A woman’s hair is the ultimate symbol of femininity, linking back to traditional ideas that beauty is power. Pretty much all the Disney princesses have flowing locks or crazy curls, from Ariel to Merida to Moana, it’s the beauty norm. And so, a woman getting a haircut on screen, be it film or tv, can often be used symbolically. Representative of rebellion, associated as it is with masculinity; as a way of disguising oneself; a self-destructive tool for coping with trauma; even as punishment or to inflict humiliation.
In its simplest form, a woman cutting her hair is used as masquerade. The long-lost twins in Parent Trap make sure they’re indistinguishable from one another by giving each other matching hairdos. And don’t forget a personal favourite of mine, the hero of Winterfell, Arya Stark. She escapes the capital after her father’s beheading in the first season of Game of Thrones, and when we meet her again, she’s got a boyish cut to her hair and is calling herself Arry.
You can’t talk about hair transformations in film without also mentioning Mulan. ‘You’ll bring honour to us all’, insists the Disney lyrics as she’s poked and prodded into a marriageable woman. But after her ill father receives conscription to the Chinese army, Mulan changes just what kind of honour that will be. Once he is asleep, she takes his letter, dresses in his armour, and uses his sword to cut her hair to her shoulders. Practically, she can now hide her identity as she takes his place (along with some attempts at making her voice lower and some close encounters while bathing).
Traditionally, to have your hair cut from its long, bound default in ancient Asia was the definitive mark of dishonour for men. On the other side, hair was the ultimate symbol of womanhood, thus cutting their own hair to disguise themselves and escape villains was an almost desperate act. But, when done out of their own volition, it represented a ‘break with their own past’. A rejection of their old individual, and of their society.
In Mulan, the heroine cuts her own hair to save her father and head into the lion’s den herself. It’s not taken on because her dishonour of womanhood has been revealed (yet), but it echoes that idea of cutting ties to the traditional values she’s been raised on. There’s a real sense of taking back control of what’s been denied her, while still caring deeply about her role to play in her family: not as a wife but as a warrior. It’s a rebellious act in itself.
But there is a point where rebellion becomes a rejection of femininity, and it’s sadly the most common example I could find. ‘Do you want me to be a doll forever?’ screams Claudia to her two father figures as she grabs some scissors and attacks her curls in Interview with a Vampire. Salma Hayek’s portrayal of artist Frida Kahlo cuts her hair to the scalp while drinking heavily and wearing an uncharacteristically charcoal suit after finding her husband Diego cheating on her.
Even in Grease, when Sandy throws away her pastel clothes and long locks for a curly perm and a catsuit, this theme prevails. It’s still feminine, but it’s the cool, edgy, sexy feminine – not the soft girly side that we’re so often led to think of as inferior. Probably because she doesn’t get Danny until after this transformation.
It’s what Amy Dunne says in Gone Girl while she chops her hair into a bob in a gas station toilet after faking her own murder: “Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be. The cool girl. Men always use that don’t they, as their defining compliment. Cool girl is hot’.” It’s ironic, then, that her malice seems to be directed at herself, and ridding every fragment of this patriarchal idea of ‘girl’ and the feminine. Although, in all fairness, the film acknowledges that Amy is slightly off her rocker.
Which leads me onto another factor of this symbol of women cutting off their hair; the age-old stereotype of hysterical women. Tris dons a pixie cut from the second Divergent film after being forced to kill a friend, and following a violent rape scene, Jodie Foster’s character in The Accused rids herself of her blonde locks. Even The Legend of Korra, a show dear to my heart, has it’s protagonist lose her traditional Water Tribe ponytail after her experience fighting the baddie. All are coping with trauma, but the trope (significantly written by men) is that their anger should be directed inwardly, irrationally, and self-destructively.
David O. Russell’s Joy caused a stir when he insisted ruthlessly driven mother and businesswoman Joy cut her hair off with a pair of sewing scissors right before a big meeting. Presumably, the goal was for her to throw away her history of not being taken seriously, but it’s a shame that this had to manifest by taking on a physical masculine trait (as well as the behavioural ones she adopts throughout the film). The scene also lends itself to female hysteria, with Jennifer Lawrence staring vengefully at her own reflection of wet hair, smoky eyes and crisp shirt in the mirror.
Of course, this isn’t always self-inflicted. Films like Les Misérables show us characters like Fantine having her hair cut off to sell just so she can eat, almost as if she’s being punished for her poverty. In Kill Bill: Vol 1, too, the Bride partially-beheads O-Ren Ishii, dramatised in a single shot of a chunk of black hair falling in the snow. She is punished for dishonouring a partner; for what she allowed crime boss and the Bride’s former husband Bill to do to her.
When someone else (usually a man) inflicts this on a woman its purpose is often humiliation. V for Vendetta, where a corrupt government rules and the resistance – led by a mysterious figure named V – try to overthrow it, shows rebel Evey kidnapped and tortured to betray the resistance. Her ‘processing’ includes having her head shaved and being thrown into a cell. It’s about shame, fear, and punishment. And it doesn’t end there – further examples can be found in Cersei Lannister’s literal walk of shame in Game of Thrones, and real stories dramatised in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Other Boleyn Girl.
However, some examples give the middle finger to all this. Unsurprisingly, my favourite comes from The Handmaid’s Tale. When June is smuggled out of fundamentalist Gilead and waits to be moved to freedom, she’s suggested by spy/lover/rescuer Nick to cut her waist-length hair (undoubtedly laced with connotations to womanly virtue, beauty, and status) to disguise herself. But upon cutting it, she also hacks at her own ear to dislodge a tracker put there.
When combined with the stunning cinematography of the show, it was quite an episode. The purpose: rebellion (the proper kind). At first glance, this could again look in line with the theme of women self-destructing because of the judgements of men, the self-reflexive coping mechanism in the face of trauma. But, if you’ve watched the show, you’ll know that June doesn’t give in to anything without a fight, least of all the patriarchy. By cutting the tracker out of her ear, she’s literally freeing herself of their tight hold.
Tangled also twists the trope by proving that Rapunzel’s iconic hair doesn’t define her. Faced with a ‘one of us dies’ situation, her companion Eugene chooses to cut off Rapunzel’s magic healing hair and forfeit the chance of surviving his wounds to save her. Of course, this is a Disney film, so he can’t actually die. Rapunzel finds out that it’s not her hair that was magic after all, but her whole being, and Eugene is saved instead when she sheds a tear onto his cheek. Is it a rite of passage? Representative of Rapunzel’s rebellion? Or is it really just about proving that it doesn’t matter what your hair looks like at the end of the day, whether you’re magic, a girl, or otherwise.
When I cut my thick, curly blonde hair – that made my family call me Rapunzel – at 16, I’ll admit there was some rejection of femininity in it. I wasn’t pretty enough for long hair, I thought. But now I keep my hair even shorter and wear skirts and nail polish at the same time. I think these final examples walk that very fine line of falling into the binaries that are set up for women, but instead reclaim them.
Mulan may have improved her military skills better than her ‘womanly’ ones, but she won the war by shimmying up pillars with her shawl, defeating the villain with a fan after being disarmed of her sword, and wearing a dress the whole time. While it may seem like a rite of passage or an opportunity to take on masculine (i.e. successful) traits to benefit oneself, women cutting their hair or having it cut for them is a misogynistic and lazy symbol used to show change. But it can be reclaimed.
As more female storytellers are being recognised, and others start to question the norms, this trope and many others can be twisted away from its original intentions and used to say something of real value. As June would say, nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Feminist Criticism