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A Complete Cultural History of the 1990s Butt Cut

It was the de facto haircut of every middle school bad boy — and now, thanks to ‘Pen15,’ it’s making a pop culture comeback

Recognize the haircut on these cool dudes?

Even if you don’t know the show this is from, you could probably guess a few things about them — they’re the most popular kids in middle school, the bad-boy heartthrobs all the girls are after, with names like Scott or Brandt or Dustin or Alex.

The show is Pen15, the unflinchingly funny 2019 Hulu series about two girls entering seventh grade in the year 2000. It’s digging up deep-seated blunder-year nostalgia in 30-something so-and-so’s like me — many of whom actually rocked this haircut, or a far-less-attractive Supercuts version of it. It’s the “butt cut” — so nicknamed for the shape it turns the top of the wearer’s head.

Lara CilentoPen15‘s hair department head, says the styling choice is no accident.

“We knew [the butt cut] was a must for the ‘popular’ kids, and ‘older’ kids like [lead character Maya’s brother] Shuji,” Cilento says. “While doing our research, we pored over Tiger Beat, J-14 and the like, and also just pulled from our own memories and photos from kids we grew up with for inspiration.”

The butt cut “was so popular during this time period,” she continues, “we had to be careful not to overdo it and really decide who was a best fit for the butt cut.” In other words, the butt cut phenomenon was stranger than fiction. A realistic representation of a Y2K-era seventh grade class might look overdone, or too on-the-nose, on TV.

But how did the butt cut, of all styles, come to be the de-facto haircut of late-’90s bad boys?

Disney Hero Hair

Writing for Racked, Chavie Lieber floats the theory that Disney princes of the early ’90s, from Aladdin to Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid, rocked a shaggy ’do. (Theirs looked more like Bob Saget’s Full House haircut than the classic butt cut, though.) Since girls in the ’90s grew up crushing on these cartoon princes, movie producers specifically modeled their male leads after them.

Hotties like Rider Strong (right) in Boy Meets World:

Shocked Boy Meets World GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

“For many of these young girls that grew up in the ’90s, Disney princes were their first crushes,” child and adolescent psychiatrist Judith Joseph says in the Racked article. “It was their first experience with having romantic feeling.”

Scuttle The Little Mermaid GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

She adds that the haircut began to be associated with the brave, risk-taking masculine traits of the princes — including fertility:

“You can’t have hair like that as a man if you don’t have a lot of testosterone. … A thick mane on a young man meant that he was fertile. He was capable of reproducing. High testosterone doesn’t just mean thick, beautiful hair. It also means that you probably have muscle tone. You’re probably strong.”

But where did Disney animators get “hero hair” from? Rachel Gibson, aka “The Hair Historian,” tells MEL there is some historical bases for proto–butt cuts, but the split down the middle might’ve been Disney’s own doing.

“I think the longish-floppy-hair Disney-prince look is a bit of a Disney fabrication,” she says. “But men have certainly had long hair on and off for decades. In early fairytale illustrations, for example, the princes often have long hair and they were definitely based on real people and what people looked like at the time. Even if you just look at a few illustrations of early versions of Sleeping Beauty, the prince has long hair.” 

Tell me that’s not an early ’90s heartthrob cut.

So how’d we go from this to this? Sadly, no Disney animators were available for comment. But Gibson says we can infer that Disney improvised: They needed to keep the princes’ haircuts long but not too long, and not too evil. Thus, the butt cut.

‘You’re a Warrior Out in the World With No Time to Groom’

Having long, flowing hair “in theory shows that you have lots of testosterone and you’re a ‘real’ man,” Gibson says. “But with that, you also don’t want to look too ‘girly’ (I really hate these signifiers, but you know what I mean).” In other words, had Disney directly copied the real Prince Charmings of yesteryear, a ’90s generation might’ve deemed it too feminine. Lord knows Mike Pence would’ve hated it.

“[The butt cut] shows that you’re manly, you’re a bad boy who doesn’t have a clean-cut job where you need to look traditionally smart and groomed — you don’t play by the rules of a short back and sides, you’re rebelling,” Gibson explains. “You’re a warrior out in the world with no time to groom, just wearing your hair casually pushed back out of your eyes. It’s so artfully ‘just so,’ but designed to look like no effort has gone into it. I think it’s quite unique in that sense and definitely very heroic!”

