Bearded Ladies Live!
As the public's perception of human sexuality shifted from celebration into sin, the meaning of the Bearded Lady's marked androgyny would change, too: from reverence into scorn, to... something else.
Anyone willing to inquire about the scientific "irrationality" of a woman with facial hair will find that while cases are intermittent, they are by no means non-existent, nor inexplicable. Bearded women, and I do mean women with the ability to grow a full beard, are not freaks of nature even if they are out of the ordinary. They have existed for centuries.
And they still exist today as a matter of fact. Jennifer Miller, for instance, is both the founder of the New York-based Circus Amok as well as one of its primary performers in what she calls "transgressive art". She works under the name, "Zenophobia: Woman with a Beard", and she juggles, too.
Yet I'm willing to guess that the audience of Circus Amok marvels at Ms. Miller not for her talent with flying objects�but for her beard. They are there to see the "Bearded Lady", as in the old-fashioned Americana "freak show" character preserved in faded photos from Coney Island, and the persona synonymous with references to P.T. Barnum. Though in truth, the term, "Bearded Lady" should not be thought of in such a limited fashion. As I said before, such women have existed for centuries.
Still, it's easiest to imagine her in the sideshow, because the Bearded Lady's beard makes her an attraction. Which means the Bearded Lady is a spectacle. And, as has been proven in both past and present, she is such a spectacle that people will pay for the privilege of looking at her.
Which is strange, because the Bearded Lady has always been just a woman with a beard. Ms. Miller is just a 'Woman with a Beard'. Even in the sideshow setting, it is difficult to find a Bearded Lady double-billed as a fire breather, or as a cannibal wild woman found somewhere in the steppes of Russia. Nay, the Bearded Lady has never needed any such sensationalism to sell her act.
So it seems women with facial hair need very little help in garnering attention, inside or outside of the circus arena. No smoke, no mirrors; not even juggling is needed really, though I imagine that talent does not hurt. For sure, every Bearded Lady, throughout history has needed nothing else but the very presence of her own androgyny. Or rather, the audience around the Bearded Lady has required nothing more of her than the challenging image of her own frank sexual ambiguity.
An Ancient History of the Bearded Lady Told in a Few Follicles
In ancient Egypt queens donned strap-on beards called postiches, fashioned from leather and dotted in gold while celebrating powerful events such as the flooding of the Nile. Norse pagans worshipped the Earth goddess Friga, who was repeatedly portrayed as a woman with a beard. In fact many of the most well-known pagan deities, such as Aphrodite or Venus, names now synonymous with femininity, were worshiped as having beards once; usually in rituals that involved fake facial hair worn by the women who worshipped them.
These Bearded Ladies were Goddesses; complete, supernatural women who rose above the boundaries of our mere human existence. And their androgyny was a symbol of their own spirituality. The beard symbolized the fact that because of her divine status, Friga was able to take on both feminine and masculine characteristics at the same time.
Subsequently, what this reveals about the rest of us humans is that no matter the era, or the culture, androgyny can captivate us. After all, these rituals, the ones that involved sexually ambiguous costumes, were reserved for very significant celebrations. The symbolism of a woman's face with such significant facial hair hits onto a very deep, primal idea: that is, the sexual potency of being endowed with both sexes. Such a person might be able to procreate with men, with women, and even... with themselves.
The ancient pagans equated this projected hermaphroditic quality to godliness. Which marked the Bearded Lady as an "Other", an unusual woman, separate from society. And as the public's perception of human sexuality shifted from celebration into sin, the meaning of her marked androgyny would change, too: from reverence into scorn.
Double, Double Toil and Trouble
There are three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth. They are all women and they all have facial hair, though this time, no one is worshiping them. Banquo, who stumbles across them in Act I, is completely startled by their hairy appearance: "You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so," he says.
For as the modern world's understanding of religion, and consequently sex, shifted, so too did its view of influential androgynous women. The paradigm shift from paganism to patriarchy, and its subsequent sexual scrutiny, made it quite difficult for the gender-bending goddesses of old to keep their day jobs. And "witches" � the spell casting and unruly, almost always female characters � really became the new word for female pagans.
This shift in her personification points to an increased focus on the physicality of the Bearded Lady, as well. The spiritualism associated to her androgyny was the first to be forgotten, and eventually even her witch-like character lost popularity, making the Bearded Lady less of a superstitious mythmaker, and more of a curious anomaly of the human experience. In other words, people were still seeing the beard as unusual, but they were no longer interpreting its presence as supernatural. Which consequently, would help usher in the age of the sideshow.
Female Esau or, the Wooly Child
P.T. Barnum began his career with the traveling "Museum, Menagerie and Circus" in the 1870s, one of many in a new movement of entertaining sideshows whose popularity lasted through the middle of the twentieth century. These carnival spectacles were packed with 'odd' attractions of exaggerated military midgets (like "General" Tom Thumb) and utterly false magical "wild men" (like Zip the Missing Link who was really a man from New Jersey named William Henry Johnson).
As could be expected, many of the bearded women in these touring shows led less than ideal lives; they endured meager conditions for a questionable job that essentially required a life of servitude. Still, some of them did make a fair living out of the gig; a few even became relative celebrities. Annie Jones, for instance, worked with P.T. Barnum from childhood straight through her adult years, making her one of the most popular Bearded Lady's of the late 1800s.
The sideshow then, seemed to sanitize the meaning of the Bearded Lady. And in turn, it provided her a safe middle ground between the two previous extremes of deity and demon: no longer a goddess but still a spectacle, not quite a monster but still an outcast. At the same time, this de-mystification boiled the Bearded Lady down to the essence of her magnetism: as a sexually suggestive androgyne whose appearance is in many ways a reflection onto our own sexually ambiguous state. In this state, what's considered to be erotic is subject to taste and the sexual rolls between men and women are at the very least blurry, if not completely relative. There's a sense of free-fall in human sexuality that makes the Bearded Lady � a woman who is a man who is both effeminate and masculine � the perfect analogue to our own sexual subjectivity.
So Ms. Miller could be the greatest juggler in the world but she needn't juggle to draw a crowd at Circus Amok. She need only display herself, devoid of inherent magic, devoid of superstition, and simply resplendent, sitting there, with her full beard. While the audience, as it has done for centuries, will stare entranced, considering... as if gazing into a convoluted mirror.
For more on the subject of facial hair, see Allan Peterkin's One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair (Arsenal Pulp Press, December 2001)