What Movember says about the British national character and our craving for authority

The fundraising moustache month thrives on our nostalgia for the genteel
  • @JWittels

Movember - the international moustache grow-a-thon which raises money and awareness for men’s health issues – has once again returned to our green and pleasant land. Up and down the country, bemused tourists are stepping off our planes with the feeling that they’ve somehow travelled through time, back to a pre-World War II Britain where ’taches were not so much a rare male fashion accessory, as a social pre-requisite. But what exactly is it about Movember that has made it so successful?

The charity was founded in 2003 and has come a long way from its birthplace, a pub on the outskirts of Melbourne. Last year, 254 000 Mo Bros and Mo Sistas raised over £22 million in the UK, while a total of 660 208 registrants from over 20 different countries raised £79.3 million worldwide. The funds go to Prostate Cancer UK and The Institute of Cancer Research.  

But while these figures are hugely impressive for a charity less than a decade old, they also reveal something beyond Movember’s fundraising ability. A quick check of the Movember leader board shows that the UK harbours by far the most Movember registrants – a particularly interesting statistic given that much larger populations such as Germany’s (82m) and even the USA’s (314m) also participate in the event. It also shows that we contribute 28% of the overall funds raised – again a staggeringly large proportion considering the charity runs official campaigns in over 20 countries.

Movember then, is a formula that works best in the UK. Why? Well, it could be down to a number of things; perhaps male cancers are a more pertinent issue here, encouraging more people to get involved. Or it could be that the opposite is true; male cancers aren’t given enough attention, hence the need to support publicity stunts like Movember. The official stats in relation to this support neither hypothesis: the UK sits slap-bang in the middle of the European cancer rates table, for both prostate cancer (97.2 cases per 100,000), and testicular (6.9 incidents per 100,000), suggesting that we are neither more nor less affected by these cancers than other countries who participate in Movember.

So why does Movember get us so excited over here? Is there something about our national character that somehow makes us more susceptible than other countries to moustache based campaigns? The short answer to that, is yes – there is.

The clues lie in the language that’s used to promote Movember. In the About Us section of the charity’s website, the point that each Mo Bro must conduct himself “like a true gentleman” is made abundantly clear. This link between Movember and gentility is further entrenched by Movember campaigners’ team names – which range from The League of Distinguished Gentlemen, through to The Gentlemen Broncos. It is also blatantly exhibited in Gillette’s Movember advertising slogan: “Turning men into gentlemen”.

Of course, these slogans and team names are all somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But Movember’s UK success does seem to suggest that we, more than any other nation, still have a soft spot for the idea of the moustached gentleman, or, as my colleague summed it up, “the appeal of the genteel.” We just have to be ironic about how we show it (as we do about everything nowadays).

History of the 'tache

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise. For centuries, the moustache has been central to British culture; politicians, eminent socialites, soldiers (remember Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster?) all used to sport furry caterpillars in a variety of styles, symbolising the virility and authority of their owners. Indeed, the ’tache was considered such an important mark of character that on the eve of the invasion of Suez in November 1956, then Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s wife noticed that her husband’s moustache wasn’t showing up properly on the television cameras waiting to film the announcement – so whipped out her mascara and blackened it for him.

But what’s particularly interesting about all this is that the very qualities which the now defunct ’tache represents seem to be what’s missing in our society today. David Cameron’s defeat over the EU budget at the hands of his own parliament belies a wider lack of authority in a coalition that, more broadly, seems less concerned with governing than trying to shovel blame. Similarly, the reputation of our police force – everyday symbols of authority – has been severely tarnished by both the Hillsborough scandal and police austerity cuts, which reveal the force’s expendability in the eyes of government. We are living in a time of uncertainty, and the ’tache – being a creature of leadership and authority  – is nowhere to be seen.

While we can of course live without the bristled adornments of Lord Kitchener and men of his ilk, we do miss what the moustached gentleman represented: leadership, a sense of direction, and a rare chance for men to stamp their identity in the world of grey business suits.  

Perhaps that's why so many British men will be admiring a thin grey fuzz above their top lips in bathrooms up and down the country this month. Perhaps.