Man Tape

Also published on Blogger.

Cylindrical. Hollow. One centimeter of thickness composed of flat, layered plastic wrapped around a cardboard core. Four and one quarter inches in diameter and two inches tall. On the outside there is a mustache motif — jet black, buoyant, and curled on the ends — against a white background. The outer plastic is smooth and affords a faint reflection in good lighting. On the inside, a yellow cartoon duckling wearing a green sash and a white hat stands between two green block capital words: “DUCK TAPE.”

Like many American commodities, my roll of mustache-enhanced duct tape was constructed in a factory. According to a video published by the Duck Brand Duct Tape company, duct tape has three components: the adhesive, the cloth, and the plastic film. Americans wearing denim work clothes, safety goggles and ear muffs dump blocks of orange plastic base and sticky resin into a mixer, which melts and massages the mixture into a great blob the color and consistency of pizza dough. The sticky mass is flattened and pressed onto the cloth and film in rolls six feet long and three feet thick. A mechanical arm lifts the steamroller-sized roll into a machine equipped with many circular blades that resemble miniature CDs, which separate it into two-inch wide strips and reshape them into marketable units. The small rolls of tape are wrapped in plastic and sealed with the brand logo before they are shipped (Duck Brand, “How Duct Tape is Made”).

How the duct tape came into my hands is less predictable than its origin story. There exists a tradition in the St. Olaf Choir where, during one of their December rehearsals, each member of the choir draws slips of paper from a cheap, red-and-white felt hat that is passed from singer to singer. Each slip has on it the name of someone else in the choir. This is your “Secret Santa” (see footnote #1). The ritual requires every singer to deliver, with the help of other choir members acting in confidence, five presents, which in my experience have ranged from fair-trade-certified peppermint bark to false-gold rimmed monocles, from “Happy Holidays” mugs to four-part chorales. The variety of the gifts is equaled only by their cleverness. Choristers usually center their gifts around a theme that they believe the recipient would find interesting or fun. My Secret Santa — or she whose Secret Santa I was — must have heard from some dolt that my defining characteristic was an appreciation for stereotypes of the upper class. With this in mind, she bought me several items that she thought expressed this appreciation, one of which was a roll of duct tape with a mustache pattern on it. Where she bought it I do not know.

“How useful and stylish,” I thought. I learned the versatility of duct tape from my sibling CJ, who always used duct tape for creative purposes. When CJ was in middle school, I saw his duct tape crafts as the work of a creative genius. The duct tape wallets he constructed baffled and amazed my ten-year-old mind. Thus, duct tape, for me, came to represent both a creative medium and an expression of individuality. In CJ’s more recent years, his fascination with anarchy has only reinforced (no pun intended) my association of duct tape with creative, independent problem-solving and a rejection of social norms. He uses duct tape to repair books and clothing and also to do home repairs. And CJ is, of course, not the only person who uses duct tape beyond its design. As of today (see footnote #2), Duck Brand Duct Tape has published 81 videos on YouTube, each of them featuring a tutorial for a different duct tape craft. Duct tape is available in countless colors and designs, which increases its capacity as a mode of self-expression.

But the design on my roll of duct-tape has a meaning of its own, even before I use it for arts and crafts. My Secret Santa bought me a roll of mustache duct tape because she thought it was “classy,” albeit in an ironic way, but mustaches historically have expressed gender, not class. Facial hair is a secondary sex characteristic of males; therefore, it is only fitting in a binarily-gendered culture such as America’s that facial hair should become a symbol of masculinity as well.

The meaning of facial hair in America, like much of American culture, comes from Europe. For instance, in the 19th century, political revolutionaries in Europe grew beards to express their enthusiastic rejection of the status quo. In 1840, Friedrich Engels, colleague of Karl Marx, once held a mustache party in his apartment with his fellow radicals (Oldstone-Moore 10). Similarly, in American culture, the presence or absence of a beard expresses a specific type of masculinity. As in Europe, the mustache in America can carry political significance. Notably, Thomas E. Dewey’s mustache lost him the 1948 Presidential election. Critics like Emilie Deer knew the “masculine code” of the time: “a clean-shaven man was sociable and reliable. A mustached man, by contrast, demonstrated a willful independence that did not engender confidence” (Oldstone-Moore, “Mustaches and…” 47). Mustaches, apparently, adorn people who do not follow the rules — bandits, misfits, crazy inventors, and untrustworthy politicians.

In the 2010s in America, the mustache has regained popularity among young people as a symbol of independence. For instance, Graham Dudley of the Oklahoma Daily speculates that the mustache was “originally” meant as an “ironic statement of manliness and beauty.” Today, people believe, or believe they should believe, that men no longer must play the role of the “patriarchal authority figure” (Oldstone-Moore 48). Because gender plays much less of a role in determining the acceptable characteristics of men and women, the kind of masculinity traditionally attributed to men who wear mustaches can, in theory, be enjoyed by women too in the mustache symbol. The mustache therefore loses its meaning as a serious marker of masculine maturity and represents an independence that either gender can assume.

