Why Do Emotionally Distressed Female Characters Always Cut Off Their Hair?

Movies and television would have you believe no woman has ever cut her hair off just because, well, just because.
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Movies and television would have you believe no woman has ever cut her hair off just because, well, just because.

This holiday season, like so many other Americans, I found myself nestled snugly in the comfort of a movie-theater seat, anxiously awaiting the beginning of a film I'd been looking forward to for months. No, it wasn't Star Wars. (Though, now that I know my boyfriend, Oscar Isaac, is in that, I plan to see it ASAP.) I went, alone, to see David O. Russell's much anticipated holiday film, Joy

I'm a big fan of Russell's other films. (American Hustle was a huge influence on me, in case you forgot.) When I first saw the trailer for Joy, I was stoked. It's about Joy Mangano, legendary inventor, entrepreneur, and total badass. The woman invented huggable hangers, thusly improving the lives and closets of sensible people everywhere. I love celebrating the stories of hardworking women, and I love Jennifer Lawrence's angelic little face, so you can imagine my excitement. 

Overall, I liked the movie. It was slower-paced than I had hoped, but Jenny Law carried the film triumphantly through its highs and lows. There were some plot problems and bits of awkwardly staged dialogue, but I was mostly onboard. I mean, you can't put Isabella Rossellini and Virginia Madsen in the same movie and expect me to feel anything other than elation.

There was a scene toward the end that sort of blew it for me, though. [SPOILER ALERT SORT OF!] As Joy prepares to confront some very intimidating Business Men regarding the future of her company, she spends a late night going over paperwork and strategies before resorting to the singular trope of all distressed on-screen women everywhere: she takes a pair of scissors to her hair in the dimly lit bathroom and chops it all off. 

It's a trope nearly as old as film itself, and I have some feelings about it. 

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Off the top of my head, I can think of a bunch of films featuring this move. Right away, Mulan comes to mind. As she readies herself for battle, in which she impersonates a man so as to protect her aging father, Mulan epically chops her locks with one fell swoop of her sword. (It's suuuuuper realistic.)

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Demi Moore shaved her head to fit in with the men in G.I. Jane. Robin Tunney's head-shaving scene in Empire Records is particularly emotional. 

It's not just a movie trope — it happens on TV as well. On Girls, Hannah Horvath chopped her hair in the middle of an intense OCD episode. Sally Draper cuts her hair in season four of Mad Men. Maggie on The Newsroom cuts her hair after returning from a traumatic trip to Africa. 

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Women cutting their hair on screen often either represent a sense of overcoming some sort of trauma, or it's a thinly veiled attempt at "fitting in" with the men. To cut off your hair is to join the proverbial Boys Club. It is a way to symbolize a woman is gaining, or reclaiming, her power. 

But isn't it just sort of tired? 

Maybe my feelings about it are due to my personal experiences. I remember all too well the night I took scissors to my own hair. At 20, I'd discovered a sense of mental disquiet I'd never known before. I felt, all at once, unsteady, depressed, panicked, and scared. I stopped sleeping. I lived in a big, drafty old house in the country with three other girls, and one night, I was all alone.

In the yellowy fluorescent lighting of my bathroom, to the sound of creaking windows and a skipping Bob Dylan record, I took a pair of dull craft scissors to my long hair until I had a short bob for the first time since elementary school. Unsatisfied still, I kept hacking until I had something between a bowl and a pixie cut. It wasn't cute, but that wasn't the goal. I didn't really have a goal, I guess, except to physically manifest in some way the erratic way my mind felt. 

Mission accomplished. As soon as I got home the next week, my mom hauled my ass to the salon so a professional could fix the havoc I had wreaked. I wore my hair short for a few years after that. After a time, the haircut had no depth or meaning beyond, "I look cute with short hair." And so it was. 

Me with short hair in NYC in 2010. I was, notably, not very sad in this photo.

Me with short hair in NYC in 2010. I was, notably, not very sad in this photo.

