With 'Manscaping,' Doc Filmmaker Broderick Fox Looks Beyond Grooming

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday March 21, 2022

Out documentary filmmaker Broderick Fox explores themes of "embodied media" in his work, from the process of getting a full-back tattoo (in "The Skin I'm In," 2012) to the guided process of leaving this life that's offered by a professional "death walker" ("Zen & the Art of Dying," 2015) to his fourth, and most recent, full-length documentary, "Manscaping."

The word may conjure thoughts of intimate hirsute regions, but as he follows three individuals with different perspectives — artist Devan Shimoyama, in Pittsburgh; trans barber Jessie Anderson in Vancouver; and barber Richard Savvy, a.k.a The Naked Barber, in Sydney, Australia — Fox discovers there's more to the notion, including issues around race and gender identity, as well as participation in spaces like barbershops, traditionally the reserve for masculine (sometimes over so) interactions. In the process of combing through the insights his three subjects offer around grooming, body hair, gender identity, and gender presentation, Fox's film uncovers some poignant — and even startling — revelations about social roles, common spaces, and the breadth and depth of masculinity.

Recently "Manscaping" premiered at the Santa Fe Film Festival. The film is also scheduled to be part of the Arizona International Film Festival next month. EDGE caught up with Broderick Fox as he prepared to head to BFI Flare in London, where a screening of the film was part of the "Bodies" strand of the festival's "Hearts, Bodies, and Minds" theme. Fox chatted about the making of the film, how it fist into his oeuvre, and the way it relates back to his own earlier experiences with intimate hair care.

EDGE: There has been something of an idea that manscaping is something gay men or metrosexuals do, but this film challenges those perceptions.

Brody Fox: Yeah, I would agree with that. "Manscaping" uses barbering and body hair trimming as a point of departure, but the title ends up being a play on words: This idea of trying to look at the landscape or "manscape" of masculinity, to broaden the spectrum of performances of what it is to be a man, to open up space for broader definitions of masculinity. And then putting an "-ing" on it makes it an active process — the idea that we're all in a process of redefining, trimming, and reshaping what it is to be a man.

EDGE: The people you follow in this film are all LGBTQ+, and each of them brings unexpected insights to the issue of grooming: What it is, who does it, how grooming intersects with public spaces. How did you come to work with these three people you feature here?

Broderick Fox: This has been a kind of fun excuse to reach out to people I find fascinating. I'm a huge visual art lover, and I was a huge fan of Devan Shimoyama's work for several years. Finding Jessie, who runs Big Bros barbershop in Vancouver, and Richard, the Naked Barber of Sydney, was really kind of fortuitous. I was searching for queer barbers who are opening this traditionally exclusive, masculine space and imagining queer futures within it. They're both people I was able to find through the internet. So it was a tremendous leap of faith on their part when some guy from Los Angeles writes and says, "Hey, I've got a sabbatical from teaching. Can I come film you?" And they both said yes, which is pretty extraordinary.

Right around that time, Devan began sharing images of his barbershop painting series, and I thought, "This is meant to be." He was very gracious about letting me follow him at a key moment when he was developing this body of work for his show "Sweet" at De Buck Gallery in New York. Devan talks about how his work involves collage: The way in which he cuts and adorns his paintings, he describes as akin to barbering. And he talks about being in a predominately white barbershop, where people are making him uncomfortable around the "texture" of his hair as a Black man, or being in a Black barbershop where they maybe have more expertise in cutting his hair, but how those environments are quite often —†not always — misogynist or homophobic. He talks about holding his breath as a barber leans in to edge his beard, of shutting down and trying to get out as quickly as possible, because of that vulnerability — feeling like if they found out that he was gay, somehow that would cause a problem.

On the other side of the spectrum, Richard — as the Naked Barber, literally — puts it all out there. He basically says, "This is who I am. I've worked through my own challenges around body image and identity, and I've gotten to a place where I'm just going to live open and freely and explore every nook and corner of curiosity and experience, and I invite you to join me in this space where there are no preconceptions."

The movie isn't telling everybody that they have to go climb up into a sling the next time they need a wax or a haircut, but it is inviting everybody to think about the social spaces that we all traverse, the encounters that occur in them, what the dynamics are that structure them, and how we can think about making those more inclusive, more celebratory, and more generative spaces.

Jessie Anderson's shop, Big Bro's Barbershop, models what this can be. It's so much more than a barbershop — it's a community space, focused on trans wellness. He gives great haircuts, and all are welcome, but trans people and people of color know this is a space designed for them, first and foremost. As a transgender man himself, Jessie winds up providing a lot more than haircuts to his transitioning clients. He has a lot of straight and cisgender ally clients too, who with his sliding scale prices, pay extra to subsidize the haircuts of trans clients facing financial insecurity. Big Bros models so many possibilities that barbershops and other small businesses could learn from.

EDGE: What made this subject of the grooming and presentation of hair seem like something to explore in a documentary?

Broderick Fox: I'm fascinated by how performances of, or manifestations of, body hair and grooming are tied up in constructs of gender — specifically, ideas of masculinity. When I first started thinking about making this film there had been a recent resurgence of old school barbershops and a return of beards and facial hair. These phenomena were across culture, but gay men have long used body hair, facial hair, and hair cutting as spaces for play, identity, and fetish.

