STATIONS OF THE COIFFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF SHORT HAIR ON FEMALE CHARACTERS IN THE MOVIES

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Hayden Panettiere in Scre4m.

All the way through Scre4m, I was itching for a freeze-frame of Hayden Panettiere’s hair-do so I could give it an in-depth examination. What the hell was that? Some kind of demi-pompadour with the curlicues glued flat? I suspect that if you were to poke at it, it would be rock-solid, like a Ken doll coiffure. I think it’s great they gave her short hair. But did it have to be so weird?

Then again, short hair invariably seems weird in a Hollywood where flowing locks are the norm on women. Even Demi Moore, who rocked the pixie cut in Ghost, nowadays sports a poker-straight curtain. Hilary Swank grows hers long between androgyny trims for Boys Don’t Cry or Amelia, as though almost aggressively reasserting her femininity.

Who is known for their short hair nowadays? Halle Berry? Shannyn Sossamon? We’re edging into C-list territory here. When Emma Watson and Carey Mulligan chop theirs off, it’s considered news; archive photographs of Jean Seberg and Twiggy are duly trotted out for comparison, as if to underline the novelty value.

For the record – I love long hair. If mine weren’t so baby-fine (“comme la soie!” cooed one hairdresser) I would definitely grow it so I could wear it in a big fat plait, like the damsels in a richly illustrated King Arthur book I had as a girl. But, being saddled with the wrong sort of piliferous gene, I’m always on the lookout for short crops similar to mine on screen. They are, of course, rare, because long lustrous tresses are one of the major signifiers of femininity. One of the first things a girl does when trying to disguise her gender is cut her hair, like Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (one of the loveliest short crops in movies) or Barbara Streisand (“Forgive me, papa!”) in Yentl.

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Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett.

Short hair on female characters is rarely permitted to exist in its own right – it’s a statement, a sign of playing men at their own game for Keira Knightley when she swaps modelling for bounty hunting in Domino, or Moore with her military buzz-cut in GI Jane. Getting chopped is seldom something female characters do of their own volition; it deprives them of a formidable weapon in the sex wars and, instead of giving them masculine strength, only emphasises their helplessness. Even when Mia Farrow announces, “I’ve been to Vidal Sassoon,” in Rosemary’s Baby (her husband’s sarky reply is, “Don’t tell me you paid for that”) she’s unwittingly adding the finishing touch to her own martyrdom.

Because the close crop is nothing less than a Station of the Coiffe en route to immolation. Falconetti looks suitably gamine at the start of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but it’s still not sufficiently martyrish for her inquisitors, who insist on further shearing. Seventy years and many Saint Joans later, Milla Jovovich’s years of modelling for L’Oreal stand her in good stead in The Messenger when she takes a sword to her braid, yet miraculously ends up with the chic-est of mediaeval pudding-bowls, with God-given highlights.

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Milla Jovovich in The Messenger.

When women have their hair cropped off onscreen it’s usually because they’re under some sort of compulsion or duress. The short haircut is humiliating punishment, meted out to women’s prison inmate Eleanor Parker in Caged, or to Monica Bellucci, condemned for being the village slut in Malena. Or it’s a religious gesture; Audrey Hepburn has hers ritually snipped away in The Nun’s Story (though, like the other Hepburn, she always did look cuter with short hair), while Julie Andrews’s sensible ex-convent pageboy effectively renders The Sound of Music sexless.

In short, short hair on a woman is considered neither normal nor natural. Like Samson, much of her power is perceived as residing in her long hair; remove that, and she is effectively rendered sexless, or at least perceived as such by vast swathes of the population, for whom women with short hair are automatically “butch” and therefore unattractive. Short hair on women actively challenges sex roles, and is thus considered threatening by those who don’t feel comfortable when such conventions are undermined. Easiest to dismiss it as “ugly”.

And it’s a small step from boyish crop to baldness, which in real life may signify Britney-style breakdown, but in the movies more often means alien (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), monster (Splice) or homicidal maniac (Blue Sunshine). It’s considered martyrdom to their art when female actors go the whole hairless hog, like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, Samantha Morton in Minority Report or Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.

The consensus is that long hair is prettier, and prettiness is a prerequisite for female actors and the characters they play in all but a handful of movies. So however weird Panettiere’s haircut, the fact that she’s neither a nun, nor a prisoner, nor pretending to be a man, nor an alien, almost makes Scre4m worthwhile, all on its own.

 

This piece was first published in the Guardian in April 2011. It has been edited and elaborated on for this blog.

The original version can also be found in the e-collection Anne Billson on Film 2011.

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15 thoughts on “STATIONS OF THE COIFFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF SHORT HAIR ON FEMALE CHARACTERS IN THE MOVIES

  1. Where would this place Nikita?

    Radical tonsure – tick. But is this part of the price of her transformation? (Evie has a similar journey to free her from her beginings as a studio dogs-body.)

    She is offered wigs but prefers an ‘Eton crop’, the first job in the resturant for example. She doesn’t return to long hair until later jobs via wigs and then only as a disguise.

    (I’m a bit hazy on details, because I’ve not seen the film for ages.)

    • Doesn’t she have short hair right from the beginning, when she’s a sociopathic junkie? It just gets tidied up into a chic crop a bit during her training, with Jeanne Moreau giving her etiquette tips (IIRC – ages since I’ve seen it too). I’m sure there’s a case for her being outside society’s norms. The long wigs could represent her longing to be a regular member of society. Or something.

        • I think I’ve met one of Society’s Norms, odd chap, faint whiff of Wherthers Originals. I’d give him a swerve if I were you.

          And forget Nikita it lies outside the bounds of your thesis.

          Zoomed through on 10x speed:

          Pharmacy, collar length rat-tails.
          Court: diy chop to chin length.
          Induction: shorter bog-brush style
          1st Glamour Lesson: tries a short wig and fails to impress.
          Cinderella scene: tons of slap and a quick trim; et viola!
          Restaurant: Looking forward to a nice meal and a bit of a smooch after. (How wrong can a girl get!)

          And then it varies a bit but not much, Farrah flicky bits come and go. A red tint comes in and goes out. By the time she goes to Venice it has sort of settled down. (had the time to find a BF and complete redecorate a derelict flat, but not to buy new knickers?) Anyway happiness is apparently not a warm gun, esp. when it’s got soap suds all over it.

          (And as one-woman killings machines go she is extraordinarily weepy)

          Paris showdown: back to a fullish chin length bob, which strangely vanishes for the cross-dressing finale. (Yes I’d forgotten about that, but it’s mixed in with scenes involving the ‘Proto-Leon’.)

  2. One that would fit within your criteria would be Anna the mute resistance fighter from the first Navarone film. (Played by Gia Scala who had a short and rather tragic life.) The reason for her short hair is mentioned in dialogue and not seen for reasons that become apparent later.

    You seemed to have nailed all the other examples where short hair is transformative. The only other one that comes to mind is Maggie Grace in ‘Lockout’ [2012]. But that is just an expedient measure, even if Guy Pearse’s character seems to enjoy more that is strictly neccessary, (but the characters have a Hate-Hate relationship in the Tracy-Hepburn mould, that resolves exactly as one would expect.)

  3. Excellent. I think ladies look wonderful in short hair. It’s amazing to think that it was once considered radical.

  4. Shailene Woodley hacks off her long hair right at the beginning of Insurgent. I think it’s meant to show her clarity of purpose. “I’m not going to let my hair get in the way of my intention to kill Evil Jeanine and liberate my people.” A Joan of Arc-type sentiment, I think.

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