You've seen the books, the articles, the Web sites. Popular culture is obsessed with the mullet. In September, the UPN network will unleash a new sitcom, The Mullets. "I think that's going to kill everything," says Jennifer Arnold, director of the documentary film American Mullet. Arnold fears that what was once a symbol of fringe culture has become objectified and distorted.
Quick rundown (for hermits and the generally dead): The mullet is a haircut -- short in the front, long in the back. It's largely worn by the following social groups: jocks/studs ("Hockey Hair"), macho Mexican men ("MexiMullet"), lesbians ("The Lesbian Haircut"), Native Americans ("The Traditional") and country music singers/ fans ("The Billy Ray Cyrus"). Some people say the moniker "mullet" came from the movie Cool Hand Luke, while others claim it's named after an Australian mullet fisherman who sported the do. Most credit the Beastie Boys. Moving on.
Most of what is said in the media about the mullet is derisive and mocking. People love to talk about the mullet. But, until Arnold made American Mullet, it seems no one had actually approached someone with a mullet and seriously engaged them in an intelligent conversation about his choice of hairstyle. Judging from the media's perceptions, people are either scared or (more likely) dismissive. The major misunderstanding about mullet heads, according to Arnold, is that they are unintelligent.
But Arnold herself once shared similar misconceptions. When she began shooting American Mullet in 2000, the tone was decidedly mockumentary, but gradually things shifted toward a more respectful handling of her subjects. What Arnold discovered shattered the stereotypes associated with the hairstyle.
"They're just really into their haircut," she says, "and they're much more articulate than they come off." One of the film's subjects reveals how the haircut is deceptive, saying, "They think I'm uneducated trailer trash." Mullet heads are able to blindside others by breaking all expectations based on appearance. Conversely, says Arnold, the mullet is a cloak that allows its wearers to get away with behavior a normal haircut simply wouldn't afford.
Arnold's subjects cover the spectrum of social groups attached to the mullet. The film was shot mostly in California and Arizona, but Las Vegas yielded some of the most memorable interviews. "They had extreme personalities," says Arnold. "People who have mullets believe in individualism. They don't want to conform, and they're very loyal to their hairstyle." Out of 100 people interviewed, 50 made the -- incoming pun -- cut.
While The Real Beverly Hillbillies has been criticized for disparaging its subjects, Arnold's interviewees like her movie. They don't feel exploited for being different. "I've gotten no complaints so far," she says.