Countless women I've spoken to can attest to similar experiences. Who among us has not stared too haughtily at a photo of Zooey Dechanel before sawing into our bangs like a little Edie Scissorhands only to wake up with regrettable bangs? Cutting your own hair, especially if it's spontaneous, is often an act born of irrational behavior. No wonder we so often associate it with mental breaks. 

But why do so many movies use dramatic hair changes to gesture a woman's mental breakdown? Why don't men get the same treatment? Aren't there ways for a woman to express mental anguish without changing her appearance? And can't a haircut just be a haircut? 

Dramatically altering your appearance in the throes of a mental illness isn't out of the question, but why is a haircut such a par-for-the-course way to illustrate a woman's emotional collapse? Besides Luke Wilson shaving his head and beard before attempting suicide in The Royal Tenenbaums, I can't think of any scene in which a man's hair plays such a vital role in a breakdown as it does in so many scenes featuring women. 

When it comes to mental breakdowns on screen, it seems women cut their hair. Men kill themselves. 

Maybe it's that women on-screen aren't afforded the sort of violence men so often are. Rather than breaking windows or engaging in physical violence, we hide in dimly lit bathrooms, quietly changing ourselves. 

What does it say about us as a culture that we associate something so heavy as a mental breakdown with the simple act of cutting hair? Sometimes, a spade's a spade and a haircut's a haircut. If we tie a woman cutting her hair into some idea of altering her identity, how much of a woman's identity are we wrapping up in her image? A woman is more than her hair, so why does a haircut have to mean a woman is shedding some part of herself? 

And what about the scene in Joy, where our heroine cuts her hair before meeting with some very intimidating men to win back her business? For 90% of the movie, Joy is working hard, inventing products, and fending for herself, all with very long, pretty blonde hair. It's blown-out perfectly and styled to the nines. When she goes into her final battle, though, Joy has to cut her hair (in the bathroom, of course) and let it air dry, in frizzy waves. (No shade — we all know I prefer some frizz.) 

While Mulan was literally disguising herself as a man, why does Joy have to lose her hair to feel she can stand on her own against men? As a woman who takes a lot of pleasure and pride in putting on my face and doing my hair every day, I take some umbrage at the thought that a man may take me less seriously because of my appearance, but I'm not naive to that reality. 

When I had very short hair, I certainly faced some revelations about myself. Without hair to hide behind, I grew more accepting and admiring of my own face. I learned I didn't need long curls or a ponytail to feel feminine, and I certainly didn't need it to gain the affections or approval of men. For many women, cutting your hair off can be liberating, empowering, or joy-making in a variety of ways. For some women, it's literally just a haircut. Movies and television, though, would have you believe no woman has ever cut her hair off just because, well, just because. 

The really annoying part about women cutting their hair off to fit in with the men is that it works. For Joy, it seals her the deal of a lifetime, and it makes no sense. Throughout the movie, Joy is never particularly vain or attached to her hair. She packs punches and holds her own throughout a variety of confrontations, all while rocking long hair, so why the need to chop it at the end? Not that I don't love it — she looks great. I just think it illustrates a pretty shallow understanding of women on David O. Russell's part, and I don't think he's the only writer to fall victim to such a trope. 

I don't think we need to do away with women cutting their in movies and on TV. Like I said, it's a feeling I understand all too well. But I'd like to see this trope relied on a little less, and see a more varied approach to women's mental anguish. It's a shallow, boring way to illustrate it. I don't doubt it happens. It Happened To Me. But when it comes to my own journey with my brain, the haircut was far from the peak of my distress. A haircut shouldn't be a character's emotional climax. 

Women with all types of haircuts should be able to stand-up to men on screen. Happy women and sad women alike get haircuts sometimes. Let's take the focus off of women's hair, just for a minute maybe.

  • What do you think of this trope, of women cutting their hair to express some sort of distress?
  • Do you think women's and men's mental issues get treated too differently on screen?
  • Tell me about the time you cut your hair in the bathroom.