My discussion of fictional haircuts leaves out one possibly pertinent fact: I included a dramatic haircut in my own novel Among the Red Stars. So I’m going to talk about my reasons for making that choice and the message I was trying to convey.
The short answer for why my protagonist, Valya, gets her hair cut is because it happened historically. Like most Russian girls at the time, young Valya has long braids, and all the members of Aviation Group 122 were required to get short “boy-style” haircuts (as shown in the early doodle at left). But historicity is an incomplete answer. Of course I could have found a way to keep Valya’s hair long if I’d wanted to. One Night Witch even avoided cutting her hair by hiding it under her hat, and was later held up as an example by a male general who didn’t approve of the other girls’ boyish hairstyles.
Additionally, unlike most of the Night Witches, Valya chooses to keep her hair short. So in her case it’s a real turning point that marks a permanent change. All this is deliberate artistic choice beyond the dictates of historicity.
To get into the real reason, I have to share a bit of my own history. Like Valya, I had very long hair as a teenager, but never as part of a very cohesive or well-developed visual identity. I took poor care of it and unconsciously tended toward male-coded styles, such as pulling it into low ponytails and not tucking it behind my ears even though that was ubiquitous at the time. An inveterate goofball, I often joked around by doing imitations of Cousin It or Samara from The Ring, in retrospect obvious signs of discomfort with an appearance that didn’t suit me.
No one ever forbade me from cutting my hair, but implicit social pressures are strong. None of the girls I knew had short hair, certainly not the male-coded styles I now like best. I longed to buck conformity, but didn’t feel equipped to do so. Walking into a hair salon and demanding that they cut off all my hair was simply outside my realm of possibilities.
My personal turning point came during my senior year, when hair-donation charity Locks of Love experienced a surge of popularity and a group of my friends all got our hair cut. I lost 16 inches of hair in one go. Once I got past the initial novelty of showering in half the time and not feeling like an Old English sheepdog in the summer, I found a whole new world of self-expression open to me. For the first time in my life, I actually liked my hair and wanted to do something with it other than check the box of minimum social acceptability. I dyed it and put it into liberty spikes and finally did all the things I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.
Valya’s experience parallels my own. We both grew up with socially acceptable haircuts that did not suit us particularly well, but the inertia of social pressures was strong enough that we never really considered other options. It took an outside reason other than self-expression to allow us to embrace an appearance outside the norm.
Of course the choice is gendered. All of society is gendered. Valya doesn’t cut her hair because she needs to “become a man” in order to become a warrior, but the two choices harmonize becoming a warrior is already a male-coded decision in our society, and embracing a minor male-coded choice—a haircut—makes it easier to embrace a larger male-coded choice that reads as real social deviance.
So that’s why Valya cuts her hair short. It’s not a referendum on female self-expression. It’s a personal choice for her, as it was for me, and it happens within the context of a variety of women making different choices: Some keep their hair long, some had short hair to begin with, and some cut it but grow it out again. There are many ways to be female and many ways to perform gender, and I hope Among the Red Stars will help girls see that.