If people recall or watch my 2012 documentary "The Skin, I'm In," about my own journey coming to a kinder, gentler balance between mind body and spirit as a younger queer person, they'll see that barbering plays a big role in my own self-development and personal exploration. Barbershops have always been a place of mixed feelings, both of desire and a certain degree of anxiety, for me. I began cutting my own hair, and the hair of friends who didn't feel necessarily comfortable going to a traditional barbershop, and that sort of intersected with the emergence of online dating and hookup sites and the exploration of my own sexual identity. I created this alter-ego Rick, sort of a Naked Barber in his own right, and began providing haircuts and body grooming services for a wide range of queer people.

I'd be lying if I said there isn't some kind of erotic, or even fetish dimension of barbering for me that's fun, and something that I've enjoyed exploring. But most of those transactions and engagements were not driven by sex. In fact, now that I see the sorts of spaces Jessie Anderson has created with Big Bro's and Richard with The Naked Barber, I realize I was somewhat unwittingly creating safe spaces and encounters for my clients, where people could be vulnerable while they sought help in finding their best performance of self through a good haircut, or figuring out how to deal with a hairy back or, you know, what to do with ball hair. I ended up having a lot of really beautiful moments and encounters and met some very lovely people. And I think I gave some good haircuts, and instilled some confidence along the way.

EDGE: When we think of manscaping, we usually think about intimate and body hair grooming. The film addresses some of that, but mostly it's focused on hair above the neck. If you'd had a chance to do more with intimate hair — pubic hair, body hair — would you have wanted to go more in depth about that?

Broderick Fox: Richard Savvy, as The Naked Barber, is really the body groomer of the film. And you might be surprised who some of the regulars of Richard are. He talks about straight guys coming to get a ball wax or get their junk trimmed by him because they're embarrassed to go to a traditional female-focused waxing studio where they feel out of place, or they might be judged. His clients are gay and straight, male and female, cis and trans. He's creating a space where he can help people manifest their best selves, and he talks about how a trim, or a haircut, or changing the jawline of a beard trim, or even helping an individual figure out what to do with their body hair — how to own it or feel confident in themselves — are things that go beyond being a gay man's issue. I love how he's kind of the most overtly sexual of the three participants, and yet his practice is so inclusive.

EDGE: We don't necessarily think about this much, but hair is almost like another level of skin — it's sensitive. It's intimate, it's vulnerable. The emotions that come up in the film reflect that.

Broderick Fox: Yeah, for sure. Many of the most powerful stories in the movie appear in Jesse's barbershop, and his motivation to create a space that is open to anybody — but really clarifying that this is a space in which people can be themselves in all their nuances. Many of his clients are transgender men, and those clients' stories speak to the way in which barbershop spaces, even if not maliciously or intentionally, can really be soul crushing spaces of misgendering, particularly for transgender individuals who are journeying toward comfort in the skin that they're in. The film captures how a lot of his work is actually working with parents of trans youth, etc. helping entire families through the physical and emotional aspects of trans identity and allyship. Big Bros is such an important space.

EDGE: In your earlier work you've had a focus on what you call "embodied media." Do you regard this new film as of a piece with your explorations of that concept?

Broderick Fox: It's absolutely part of the same trajectory. A thread for all of my work has been to queer cultural norms, first using my own identity as a queer man in "The Skin I'm In" as a starting point to explore and ask questions about identity, sexuality, and the psychological and bodily self-harm so many of us inflict upon ourselves as a result of oppressive, normative dominant culture. My last film we chatted about in 2015, "Zen & the Art of Dying," challenges notions of how Western cultures do death and dying, with the added bonus that the central participant, Zen, happens to be a queer woman. How she navigates motherhood, womanhood, queerness, love, and loss all inform her capacity to do the work that she does, which is making cultural change around death and dying.

Unfortunately, those who are "different" often encounter discrimination and repression, whether that be around one's gender performance, one's race or ethnicity, or being differently abled in some fashion.

I think I am always coming back to the body as a starting point in my work: the body as the site of both potential pain and possibility and looking at the ways in which we can reimagine encounters and connections with one another through our bodies. I think this film is absolutely a continuation of that trajectory.

This is a celebratory film that models positive, generative, sexy, inclusive spaces, but the film also makes clear that the ability for Devan, Jessie, and Richard to produce such spaces is borne out of embodied, experienced struggle and trauma.

EDGE: Maybe this is a result of the pandemic and having to wear a mask all the time, but I went to get my hair cut and the guy was taking my mask off one ear and, for a moment there, it felt very intimate and kind of exciting — like he was unbuttoning my shirt or something.

Broderick Fox: I feel like after years of COVID we're all feeling vulnerable and are perhaps more aware of that physical vulnerability than ever before. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

As you were describing, there's a new kind of matrix of vulnerability that our COVID-era presents for our interactions and bodies — which are our vehicles to experience and encounter this world. If we can all be honest and meet one another in our vulnerability, really be present with each other, the world would be a better place. My hope is that the examples of Devan, Jessie and Richard show people the queer party they might be missing out on and invites everyone to join in. I think we all need a little bit of a party right about now.

For more on "Manscaping" and to learn of upcoming screenings (including at the Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson), visit the film's website and follow @manscaping movie on FB, Insta, and Twitter.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.