same way as the 90s, there has been a second wave of popularisation of the mullet – and it’s unlikely you will see your grandparents donning the divisive style. Let’s be realistic, it’s both ridiculous and fantastic: it makes you look twice, and the play on taste and identity is exactly what makes it so polarising. Thinking of this, while armed with my understanding of the psychology involved in identity, I asked my good friend about their choice and why they’ve opted for the particular ‘do.

Slightly annoyed, I got a simple answer, “Well, it’s fucking funny isn’t it”. 

Well, yes, it is funny. But not just funny. My friend is counter-culture in a lot of ways: he is a self-proclaimed anarchist, radical left with his opinions, works in festivals and events, and relentlessly playful with his fashion taste. Arguably, his evocative hairstyle communicates all of these things, and it’s a deliberate choice given the current political climate. Personally, I think he wears it as a sort of, ‘fuck you’. Regardless of his personal psyche, to understand the choice on a conceptual level, it’s crucial to look at the messy intersection of the history, politics and group processes this hairdo has grown from. 

With a shock of orange, the ‘business in the front, party in the back’ haircut was first promoted by David Bowie in 1972 during the rise of glam rock, and then popularised throughout the 80s with singers such as James Hetfield and Cher adorning the style. Everybody had the hairdo, and it was a way to express being on-trend, style-conscious and having a fun-loving personality. At the end of the 80s, it was adopted by the LGBT community and the identity of the mullet became inextricably linked to lesbian culture. This can be seen in the documentary ‘American Mullet’ where people interviewed with the style stated it was a signifier of their sexuality, and a way to play with gender expression. In the 90s, the hairstyle became a token of poor taste, ‘white trash’ and backwardness. It’s pretty unclear what caused this decline in popularity. In one interview when asked about mullets, a man describes the stereotype associated as ‘southern idiot’. 

In a true Gen Z manner – and debatably through the appropriation of working-class style – the modern day mullet places stereotypes on their head, blurring the lines between sincere and satirical. It’s been seen on runways, a delicate version was donned by Zendaya, and it is swiftly creeping into street style. Although it is becoming popular, this cut is not for everyone. In part, this may be due to its links with counter culture such as skateboarding, rock-and-roll, and the LGBT community. It’s worn by young people with ideas. It’s powerful, it’s strong, it’s daring, and a clear indicator of ‘I don’t think like you do’. In essence, regardless of background or experiences – there is something in the spirit of the mullet that is decidedly punk. 

It’s not surprising to consider the resurgence of this bombastic hairstyle when comparing the socio-political mood of Britain the last time this controversial hairdo’s popularity peaked in the 1980’s.

It’s not surprising to consider the resurgence of this bombastic hairstyle when comparing the socio-political mood of Britain the last time this controversial hairdo’s popularity peaked in the 1980’s.  From my own experience of growing up in austerity Britain, and talking to my mum about being a young person during the punk era of the 80s, the landscape is somewhat similar – both then and now, the UK suffered from unprecedented recessions, battled the austerity measures of Conservative governments, and existential dread at the unknown state of potentially catastrophic global events – from US elections on democracy to Nuclear war scares and the increasingly urgent climate crisis. In turn, this caused young people to feel unheard and disenfranchised, leading to the heavy counter culture of punk. Unsurprisingly, this sentiment isn’t just speculation, and is actually backed up by recent political science. 

Studies have shown that young people are overall more frustrated than their older counterparts with government, and that with the advent of austerity measures throughout Europe, disillusion has increased. Funnily enough, this rise in anti-government sentiment coincides with the increase in those donning the mighty mullet. In reality, it’s not a cause and effect relationship – but it might be a factor. 

Furthermore, since everything humans do is psychological (yes, even hairstyle choice) the reasoning governing the mullet can be explained using group processes – namely, ‘Social Identity Theory’.  First coined by Tajfel in 1978, the theory explains how the groups we belong to such as being a woman, wrestling fan, or even donning a mullet, help us to understand ourselves in the social world, and how we are similar (or not) to other groups. 

Social groups generally have a set of shared behaviours, values and beliefs that are most aptly described as ‘norms’. Part of ‘who we are’ or our ‘identity’ is derived from the social groups we belong to and their norms. Arguably, having a mullet is a clear signifier of group membership and could be an example of a group norm. If so, the mullet would be attached to behaviours, values and beliefs. However, what exactly the mullet represents is just as messy and confusing as my friend’s home haircut. 

The crux of Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory rests on something called ‘positive distinctiveness’ – we’re motivated to see ourselves, and our social group, as different to other groups, and in a way that bolsters our self-esteem, or ‘social identity’. Perhaps a more accurate representation of the mullet would be as a tool for social distinctiveness – it’s an easy way to show that you are different from the majority group. This may be particularly pertinent considering how right-wing views have steadily grown over the last 10 years in the UK, and are slowly becoming ‘the norm’. 

Perhaps the most interesting: during times such as during civil unrest, scarcity of resources or political upheaval, we’re motivated to enhance differences with our own group and others. This makes us feel safe, and reduces feelings of uncertainty. We’ve witnessed huge cuts to youth, hospital, policing, and school funding, coalescing as a reduced number of opportunities for young people. This, paired with Brexit and COVID-19 may mean that people are turning to the mullet in order to enhance group differences. In essence (ridiculous as it might sound) the mullet may be a tool for positive differentiation in comparison to the majority group. 

Therefore, wearing a mullet can be seen as the deliberate choice of a style that subverts the status quo. Basically, when everything is shit, be different to it. An easy way to exercise this distinction to wider society, is through how you look. And even easier – get your mate to cut your hair for you. 

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