In the film, “Joy”, Jennifer Lawrence’s eponymous protagonist, having been bankrupted as a consequence of fraud, faces herself in the mirror, her wet blonde hair framing her pretty, distraught face – and shears handfuls of it off with kitchen scissors.
I thought that gesture was going to be shown to be one of self-abasement and despair. For the world within the film is one in which all women wear hairstyles reminiscent, in their rigidity, volume and elaboration, of eighteenth-century coiffures. Constantly taking their cues from the cast of “Dynasty,” the women, immaculately, albeit tastelessly dressed, make daily sculptures of their hair. Like the too-short, too-tight uniform and too-high heels that Joy wears to work, these hairstyles signify making an effort, presentability, and femininity.
Cropping hair, particularly when it’s done roughly, tends to be associated with disgrace and grief. The most famous haircut in Western thought must be Samson’s. The Biblical strongman foolishly reveals to the siren Delilah that his strength will be lost if his hair is cut. She – the minx! – cuts his hair and permits him to be captured in his weakened state by his enemies, the Philistines, who put out his eyes. Children with head lice used to have their heads shaven. In Dacia Maraini’s 1998 novel “The Silent Duchess”, the protagonist’s servant, having lost her hair to ringworm, scars herself by trying to cure it with hot tar. Her follicular disgrace correlates with her mental decline. In the 1980s, the shaven scalps of the post-punk “skinheads”, stereotypically young working-class men with a tendency towards football hooliganism, could be contrasted with the flowing locks of the no less boorish, but immensely richer, “yuppies”.
Forcible head-shaving tends to be directed against women who have in some way transgressed against society. The 1998 film “Elizabeth” opens with the shearing of a Protestant woman before she is burnt at the stake. When France was liberated from the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, women who had “collaborated” with the occupiers were shaved by the mob. A crop is that which is cut – therefore, it can be either a harvest or a haircut – but it’s also, as in “riding crop” a whip, a tool of violence and of control.
So, I expected that Joy, having abased herself, would have to be rescued in order for the film to resolve itself. But something surprising happens. Joy flies to Texas; confronts her adversary in a hotel room; and, apparently by no other means than by looking at her fingernails when he makes an unsatisfactory offer, compels him to capitulate.
What, therefore, does Joy’s haircut mean?
The Bible’s next most significant head of hair is not the source of a hero’s strength, but a beautiful weakness. King David’s son, Absalom, having found himself at war with his father due to a quite, ahem, hair-raising proto-Jacobean tragedy of blood, gets his notably long hair caught in the branches of an oak tree, and his enemies kill him where he hangs. Now, the text itself doesn’t say that long hair on men was unusual. It actually implies the opposite. Absalom cuts his hair once a year, when it has become uncomfortably heavy, “therefore he polled it” – that is, he wouldn’t bother otherwise. But the story may have contributed to the idea that long hair implies femininity and therefore weakness.
Men sometimes experience male pattern baldness, and that has at times been greatly resisted because of its connection with advancing age – see the pictures of Jack Charlton’s flying comb-over in his prime. However, men seem to be more comfortable with it today – perhaps because the definition of “youth” has changed. A man of 40, by which time male pattern baldness could be quite well advanced, might still have the same kind of lifestyle and interests as in his 20s. So a bald man need not be an old man. Moreover, since male pattern baldness is affected by androgens, it can acquire positive connotations via an association with virility.
Shaven heads in men are associated with strength. Soldiers adopt a businesslike crop. “I bought a military watch..it didn’t tell me the time, it told me to get my hair cut!” Skinheads are lower-class but they are also fearsome.
Meanwhile, women’s hair has been an arena for control. The Handsome Cabin Boy, the cross-dressing stowaway in the disturbing folk-song, betrays herself because
Her cheeks they were like roses and her hair was all a-curl
The sailors often smiled and said “He looks just like a girl.”
Apparently the expression “to let your hair down” originated in the tradition that women only wore their hair loose on their wedding day. Girls wore theirs plaited; wives wore theirs covered. An alarming variant of this prevailed in the Highlands of Scotland. Girls wore a snood, a bandeau of ribbon. On the morning after her wedding day, a newly-deflowered bride was ceremonially adorned, by her mother, with a three-cornered “curtch” or kerchief. Walter Scott says that “if a damsel was so unfortunate as to lose pretensions to the name of maiden” she was permitted to wear neither the snood nor the mutch. Let’s not underestimate the impact of shame upon a member of a close-knit and isolated society.
Deliberately rejecting long hair, therefore, has sometimes been associated with rejecting control on the basis of gender. At two points within the twentieth century, the Twenties and the Sixties, short hair for women and a generally boyish aesthetic was associated with participation in traditionally male avenues of power. The Twenties had dropped waists, Nancy Astor and the flapper vote. “Long hair, barbarous adornment, fleece to which clings an animal smell,” grumbled the writer Colette in 1929. The Sixties had shift dresses, Joan Bakewell and the Single Girl.
So when Joy cuts her hair (actually, she only takes it to chin level) she is not abasing herself but signifying her determination to play with the big boys. Earlier on in the film, the script says that she wins over Bradley Cooper’s QVC mogul by her determination and the merits of her product. The interplay between the two handsome protagonists, however, indicates a much more instinctive cause for his approval. She acquires a protector, therefore, as a woman; she defeats an adversary as a quasi-man.
At the end of the film, Joy, having lived out the American Dream and moved her children into a gigantic version of a folksy clapboarded house, is seen in her vast bureau receiving a supplicant – a woman who has invented, aptly enough for her sex, a lint roller. Joy receives her with kindness; promises her support; and instructs her flunkies to arrange a hotel suite for her family. Joy’s hair has grown out again, and has been put back into something akin to its previous elaborately-sculpted state. Having trespassed briefly into the sartorial and functional territory of men, she has adopted the specifically feminine role of benevolent matriarch; and that, I feel, is a shame.