To understand more lucidly the mustache’s connotation of independence, one need only look to modern theater. In Sabina Berman’s play The Mustache, two lovers banter about which of them gets to wear the mustache out to town. As the “feminine man” protagonist recalls his sexual encounter from the night before, during which he borrowed his “masculine female” lover’s mustache, he realizes that the mustache gave him power he never had before. “I’m more sure of myself with the mustache,” he says, adding, “I know that when I’m wearing our mustache I’m irresistible” (Berman). For the male (see footnote #3), wearing his lover’s mustache gives him confidence to approach other women and instigate romance. The mustache gains its connotation of independence mainly from the “masculine woman” who owns it, but it also clearly symbolizes masculinity insofar as it is an essential means to the feminine man’s independence — a mask that makes him powerful and suave.

The mustache’s appearance on a roll of duct tape magnifies its already potent expression of independence. In the words of Joe Barrett, who expresses the meaning of duct tape eloquently and succinctly in his essay entitled, “Sticking to the Facts.” Against a culture of propriety, “Duct tape represents a counterforce: a defiantly practical, do-it-yourself strain in American culture that goes back to the nation’s founding” (Barrett 141). This statement brings one’s mind immediately to Benjamin Franklin, who famously praised the same do-it-yourself spirit by saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” The versatility of duct tape makes it the perfect tool for people who lack extensive technical training. Barrett calls the adhesive “a democratic, equal access technology — anybody can use it, anybody can understand it” (140). It takes no technical training to close the thumb and index on both sides of the strip, pull it to a desired length, pinch with two pairs of fingers at the point of separation, and tear (see footnote #4). Duct tape’s simplicity and practical use makes it at once a means to independence and an emblem of it.

The decorative capacity afforded by the adhesive medium highlights the irony of the mustache’s appearance on the roll of duct tape. Decoration is domestic and aesthetic, and therefore feminine; yet, the mustache is decidedly masculine. What, then, can the mustache mean as a decoration? Just as a word seems to lose its meaning when repeated ad nauseum, so a symbol loses its power in a tessellation. In other words, one mustache is not the same as ten thousand mustaches. That said, the gratuity of the design suggests masculine satire, as if the tape were meant to overload a decorated surface with masculinity. The deliberate multiplication of the mustaches compensates for the supposed femininity of the creative art and neutralizes the gender barrier.

The rich meaning of the mustache symbol, coupled with the utility of the medium, makes the roll of mustache duct tape a formidable expression of masculinity. Fixing something with this roll of duct tape not only says that the user prefers affordable and simple solutions, but it also leaves an ostensible message that regular old gray duct tape cannot communicate: “a man was here.” The mustache resurfaces as a resilient symbol of masculine independence even amidst 21st-Century efforts to neutralize gender symbolism, and its commodified adhesive version distributes the opportunity to be a “manly” Mr. Fix-It across the entire gender spectrum.

Works Cited

Berman, Sabina. “The Mustache.” Trans. Adam Versenyi. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 20.8 (1998): 111–118. Web. Accessed 15 December 2013.

Barrett, Joe. “Sticking To The Facts, Tearing Into The Truth, And Patching Together A Method To Find The History And Meaning Of Duct Tape.” Journal Of Popular Culture 28.2 (1994): 139–148. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Duck Brand. “How Duck Tape is Made” Online Video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 3 Jan 2012. Web. 13 Dec 2013.

Oldstone-Moore, Christopher. “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain.” Victorian Studies 48.1 (Autumn, 2005): 7–34. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec 2013.

Oldstone-Moore, Christopher. “Mustaches and Masculinity Codes in Early Twentieth-Century America.” Journal of Social History 45.1 (2011): 47–60. Web. 13 December 2013.

Footnotes

[1] The Secret Santa relationship has always been ambiguous to me. Am I the secret Santa, or am I giving gifts to my Secret Santa? Or is the relationship reciprocal, with each being the other’s Secret Santa? I always figured that the giver played the role of Santa, but time after time I have been asked by my peers, “So what did you get for your Secret Santa?” Assumptions were crushed.

[2] December 18th, 2013.

[3] Berman leaves both characters unnamed. They do not name each other and their character names appear as “He” and “She.”

[4] I have asked several people whether they agree with this evaluation of the difficulty of tearing duct tape, with mixed responses. (I leave out their names here, for privacy’s sake.) Some complained that the third step — the rending of the tape — proves difficult or impossible. I admit that I have struggled at least once to rip a piece of duct tape from its roll, but I always assumed this because of some deficiency on my part. However, this thought has never cast doubt on my masculinity. At any rate, I mastered the art of ripping duct tape long before entertaining the fact that duct tape had any masculine value. Clearly my ignorance saved me from a gender identity crisis.

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