July 03, 2017
Neckbeard. The epithet connotes a number of things about a person: that they are socially inept, immature, that they have particularly uncool hobbies and interests. In the current political context the word also suggests a right or alt-right (read: neo-fascist) leaning, too. Where did this label come from, and how did it come to represent all these things?
The first person of any significance to don the neckbeard was Emperor Nero. Nero's legacy is as one of the most compulsive and tyrannical rulers in Ancient Rome's history. The most notorious of his exploits is the probably apocryphal story of Nero (who fancied himself a great artist) playing his harp whilst the Great Fire of Rome raged on outside the palace walls. Rumours spread that he was responsible for the fire, having conspired to make way for a palace complex he later built atop the ruins. Perhaps most relevant to his place in the neckbeard tradition is his relation with his mother, Aggripina the Younger. Aggripina was by all accounts a ruthless schemer. The accusation goes that she poisoned Nero's predecessor Claudius in order to install her son as Emperor, so that she could easily exercise her own power through him.
In 59AD, after years of "ruling" under his mother's influence, Nero allegedly killed Aggripina. What are we to make of this ur-neckbeard's fate as a frustrated young man reigning from his mother's metaphorical basement? The history that Tacitus passes down to us certainly cautions us on the dangers inherent in the ascension of the brat class. It also tells us much about how a neckbearded man regards his own role in a world that frustrates him.
In the years after his matricide, his rule fell into decline until he finally fell victim to a revolt. Fleeing from a conspiracy, Nero hoped to end his time in a noble suicide. However he could not pluck up the courage to take his own life. Pacing back and forth in front of the grave he had his servants dig for him, he muttered over and over again: "what an artist dies in me?"
For many centuries the history books fall silent on the topic of those to grow beards on their necks. Then all at once in Ulysses S. Grant's Reconstruction America, the neckbeard exploded back onto the scene asa part of two very different social movements.
Horace Greeley was born in 1811 into immediate difficulty. For the first twenty minutes of his life the newborn Greeley was unable to breathe. His contemporaries later in life sometimes blamed his eccentricities on this early setback; his biographers speculate he may have developed Asperger's syndrome as a result of oxygen deprivation.
Greeley rose to prominence as editor of the New-York Tribune in the Civil War period. In an interesting sidebar, Greeley's Tribune employed one Karl Marx as its London correspondent who filed hundreds of articles about European current affairs over the next decade, with the assistance of one Friedrich Engels.
By the outbreak of of the war in 1861 Greeley has served a stunningly unsuccessful term in Congress during which he tried to rename the United States "Columbia", to ban alcohol on Navy ships, and to raise trade tariffs. By this time Greeley had also grown a distinctive neckbeard. The rudimentary photographic techniques of the time fail to capture the full effect of Greeley's neck adornment but an 1872 etching show a strange overflow of long white hair rolling over his shirt collar. Looking somewhat like an uncanny fur collar or ruff, Greeley's neckbeard was distinct from Nero's ardently adolescent shagginess, but was all the stranger.
In that same year 1872, Horace Greeley launched a campaign to be elected president. His campaign attempted to exploit a split in the Republican Party by running against the Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant (a truly great name that bears no abridging) with extra support from the Democrats (who were the populist, pro-slavery bad guys at the time, mind). The election was a landslide victory for the incumbent Ulysses S. Grant. Days after Election Day, before the electoral college votes were event counted, Greeley died. This makes Horace Greeley the only presidential candidate to die during the election process. His funeral was well attended by friends, family, the president himself, and of course his furry companion.
Around the same time, far from the high drama of Washington intrigue, another chapter in the history of the neckbeard was taking shape. In the 1860s and 70s, a reformation movement was unfolding in the Amish Christian community. This notorious Luddite sect of German-speaking Christians was experiencing a muted set of ideological and religious reformation in conferences across the then distant north-west territories of the United States. Out of that movement emerged the Amish Mennonites who proliferated and who are large responsible for the popular American impression of the Amish today.
