The Perfect Hair Problem: Women In Visual Media

Posted: August 24, 2015 in Critical Hit
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One of my biggest pet peeves in visual media is what I tend to think of as the Perfect Hair Problem. It happens when female characters in physically active professions end up consistently sporting long, perfectly coiffed locks that are never tied back and certainly never cut. Their hair is never messy, because it’s never allowed to be practical or, god forbid, ignored altogether. Whether they’re cops or mercenaries or superheroes, their unbound manes swish freely as they run into battle. Their hair is always a decorative thing, because the people making the show or the film in question are always conscious of the woman’s beauty: they know they’re telling a story, and so use that license to render her as prettily perfect in difficult situations as, realistically, such women would seldom be. We’re most of us suckers for beauty, after all, and in the end, we know it’s pretend – so what does it really matter?

But far from being innocuous, this small, visual detail is part of a larger problem, one that serves to steadily erase female characterisation on the screen. Though men on TV are similarly meant to be handsome and held to their own particular physical standards, the female equivalent is frequently narrower and more exacting, especially when it comes to age and bodytype, and because there’s a greater expectation that female bodies be showcased to their best advantage at all times, that in turn influences the costumes their characters are given – how put-together they’re meant to look at any given time, and in what way – to a much higher degree. Yes, there are certainly some individual outliers and exceptions, but as an aggregate phenomenon, women on the screen are meant to look immaculate, regardless of whether their characters would realistically do so, in ways that men are not.

And as such, this changes the nature of their characterisation at a fundamental level: it’s an absence of individuality, an absence of personal expression replaced, all too often, with similar permutations on a bland, fashionable sameness. How we dress and the importance we ascribe to various types of personal grooming and deportment says a lot about us as people, and even if only subconsciously, we viewers notice the absence of those quirks in ladies on the screen and react accordingly: we know something’s missing, even if we can’t quite pin it down. Consider the women you actually know; the ways they dress and look. My mother is 5’11 and grew up feeling self-conscious about her legs, and so seldom displays them, even in warm weather. Her hair is cut short for practical reasons; she’s equally likely to wear men’s shirts as women’s, prefers loose clothes to tight, wears very little makeup, and seldom bothers with high heels, because she doesn’t need to extra height and finds them uncomfortable anyway. My mother-in-law, by contrast, is about 5’1 and has always had a strong interest in fashion. Though short, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear heels: she prefers flats, especially ballet flats – shoes that are both pretty and comfortable. She takes great care with her earrings, glasses and bracelets: at any given time, they’ll all be colour-coded to match whatever outfit she’s wearing, which will invariably be something interesting, the pieces drawn from many different places but all complimenting each other. Because I know them both, I can see how their respective personalities and interests influence their clothes, but even if they were strangers to me, they’d still be visually distinct enough – even beyond the disparity in heights – to signal their different tastes.

Women on the screen, however, are not allowed such unique aesthetics. Their hair is long, because our cultural beauty standards privilege women with long hair, and invariably worn loose, kept in place with spray and sheer force of will; their clothes are expensive and form-fitting, because we’re meant to admire their aspirationally well-toned bodies, which we can’t do if they’re wearing loose things or layers; their shoes have high heels, because we consider that fashionable, even for women who spend all day on their feet; their makeup is immaculate, their nails are manicured, and to me, they look largely like alien creatures, because 90% of the time, there’s a disconnect between who their appearance says they are and what their character is meant to be. The Perfect Hair Problem fritzes with my ability to recognise these women as three-dimensional people the same way that driving into an area with bad reception makes the car radio go staticky and faint: in both instances, there’s an urge to slap the box and tell the responsible mechanism to cut it out, and if that fails, to switch channels – but as in the metaphoric backwoods, the signal is glitchy everywhere, and occasional service is better than nothing at all.

