Buzzed: The Politics of Hair

Emma González, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., at the March for Our Lives rally.

Since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the March for Our Lives, the emergence of Emma González, a senior at the school, as a national face of gun control activism has drawn much attention for her role as a founder of #NeverAgain and for her views on social media strategy — and for her now famously shaven head.

To many outside eyes, her hair (or lack of it) has become the symbol of her refusal to accept the status quo, her refusal to simply sit back and leave change to the establishment. So much so that The New Yorker recently published an article comparing her to Joan of Arc, as depicted in the 1928 film by Carl Theodor Dreyer: another young woman with a genius for inspiring leadership, a deeply felt belief system and “brutally close-cropped hair.”

No matter that, as the essay’s author acknowledges, a few weeks before the shooting Ms. González had declared, on her school’s Instagram account, that “I decided to cut my hair because it was a pain in the neck, if you’ll forgive the pun. It was really hot all the time; it was very cumbersome and very heavy, leading to a lot of headaches. It was expensive to keep it up, and as prom time came around, I figured it would be cheaper to not have to worry about doing my hair.”

Her original motivation has become shrouded in her advocacy, and in the eyes of the watching world, her head has taken on its own meaning, representative of our failure, of her renunciation. If, a few years ago, it seemed possible that with the advent of models like Ruth Bell and Kris Gottschalk, buzz cuts on women could be viewed as representations of “quirky beauty” and celebrated all over the East Village and beyond, the reaction to Ms. González’s hair has made it clear that we were deluded.

“I don’t think you can ever just shrug it off as a matter of personal expression,” said Erin K. Vearncombe, a lecturer at Princeton University who specializes in the cultural anthropology of dress. “Hair is intrinsically linked to assumptions about gender and power relations.” It has always been, from the myth of Medusa (whose hair was made of snakes, and whose glance could turn men to stone) through the travails of Hillary Clinton as first lady, when her many hairdos came to represent what her opponents saw as her slippery opportunism — and the new buzz cuts.

Hair, in the eyes of the beholders — partly because it is so much in the eyes of the beholders — is, as it ever was, a political issue. It is, as the anthropologist Grant McCracken wrote in his book “Big Hair,” “our court of deliberation, the place where we contemplate who and what we are.” And while such contemplation ebbs and flows, it is, like everything else in this heightened political climate, once again central to the conversation. At least the visual one.

Earlier this year, Rose McGowan’s shaven pate was displayed in high definition on the cover of “Brave,” her account in part of her experience with sexual harassment. Last month, Asia Kate Dillon and the shaved head returned to small screens (and promotional billboards) everywhere in “Billions,” and the first nonbinary gender character on American series television.

Since the release of “Black Panther” in February, the bald heads of the Dora Milaje soldiers, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira), have become clarion calls of black female strength and beauty. And Adwoa Aboah, the Model of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in December, is known for not only her stubbled head but also her Gurls Talk platform and her advocacy on the part of young women’s mental health.

In all cases, it is almost impossible to separate the image from the activism.

Especially because those images exist in stark contrast to those of certain other women in the public eye, in particular the women associated with the Trump family, including the first lady, Melania Trump, and the former communications director Hope Hicks, whose long, lush locks represent what Mr. McCracken call “voluptuous hair” — hair in the Rita Hayworth-Cindy Crawford mode. It could be a coincidence, though it is also notable that some of the things the women who have shaved their heads stand for represent a group of values and cultural beliefs that the administration does not share: gun control, L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

Hair is not solely a female issue, of course; men’s hair is also fraught (hello, Samson; hello, skinheads). Though as Dr. Vearncombe said, “because we focus so much attention on the head, especially on the female head, and because this attention is gendered, and because, more than anything, this attention is visible, absent hair on a woman’s head can be read as disruptive to the politics of the male gaze. Looking at a woman’s face, at her hair, has conventionally been an exercise of desire, and of an assertion of male power. Disrupting this convention, disrupting this gaze, allows us to see a different set of possibilities for the female head. The shaved head ‘speaks’ in a different way.”

And what is says is multitudes. It can sometimes speak of punishment: After World War II, women in France who were accused of being collaborators had their heads shaved in public; Natalie Portman’s character in “V for Vendetta” had her head shaved during a torture scene. It can reflect discipline and toughness: See Demi Moore in “G.I. Jane” and Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It can represent instability: When Britney Spears had her breakdown in 2007, she shaved her head in an act that has practically become a synonym in the pop lexicon for unstable. And it can be a direct riposte to a certain set of social and cultural values and expectations.

In an excerpt from her book published in i-D, Ms. McGowan wrote of shaving her head: “I broke up with you. The collective you, the societal you. I broke up with the Hollywood ideal, the one that I had a part in playing.” It was a way of rejecting, she wrote. “The ideal version of a woman that is sold to you by every actress in every hair commercial telling you, ‘this the secret to being beguiling, the secret to getting a man to want you.’”

This is hair as seen through the Freudian lens, wherein the whole head becomes a stand-in for sexuality. Ms. McGowan later went on to say that her hair made her feel like a blowup sex doll. And yet, by rejecting it, by shaving it, she did not escape it (none of us do); she simply transformed its messaging.

As Geraldine Biddle-Perry, an Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins and the co-editor of “Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion,” wrote in an email exchange, “For women who voluntarily cut/shave their hair, volition alters the symbolic grammar and so the act functions in terms of female agency and empowerment.”

Which in turn raises the question of whether we are in for more head shaving, and whether that may ultimately lead to a time when, Dr. Vearncombe said, “we will not care about what a woman puts on or removes from her head.”

It’s possible. Though given the history, gun control may have a better chance.

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