Guys like Nick Carter, Devon Sawa (look at that iconic butt cut in 1995’s Casper) and Jonathan Taylor Thomas certainly rocked that vibe:

See Nick Carter GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Jonathan Taylor Thomas 90S GIF by absurdnoise - Find & Share on GIPHY

Which is why Cilento says she modeled the show’s heartthrobs off the guys above. “Since Anna’s and Maya’s characters’ celeb crushes in the show were in the realm of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Devon Sawa (who else?!),” Cilento explains, “we thought it best to translate that into their real-life school crushes Brandt and Alex.”

‘Pen15’ stars Anna Konkle and Lincoln Jolly

‘We, Being Phallic-Obsessed Teenagers, Discovered Our Heads Looked Like Cocks’

It makes sense, then, that a lot of ’90s kids long for the glory days.

Ollie, a 35-year-old living in New York, had a butt cut from age 13 to 15. He misses the years he could split his lush, masculine mane into a butt cut, though he’d take a do-over if he could. “It drives me crazy that 15-year-old me had such wonderful thick hair and did that to it while 30-plus-year-old me is watching my hair disappear like the cops are after it.”

Ollie says he wasn’t directly inspired by a Disney prince. He has another theory: phallic obsession. “Despite what kids think now, the ’90s, specifically the mid- to late ’90s, were a terrible, godforsaken time, devoid of positive creative fashion/grooming choices and lacking the safety net of ‘irony’ that countless equally awful-looking hipsters hide behind today,” he tells MEL. “The butt cut, at least the one I (and, I suspect, most of my friends) had, evolved from the mushroom cut, that godawful(er) bowl-cut variation we all rocked in elementary school — when we, being phallic-obsessed teenagers, discovered our heads looked like cocks.”

High School Lol GIF by CBC - Find & Share on GIPHY

Ollie says the natural progression of the mushroom cut for the “uncreative, refuse-to-take-chances yet gloriously haired young men we were” was to simply part their mushrooms down the middle and run with it. “Somehow every young guy in America reached a silent agreement that having a head like an ass was somehow better than having a head like a dick.”

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” Ollie concludes.

For many teens who actually sported a butt cut in the late ’90s, the reality wasn’t so glamorous. For something meant to look so devil-may-care, the cut was surprisingly hard to maintain. My editor, Cooper, a seventh grader in 1999–2000, remembers the painful amount of hair spray it took to get his widow’s peak parted down the middle: “The sides always looked bushy and the front looked crispy, like the Cameron Diaz hair gel scene in There’s Something About Mary.” Some of the popular kids, he adds, would actually buzz the sides of their heads, turning the butt cut into two hair flaps. Extremely cool.

Cooper in 1999

Fortunately, short hair became “in” soon after Y2K. Ollie says the ’do died thanks to Russell Crowe. “It wasn’t till a couple years later that Crowe would appear in Gladiator at the same time Eminem appeared and usher in the next great godawful hair decision: the bleached Caesar cut.”

Gladiator GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Will the Butt Cut Ever Come Back? Actually…

Much like Eminem, just because it faded away in the ’90s doesn’t mean it won’t force itself back into relevancy sometime soon. After all, hairstyles are “just like any trend,” Gibson explains, “and just like any trend, they’re cyclical: They start being worn by a few people who are either cool/respected/admired, then it becomes mainstream as people copy it, then it wears off because the trend has peaked, then a few years later some people start wearing it again.”  

And from a historical standpoint, the butt cut is on the verge of coming back. “Trends aren’t new, but the speed of the cycles have definitely gotten faster,” Gibson says. “If we look at modern history, you have guys in the 1950s wearing hair very short and groomed, then their kids rebelled against that in the ’60s and had long hair, then in the ’70s, that hippie hair becomes coiffed ’80s hair, then we have short hair again.” (By the way, the Gordon Gekko Wall Street slamback is coming back, too.)

And as a new generation discovers Friends — and Joey Tribbiani’s season one butt cut — it’s no surprise some trendsetters are experimenting with that middle part again. It’s “the same way [older people] might admire the ’50s style, for example,” Gibson says. “There are definitely guys where I live (in London) now doing the butt cut: very young, cool, artsy guys who weren’t alive in the ’90s, or were just born, who have no bad associations with the hair and just think it looks cool.”