Cover Photo: A photograph of a child wearing a baseball cap and turning to look at the camera. One of their hands is reaching up to grasp a branch. As they turn to camera, the long strands of hair at the back of their head hang down their white t-shirt.
Photograph courtesy of the author

Business in the Front, Rebellion in the Back

My childhood rat tail was a lesson on the borders of class and gender.

rat tail

F

Rat tailbad

The rat tail, like so many other cultural failures throughout history, is something of an orphan. On Urban Dictionary it’s ascribed, variously and crudely, to “rednecks, Germans, Latinos” or the children of ’80s and ’90s “gangster parents.” Google’s Ngram feature shows usage for the term spiking significantly in the 1940s and staying steadily popular ever since. Macmillan Dictionary claims people were referring to hair as “rats’ tails” as early as the first half of the nineteenth century but associates our contemporary understanding with Jet Li and ’80s manga.

American HoneyThat thing needs to go

If I have to go through another year of this, I’m going to kill myself

I thought about something my grade school friend Tadzeo had said, how he’d advised me to keep it, that it made me unique. His words had made sense to me at the time, because when I wore the rat tail, it was as a badge of outsider pride, a sort of queerness avant la lettre. For many years after I moved to Westmount, I was the only person I knew or saw who had one. As I began to make my way in the world of social interactions, the specter of the rat tail became little more than a skeleton in my closet, a childhood foible I hoped my high school friends wouldn’t reveal to new acquaintances.

Alex Manley is a Montreal/Tiohtià:ke writer and editor whose work has been published by Maisonneuve magazine, Hazlitt, and The Walrus, among others. Their poetry collection We Are All Just Animals & Plants was published by Metatron Press in 2016. A second book, Made-Up: A True Story of Beauty Culture Under Late Capitalism, an English-language translation of Daphné B.'s Maquillée, is forthcoming from Coach House Books.