To be clear: I’m not saying I fail to connect with female characters just because they’re dressed and coiffed a certain way, or that every female character who fits that description is necessarily poorly written. I’m saying it bugs me that women on screen are seldom allowed to deviate from a set aesthetic, even if it suits their personalities: aren’t allowed to shave their heads or not shave their armpits or shove their hair up in an unkempt bun or wear long skirts with boots or t-shirts that aren’t nipped at the waist; aren’t allowed to be visually distinct in ways that go much beyond hair colour, or which forever render particular clothing choices off limits, just because we might think they’re less pretty like that. I’ve never seen a teen girl protagonist on TV who favours loose or baggy clothes who wasn’t a cartoon character; I’ve seldom seen black women characters with natural hair, which is an entire issue in its own right. Purely on the basis of their characterisation and personal priorities, your geeky-pretty Queen of Tech should not have an aesthetic that’s functionally identical to that of the partygirl teenage heiress, which in turn should be distinct from that of the hard-working lawyer, and no, it doesn’t count if you give the tomboy character a basic, sensible wardrobe, but then find endless narrative excuses to show her dressed up after hours or give her the She’s All That treatment, Arrow, I am looking squarely at your first season. Something I still love about The X Files is the fact that Scully spends basically nine years swathed in an enormous beige overcoat or the most ridiculous nineties jacket with her hair in a sensible bob, because that’s the kind of woman she is, and her wardrobe is allowed to reflect it.

For how strongly and readily our sexist culture insists that women love clothes and shoes and makeup and expressing themselves individually through fashion, TV shows and movies sure do hate to show them actually doing it unless their “individual” tastes just to happen to magically coincide with What Magazines Think Is Hot. But men are allowed to be as fashionable or unfashionable as they like – can be as messy or scruffy or long-haired or short-haired or daggy or geeky or well-groomed or quirky or casual as their characterisation demands – because their visual presentation is always meant to support their personality instead of emphasising their beauty first and their personhood second. It’s a default that Orphan Black is, of necessity, particularly adept at subverting: with Tatiana Maslany playing so many characters, there’s a clear need to establish clear visual identities for each of them. Cosima is not Helena is not Allison is not Sarah: Maslany nails their different vocal tics and physical mannerisms with a skill that’s almost eerie, but the performance is still aided by how clearly their individual looks relate to who they are.

And I for one would very much like to see more of it.

  1. wagnerel says:

    Nice article, and I honestly think society has gotten even less accepting of female differences than it was when I was young. I teach at a college, and one day while I was bored proctoring an exam, I noticed something. The male students had more varied hair styles than the female ones did.

    Some guys had shaved or buzzed hair. Others had short “standard” male hair. Some had collar or slightly longer than collar length. And one had long hair pulled back in a ponytail, while another had long, loose hair. Some had curly hair and some straight.

    The women, in contrast, all had long, straight or slightly wavy hair. Some had it down, while others had it pulled back or put up in a bun, but only one had bangs. Not a single bob, pixie, or shoulder-length cut among them. And no curls.

    There was more variation in their clothes, with some wearing pants or shorts and some skirts, and some being more “dressed up” looking than others. As for the hair, this was an admittedly small sample size of around 30 female students, but it did make me wonder what’s going on, as it’s quite a change from what I remember from my own college days.

  2. Alex Hurst says:

    That’s actually a really good point. I was ready to go into the argument that men have their own oblique standards, but then you mentioned the individuality. We can have scarred men, short men, fat men, Alpha Male men, and so on, and each perpetuates a different archetype or stereotype, but if a woman ventures out of the confines you mentioned, she is automatically the ‘comic relief’ or, perhaps, ‘grandma.’ Great article.

  3. lkeke35 says:

    And there’s also the class angle as well. Every woman on television, no matter what type of job she actually has on screen (even when in real life where we know how much women like that get paid), all dress in a middle class, suburban or corporate style. Very poor women , look poor. Their hair isn’t as lustrous, they tend to look less well fed, and their clothes look hand me down. Waitresses all look middle class, too, with visible makeup, no matter what time of day or activity.