The reason I bring up the Amish Mennonites is the practice amongst Amish men of stopping shaving whatsoever once they marry, allowing all their facial hair to grow naturally. What results is a beard who's growth is not confined to the face, dropping off after – thus accentuating – the jawline. Instead many Amish Mennonite beards spread down the neck in what is sometimes dubbed the "neard".
Somewhat ironically in light of the later connotations of the "neckbeard", the Amish neckbeard signifies a male's fully qualified graduation into manhood and his ability to secure a mate in a strictly patriarchal social context. Also somewhat ironic when compared to the contemporary neckbeard is the Amish aversion to technology given the modern neckbeard's assumed digital native status and preference for online social interaction at the expense of physical social interaction. One parallel is worth remarking on though: the Amish community's outsider status with reference to mainstream American culture.
In the early 2000s, confused young men on online forums began asking their peers whether or not it was advisable to grow a beard on the neck. By 2003 discussions on forums yielded judgements about the practice that it should be left to the Amish, the Hassidic Jews (some of whom have a similar practice of refraining from any shaving once in manhood), hillbillies, or "crazed mass murderers". Given these attitudes, how has a significant enough groups of people contravened these attitudes and donned the neckbeard that the look has developed its own cultural tropes?
Today it is generally easiest to define the neckbeard trope by common attributes. In terms of appearance (besides the essential neck hair), there's acne or similar skin malady, obesity, attire including a fedora or trilby (sometimes causing the fedora as a descriptor in a similar way to neckbeard), cargo pants, a low ponytail, a meme t-shirt or t-shirt bearing some other overtly "internet" iconography. In terms of taste, the neckbeard is expected to like prog-rock (typically, the band Rush), heavy metal, Joss Whedon's creative output, i.e. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Serenity, comic books (see The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy for a classic pop culture depiction), Japanese culture including anime, samurai, and ninjas, Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop and card games such as Magic: The Gathering, and the projects of Alan Moore, in particular V For Vendetta.
Politically, the neckbeard is often a militant atheist and admirer Richard Dawkins' brand of confrontational and derisive proselytising. Though the political ideological alignment of the typical neckbeard varies wildly, the unifying theme is that the chosen school of thought is fringe in some way. For example: anarchism, anarcho-capitalism, libertarianism, or even at the other end, communism. All are viable allegiances for a person mostly concerned with being counter-culture in some way or another. To refer again to V For Vendetta, many neckbeard trope depictions strongly identify with the anarchist antihero of the graphic novel: V, who brings down a neo-fascist British regime whilst wearing a stylised Guy Fawkes mask. This mask has since been mass produced and has become associated with the group Anonymous – a topic well explored elsewhere. Regardless, this symbol of crude counter-culture is often sought by the modern neckbeard trope character.
Socially, the neckbard identifies as a misunderstood outsider, often one whose ostracism is as a result of the ignorance and stupidity of his peers rather than his own deficiencies or eccentricities. In a fashion moulded by the competitive hetero-normative high school environment, the neckbeard is perennially sexually unsuccessful with the opposite sex, who either avoid him completely or assign him to a purgatory-like existence in the "friend zone", where the neckbeard offers emotional support and kindness as a "nice guy" with no sexual "reward" while the object of affection is sexually available to stupid mesomorphs – representing traditional masculinity, the "alpha" role to the neckbeard's "beta".
There is obviously an incredible amount of baggage to unpack within this brief description of the main attributes of the neckbeard trope, particularly in the political aspect: how the radical and often malformed ideologies of the neckbeard in combination with online spaces for amplifying these perspectives could lend to further radicalisation for the "outsider class". Also, in the social aspect: how the attitudes and expectations held by the neckbeard express troubling aspects of rape culture. It is also worth unpacking how this trope intersects with the problems of the "red pill" group of men's rights activists and the "incel" (involuntarily celibate) group for the discussion of failed sexual pursuits (in a seemingly exclusively heterosexual context) and the subsequent focused misogyny.
However, those explorations aren't for here. For now I just hope I've traced uninteresting lineage of one of a few interesting outward characteristics of the neckbeard trope.