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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HBO

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.

Presented by

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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