    Basically women on TV (no matter who they are or what they’re doing) just all look like they have acting jobs.

    I cringed for example, in Spderman 2 ,when Mary Jane leaves her waitressing job, from some greasy spoon diner, and crosses the street in a pair of high heels. There’s not a waitress on the planet, working in such a place, who would do that.

    There’s also little, if any, variation based on geographic location, either. Women from Alabama dress exactly like women from Ohio, who dress just like women from California. I noticed this from the Drew Carey Show a few years ago. I’m from that town, and although Mimi was dressed very distinctly, there’s no one in this city who dresses like that, especially in the corporate environment, where she worked. (Fat women are always dressed for comedic effect on TV. Fat women are funny because they’re fat but that’s not enough. They have to dress like clowns, too because they don’t have individual tastes.)

    I’m also from the inner city and we do not dress like women from the Midwestern suburbs. We just don’t and people can tell. There are no such variations on TV. Black women from the city have distinctive differences in clothing tastes from an upper middle class white woman from the suburbs even when they’re on the same economic level.

    When I was a teenager, I called it the Laura Ashley Syndrome. Although, I’m sure they’re out there, I’ve never met even one black woman, or actually any woman under 30, who even knew who Laura Ashley was or wore her clothes, yet it was a very popular look amongst white suburbanites back then.

    There’s also no distinction given to culture. An Italian woman from New Jersey looks indistinguishable from a Jewish woman from Florida.

    There’s a kind of corporate uniformity at work too, most especially in detective shows. I noticed this a few years ago when switching between several detective shows, on evening. The women were all in primary colored, form fitting blouses, with few skirts or dresses and with high heels (apparently open toed shoes are also a no-no.)

    • Back when the John Cusack/Catherine Zeta Jones/Julia Roberts film America’s Sweethearts came out, the movie presents Roberts as a former fat woman (a whole 70 pounds heavier) and shots of her heavy self show her as not only overweight but frumpy. Because fat people, of course, don’t care about their personal appearance (this was not my insight, but I don’t remember who pointed it out to me).

      • lkeke35 says:

        What I used to like to do was people watching downtown in my city. And I did observe how women dressed. I could often tell what type of job they might have, (secretary or middle management or top floor), where they might live (in the city, suburbs), and sometimes where they were on the socioeconomic spectrum. Mind you, this is just me speculating and guessing but I did notice very distinct ways of dressing, right down to the accesoories women carried, whether or not they wore makeup and what kind of jewelry.
        You get none of that nuance from most of televison. In fact the way that most women dress on TV is uniformlt bland, giving no clue to geography, or wealth or health of the woman.

  4. Alicia F says:

    Buffy always used to put her hair back and put sensible shoes on if she was doing actual patrolling (as opposed to random unexpected vampire slaying). I admired that!

  5. e2thec says:

    And they all have perfectly made-up faces, which is equally ridculous, because even if the women in question are make-mp-wearing types, they’d have long since sweated it off during any given wction sewuence, or even on a hot day, just standing around.

    These things, per hair length, are cyclical to a degree. Like my late 60s-early 70s peers, i wore my hair long, and then went to a short cut and have never looked back. Short hair was fashionable during the run of The X Files, and i can remember women getting cuts like Scully’s during the height of the show’s popularity. Some of the 90s Trek spinoffs had women with variants on the basic pixie cut. (Just as Twiggy’s iconic bob wad followed up by the long hair of the very late 60s-early 70s, in hippie chic style.) ISTM that long hair has been fashionable (again) for about 10 years now, and so we’re due for a shift back to shorter hair.

    Overall, though, i very much agree with your take, and was pleased to see a variety of looks (-including shorter hair and comfy clothes) worn by somd of the women in shows like Broadchurch. The tyranny of Hollywood, and of the fashion industry, is maddening, though at least there’s a bit more scope for finding clothes and shoes, due to internet shopping. (I’m a mix of Foz’s mom and MIL, though haven’t worn makeup in years and prefer to be in comfortable clothes whenever possible.)

