For most of us, a haircut is a periodic necessity, but in fiction, haircuts only happen to make a statement. Being an appearance-related story element, the use and connotations of fictional haircuts are fraught with complex gendered implications. A character getting a haircut sends a message, and that message may contain layers of meaning that the author didn’t intend. Let’s have a look.
Fictional haircuts come in two varieties: The traumatic and the dramatic. Traumatic haircuts are involuntary, either forcibly inflicted on a character by someone else (Evey in V for Vendetta) or carried out by the character out of necessity in response to an involuntary, traumatic situation (Fantine in Les Miserables). Dramatic haircuts, on the other hand, are carried out voluntarily by the character, often by their own hand, to signal a decision or turning point that they chose themselves. Thus, for instance, having one’s head shaved after being unwillingly drafted is a traumatic haircut, while having one’s head shaved after voluntarily enlisting is a dramatic haircut. There’s some interplay between the categories, but for the most part they’re easily distinguishable.
Traumatic haircuts are a form of violence because they violate bodily autonomy. These scenes are filled with rough physical imagery as the character is physically restrained and their hair roughly shorn with trimmers or hacked off unevenly with a razor blade or other crude instrument. The character usually cries. As a form of “soft” violence that causes no pain or permanent damage, they are sometimes used as a proxy in media where more graphic violence isn’t possible. And aside from Max Rockatansky, they virtually always happen to women.
Thus, traumatic haircuts are a type of gendered violence, with all the attendant implications. It’s easy to suggest that they’re specific to women simply because more female characters have long hair to begin with, but that’s an oversimplication. There’s also the fact that women are the disproportionate victims of all forms of fictional violence. But the most important factor is that long hair carries such strongly female-coded connotations that, culturally, depriving a woman of her hair carries much more weight than doing the same to a man. It may be a punishment for a woman’s sexual behavior (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); in any case it’s a punishment for being feminine. It’s a milder analogue to the fictional serial killer who carves up pretty women’s faces. Add in the lack of pain and there’s an additional implication that women are fragile and shallow for being traumatized by such a superficial act.
Traumatic haircuts tap into a deep vein of gendered violent imagery in fiction. They’re best avoided or used very carefully, with close consideration of the message being sent.
Dramatic haircuts are extremely different. The character is usually alone, cutting their hair by themselves, often with a meaningful instrument (Mulan) or accompanied by some kind of ritual (Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender). The character’s expression tends to be stoic and resolute. This is not a form of violence at all, but rather a change in physical presentation more permanent than a clothing change but less so than a tattoo, either of which may accompany it. The hair need not have been especially long to begin with, and the new haircut need not be any particular style. Neat or messy, conforming or nonconforming—it all depends on what specific turning point the character is experiencing (in Stardust, Tristan even gets a magical haircut that lengthens his hair). Male characters may shave facial hair. Because this type of haircut is not strongly gendered. It happens to men, women, and even children (Ethan in Suburbia).
Now, one could do a statistical analysis normalized for the preponderance of male characters and it might turn out that female characters get proportionately more dramatic haircuts, but the point is that they’re a common plot device for both genders. Men often get dramatic haircuts when they enter a new culture with different mores (Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke) or when they disguise themselves to go on the run (Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive). And, of course, everyone gets shorn in boot camp movies. Women’s haircuts might carry more weight or happen for more subjective reasons, but those are shades of difference within the same basic category.
A gender difference finally emerges if you isolate haircuts that signify someone becoming a warrior, but not through modern boot camp (Tris in the Divergent series). This is getting down to a pretty small group, but it happens almost exclusively to women (rare male examples, like O’Neil in the Stargate movie, often signal some additional kind of change). Explanations like short hair being more practical are nothing but hand waves. Especially when coupled with a costume change from a dress into more masculine-coded battle gear, this carries the strong and damaging implication that women need to assume male-coded characteristics in order to fight.
But there are a multitude of other factors involved*. Certainly women in male-dominated fields (including warfare) can face pressure to present in male-coded ways in order to show that they belong, such as when Five Iron Frenzy’s sole female member adopted the moniker Jeff so she’d fit in. But some women also go into male-dominated fields because they like male-coded presentation and enjoy being in an environment where that’s acceptable (for instance, during WWII, some gender-nonconforming women enlisted in the army because they liked the idea of wearing a uniform). A fictional character, therefore, might not be getting forced into a form of expression she doesn’t want, but rather embracing a form of expression she wanted to take all along. This works on both an in-story level and a meta level: An author might feel the need to provide a reason why a female character has a short haircut instead of simply giving her one, especially when writing for an audience used to very female-coded presentation.
Because there’s also a pressure in the opposite direction, and it’s far more culturally dominant: The pressure for women to look feminine, especially if they’re in a male-dominated field. Far more than they get pressured into looking or acting male-coded, women who take up male-coded activities, like fighting, face cultural pressure to present in even more female-coded ways to demonstrate that they’re still “real” women and that their violation of gender norms is only an aberration. Thus every female politician who’s had to share a cookie recipe and every puff piece about a prominent woman that details her appearance and family life. And thus the endless parade of female warriors in silk gowns, stilettos, fancy updos, and what have you, whether or not such an outfit makes any logical sense for what they’re doing. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turned this subtext into text with the logline “Bloody Lovely.”)
And then there’s the female-coded equivalent of the dramatic haircut: the makeover scene. The gender politics of the makeover could be an article to themselves, but in brief, makeovers are essentially always female and deeply rooted in traditional concepts of gender. When a female character gets a makeover, it signifies that she deserves whatever goal she’s trying to achieve (a boyfriend, the throne, etc) because of her physical attractiveness and ability to perform femaleness. This applies whether or not the goal has anything to do with gender or appearance. In fact, female warriors often get makeovers too (Katniss in The Hunger Games series). This obviously has nothing to do with their fighting skill; the entire purpose is to demonstrate that they’re still “real women” even though they fight.
Female fighters who take on male-coded styles and female fighters who take on female-coded styles are in fact part of the same ecosystem, which is the ecosystem all women live in: a male-centric world where women are an aberration and their simple existence requires justification. Each of us makes a day-to-day choice of how to present ourselves within that system. Do we present the way someone (implicitly male) in our field is expected to present signaling our legitimacy in that field? Or do we present the way women are supposed to present, signaling our legitimacy as women? Whether you put on a leather jacket and combat boots or a sundress and strappy sandals, it’s a choice; one choice is just more socially acceptable and thus easier to make without conscious thought.
So, while it’s true that women who cut their hair to become fighters are reinforcing the idea that fighting is male-coded, it’s a wildly misleading statement because it only tells part of the story and implicitly suggests that gender conformity wouldn’t reinforce that idea. The truth is that every appearance choice is made within a male-centric system and can be used to reinforce that system, none more so than the choice to police another woman for her choices.
To break away from this mindset, our stories need to depict women in a wide variety of both roles and gender presentations without trying to use their appearance as a way to justify their acceptability as warriors or members of any other male-coded group. As individuals, we need to embrace appearance as free choice and not hold specific women, real or fictional, accountable for how their personal style affects the entirety of gender relations. And that means that women can get haircuts—and makeovers—for whatever reason they like.
*The final reason why men are less likely to get dramatic haircuts when they become warriors is that they’re more likely to already be warriors when the story starts (the Pacific Rim principle).
Screencaps are from V for Vendetta, Game of Thrones, Suburbia, Princess Mononoke, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Firefly.