Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The cinematic history of: women's hair colour

In recent release Blue is the Warmest Colour, the first thing about Emma that catches protagonist Adele’s eye is her sticking blue hair.  Its distinctive colour is what singles Emma out in the busy street, and is the image Adele remembers most vividly when dreaming about her after their first encounter. The colour blue even seems to resonate in Adele’s consciousness long after Emma dyes her hair to blonde, from the clothes she chooses to wear to her symbolic bathing in the ocean.
Emma continues a recent cinematic trend of love interests whose allure comes from their unorthodox hair colour. It is Ramona Flowers’ (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) pink ‘do that infatuates Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, while in Spike Jones’ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Kate Winslet’s hair alternates between various colours.

On one level these extravagant colours point to the cartoonish comic book aesthetic – both Blue is the Warmest Colour and Scott Pilgrim are adapted from graphic novels, with the red locks of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in The Avengers being another example. But on another level, their atypical style indicates a free spirited mind and counter-cultural individuality, as well as earning them plenty of indie credentials.

Through their coloured hair, they rebel against and reject the labels commonly assigned to a female character sporting either blonde, brunette, red or grey hair. Such colour-coded characterisation has been engrained in Hollywood storytelling as far back as the colourless world of black and white cinema. The blonde hair of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, is crucial to both her physical beauty and her persona of innocent ignorance, while the notions of the ‘dumb blonde’ and the ‘blonde bombshell’ have always shaped the way fair-haired actresses have been perceived.

Often, as the title of Monroe’s film Gentlemen Prefers Blondes and its sequel Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, dark-haired women are presented in opposition to blondes, usually as less alluring but more intelligent and reliable. The cliché for redheads, meanwhile, is possession of a fiery temperament exemplified by Maureen O’Hara, while even the slightest hint of grey hair is of course associated with aging.  
An actress’s hair colour is sometimes perceived as of primary importance ahead of her talent for acting by certain male directors; everyone knows of Hitchcock’s obsession for casting blondes, but note also the prevalence of, for instance, brunettes in Darren Aronofsky and Tim Burton, and of blondes in David Lynch and Steven Spielberg.

Actresses are so synonymous with their hair colour that altering it can cause alarm, as when Orson Welles enraged his backers by instructing Rita Hayworth to cut and die her famously long red hair to a short blonde for The Lady from Shanghai. And dramatic haircuts still posses the power to provoke, as the media attention showered on Emma Watson, Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman when they first showcased their Jean Seberg-esque ‘pixie cuts’ demonstrates. 

In one respect these haircuts are part of a movement in fashion, while in Hathaway’s case was necessary for her role in Les Miserables. But as a rejection of a traditional feminine haircut, they could also represent a resistance to the usual clichés surrounding hair and hair colour, and in this manner remind us again of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine.

Through declining the conventional colours of blonde, brunette and red, actresses can reclaim their hair and express an independence free from these restrictive codes. Perhaps it won’t be too long before we are invited to see a film through the eyes of one of these alluring multi-coloured characters as a protagonist, rather than as a mysterious object of desire.  


1 comment:

  1. One character I forgot to mention when we discussed this article was Rogue in X-Men. In the comics, and to a lesser extent in the films, there is a deliberate symbolic resonance to the grey streak in her hair.

    Having also watched Frozen yesterday, a similar ploy is used to show weakening/death. Plus hair colour has even more obvious magical qualities in Tangled. Disney seem to be monopolizing the market in this area.