  6. e2thec says:

    Apologies for typos above. Android is not very forgiving.

  7. Sarah Kate says:

    This is one of the many reasons I loved The Killing so much (Danish version, haven’t seen the remake so not sure if it’s the same), Sarah Lund wears practical clothes, no make up, with her hair tied back in the same boring low ponytail mine ends up in most the time. Just I’ve of the reasons she’s such a great character.

  8. Vivi says:

    “Orphan Black” still has the characters with perfectly shaved armpits while on the run for days or weeks, though. But I heartily agree on “The X-Files” – I’ve just started rewatching the show (because of the miniseries revival in January), and Scully’s sensible outfits are really refreshing. It’s also one of the many things I loved about the first season of the revived Doctor Who (i.e. the Eccleston era) – while I couldn’t identify with Rose on a lot of levels and her style is far more girly than mine, I loved that she was allowed to dress kind of cheaply and low-class (often in a hoodie and baggy pants), wear comfortable sport shoes, apply her make-up badly (way too much mascara), had dark roots showing under her bleached dye-job and constantly changed her hairstyle, and even had a bad hair day or two. Sadly, this was all meant as a sign of immaturity and her ‘bad’ styling vanished along with much of her personality and independence as a character, in the second season. And then Martha was running around in heels in season 3. (Though the outfits the same actress wears in Sense8 are just plain amazing. “I sense a costume opportunity!” And that pile of dreads… It’s all very much part of her personality and sexual / racial identity. Come to think of it, while no female character is allowed to look actually unattractive (okay, neither are the men – when they’re wearing clothes at all – but they’re occasionally dirty at least), the designers on that show did make an effort to customise the outfits to reflect culture, social status and occupation. (Mostly – see below.) Nomi, who is trans and works in IT, looks the most girl-next-door and has the least make-up on, which either makes a lot of sense in terms of attempts to assimilate, or possibly was an intentional divergence from the hyper-feminine drag-queen stereotype.)

    Unlike you, I will say that yes, this sort of thing does keep me from relating to a female character. I never ever dressed like the standard women on TV (I can’t wear heels; I don’t bother with make-up or jewelry; I refuse to shave and don’t have the legs to show them off anyway; I have long hair for when I want to feel feminine, but keep it out of the way in a lazy bun almost all the time; and I almost never wear skirts because pants are more practical). And neither did my mother, though she wore some make-up and dyed her hair. Frankly, most female scientists I know dress more or less like I do, because nobody cares how pretty you are in the lab, and you don’t want to ruin your nicer clothes, so it’s jeans and old t-shirts under that lab coat, and bare legs and ‘girly’ (open or heeled) shoes are a safety risk anyway if you play around with acids and radioactive isotopes. (This is a point that actually bothers me about Sense8 – yes, Kala is a very beautiful, very feminine woman, but she’s also waaayyy too made-up for chemistry lab in the few scenes when she’s at work. Her gorgeous long, open hair would catch fire so fast. And what idiot designed that tiny little wrap-jacket of a lab coat? The whole purpose of a lab coat is to protect your clothes and arms from stains and open flames!) Hell, even my more feminine friends in high school who, unlike me, were actually interested in attracting a romantic partner, never really bothered to dress up like teenagers on TV, unless they were going to a party. And even then… And yes, it bothers me that no women on TV or in the movies ever dress like I feel ‘normal’ women do. If they do, it’s usually meant as a gender statement about being “butch”. Are gender dressing norms really that rigid in the US?

  9. […] post by Foz Meadows discusses how women on screen have to look fashionable even if their characters aren’t: “Their hair is long, because our cultural beauty […]

  10. […] she remains as smart and competent as Mulder and doesn’t back down on her skepticism. As Foz Meadows says, the show let Gillian Anderson dress in unremarkable jackets and blazers rather than looking […]

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