When a Woman on TV Is in Distress, She Cuts Her Hair Off

The NewsroomMad Men, and Girls have all included this plot point in recent seasons. Why?
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In a recent episode of HBO's The Newsroom, Maggie, a young associate producer on the fictional cable show News Night, cut her long, blonde hair to a short, red pixie. This was foreshadowing. In a later episode, viewers found out why she cut her hair: She'd witnessed the death of Daniel, a little boy she made friends with, while reporting in Uganda. Cutting her hair was a way to express outwardly her inner trauma. She recalled a moment when Daniel touched her hair, during which the boy's teacher told him that blonde hair was "nothing but trouble." The connection between the memory and her decision doesn't really make sense. If the blonde hair is a terrible reminder of the incident, the dye job would make sense, but not the cut. To make the chop all the more dramatic, emphasizing her emotional instability, Maggie cuts it off herself. Plenty of women cut their own bangs and trim their ends. Not many women try to cut a short, complex hairstyle themselves. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't look very good.

Maggie's not the only TV heroine to chop off her hair in a moment of distress. At the end of the second season of another HBO show, Girls, Hannah Horvath cuts her hair off during a period of mental illness. In Season 4 of Mad Men, Sally Draper cuts her hair for reasons that may include a desire for her father's attention, a desire for everyone's attention, or a need to have some form of control over her life after her parents' divorce.

The dramatic haircut has had mixed success. It works well on Mad Men and Girls. Sally's decision to cut her hair is a complicated one, and the viewer is left slightly concerned at the Freudian implications of what she's done: She wanted to look more like a woman she thought her father was attracted to. And yet she is a child, and children tend to seek attention without necessarily thinking through the consequences. It is a slightly unsettling scene, but it fits with her character development. As for Girls, Lena Dunham, the show's writer and star, has already explored Hannah's neuroses throughout the series, so the haircut fits in with the broader portrayal of her character.

On The Newsroom, however, the haircut is a sign of shallow female character-writing. Maggie conveys her traumatic experience in an outwardly emotional, almost adolescent, manner. She doesn't brood and let her emotions fester, or release them in angry, insightful rants. She simply cuts and dyes her hair, looking sullen the whole time. This is emblematic of Sorkin's treatment of female characters on the show in general: They look incompetent or emotional, if not both. Emily Mortimer's character, Mackenzie, is presented as smart and experienced journalist, yet she finds it very difficult to cope with basic life problems. In the first season, Mackenzie struggles to understand basic email functions. She sleeps with a politician who makes guest appearances on the show, a reckless decision for a journalist to make. Another character, Sloan Sabbith (whose name is reminiscent of a 1980s porn star's), is beautiful and smart, but has poor decision-making skills and low self-confidence. She sets one of her bosses up with a woman she knows is unstable and she releases a source's information on a personal whim. She almost talks her way out of a new job, saying she's unqualified to talk about economics, despite having a Ph.D. in economics. She sets Timothy Geithner on fire. Maggie's haircut is just one example of Sorkin's stereotyping of women as emotionally fragile, rash creatures.

But even when a dramatic haircut is done well, as it is on Girls and Mad Men, it still sends a troubling message: It seems to confirm that a woman's value lies in how she looks, and that only psychological instability would cause her to make a drastic change in her physical appearance.

A haircut doesn't have to be a sign of internal turmoil. On The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling's character, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, gets a haircut, which represents a leap of faith. After doubting her ability to live with her boyfriend in a cramped tent in Haiti, Mindy took a chance on herself and her relationship. The impetus for the haircut was not trauma, but Mindy's decision to make a huge change in her life. After informing a friend that she was considering going to Haiti with her Christian boyfriend for volunteer work, her friend suggested she cut her hair to better manage life in Haiti, without the amenities Mindy would have in the States. The character is notoriously shallow and selfish, so the decision to cut her hair, which she claims will make her look less feminine and therefore hurt her vanity, is a big step for her. She is walking outside her comfort zone.

Felicity, of the television show of the same name, has also been one of few female TV characters to cut her hair as a show of independence. When she cuts her hair in the beginning of Season 2, Felicity is surely experiencing some stress, between romantic entanglements and career responsibilities--but no more than the average college student. Her monologue demonstrated that the haircut wasn't about reacting to the world around her. Her decision was based on her desire and nothing more:

It's one thing to say you're going to let go. It's another to actually do it. To loosen your grip, to let yourself fall. So when I walked into the hair-cutting place, I was taking a leap. But I wasn't doing it for some guy or because of some list. I was doing it for me.

The sentiment behind Felicity's haircut, that she simply wanted a new style, one unmotivated by trauma or the reactions of men, was the kind of refreshing change that women need to see more of on television and in the movies. Women are accustomed to watching female characters cut their hair in moments of depression and desperation. Sometimes the decision isn't as shallow and clumsy as Sorkin's. But these characters' motivations for changing their hairstyle give viewers the impression that happy women don't get pixie cuts.

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Casey Quinlan

Casey Quinlan is a reporter at MFWire who has written for the New York Daily News, Feministing and The Legislative Gazette

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