Much has been written about hair and the dramatic cutting of hair that appears in all forms of media, focusing on the symbolism behind the act for both men and women. We see it in a variety of films from Disney to Anime. It’s a universal concept for humans, our connection to our hair, as it is essentially a part of ourselves and our identity. Hair means a lot of things to different people, to different genders, and across different eras. But I think one thing is inherently universal in its symbolism: the act of cutting it is often seen as a significant event in a person’s emotional and psychological health and future.
“Hair is perhaps out most powerful symbol of individual and group identity — powerful first because it is physical and therefore extremely personal, and second because, although personal, it is also public rather than private.” says Anthony Synnott in his article “Shame and glory: a sociology of hair”. Hair is a symbol of our identity. We dye it, cut it, style it to fit who we want to be, how we want to display ourselves to the outside world. It can also be a status symbol, a symbol of sexuality, of life stages, and of religion. It carries so many different meanings that any change to its form or length can in fact be connected to an inward change in a person’s psyche or life, especially for women. “Women tend to identify far more closely with their head hair than men do,” Synnott claims, and I tend to agree with this statement considering how much society places importance on a women’s hair through fashion magazines, the popularity of hair salons, and a variety of industries that have popped up around hair.
Because of that, I think we’ve put a lot of meaning into how someone styles their hair, giving it more importance than maybe it deserves. Change is inevitable for all humans, it’s what makes us special. We can be whoever we want to be, and part of that is reflected in our outward appearance. Kiyah Wright, an Emmy award-winning celebrity hairstylist comments in Elite Daily’s article that “the big chop can represent liberation, self-discovery, or starting anew for many women.” We tend to think of our lives in terms of stages and not a continuous stream of time. Child, preteen, teenager, woman, mother, grandmother. For centuries dating back to ancient times, womanhood has been sectioned into at least three stages: maiden, mother, crone. We see it reflected in ancient goddesses of the time period, across cultures from Celtic to Egyptian. It’s no surprise that a change in appearance, especially hair style can coincide with a new stage in a woman’s life.
Besides life stages, I think we also segment our lives into emotional stages, moving from one stage to another through acts of conscious change instead of biological change. We all mature from childhood to adulthood over time, learn from our mistakes, and become independent, most if not all of these are acts of conscious change. Many of these may be punctuated by changes in appearance like a teenager starting to wear shorter skirts and make-up as they move into a more sexually expressive stage of life. Clarissa Silva, a behavioral scientist explains to Elite Daily, the act of cutting one’s hair becomes “symbolic of hope that they can attract different circumstances and heal from past hurt.”
And what is present in our society and culture, always makes it into our media. Movies and TV shows have used the plot device of hair cutting as a symbolic point of change for a character. It’s visually appealing, dramatic, and very clear what it’s supposed to mean. We see it in Mulan when she cuts her hair off to take her father’s place in the war. It symbolizes a break from being a daughter to being a warrior, a dramatic new stage in her life, but also holding significant symbolism for Asian cultures since long hair is prized as a symbol of femininity. We see it as well in Tangled as Rapunzel cuts off her hair to escape danger, leaving behind her ability to heal and becoming a normal human. The change is even more dramatic as her hair changes color from gold to brown, and she goes from dependent captive to independent woman.
We also see it used prominently in anime and manga, connected to Japan’s long history of placing significance on hair styles. According to Justin Sevakis from Anime News Network, “The meaning comes from the Edo period, when samurai would cut off their top-knot (or chonmage) as a way of stepping down from their position. The hair chopping was greatly symbolic: that top-knot was originally there to support a helmet, but eventually it became a status symbol, and cutting it off signaled the end of that era of their life.” Cutting off the top-knot is one of the most significant symbols of change in a samurai’s life. It symbolizes a departure from a life of service to that of a civilian or retired life. We see it most significantly now in the ceremonies of sumo wrestlers once they retire. They are the only ones now that still carry on the tradition of wearing top-knots, and when they retire from the sport, they also symbolically cut off their top-knot.
In anime, we see it displayed in Princess Mononoke when Ashitaka cuts off his top-knot as a symbol of his departure from his clan. It also symbolizes the start of his quest to cure the curse on his arm and discover the cause of the infection that took over the boar god that attacked him. The top-knot to Ashitaka was a sign of status, a sign of family connection, and a sign of his past self. Severing it from his head, he also breaks with these parts of his life, becoming in a sense a new person, embarking on a new stage in his life.
This plot device is also used extremely often in shoujo manga and anime. It might be because, like I mentioned above, women seem to put a lot more meaning into their hair than men. Or, you could say that society has created an environment where women’s hair is given value: social, sexual, and personal value. Skip Beat is a great example of this as the main character, Kyoko, makes a full physical and psychological change in the beginning of the series that involves the cutting and dying of her hair. She goes from the traditional long dark hair to the punk/outsider blond pixie cut. This symbolizes a dramatic life change for her as she tries to move on from her heartbreak to a new life of stardom, from a traditional loving girl to a hot-headed love-hating movie star, and from one stage of her life to another.
But there are other, smaller instances throughout the series besides this most obvious one where hair is used as a symbolic divide between one life and the next. And it makes sense given the nature of stardom throughout the series as these characters adopt the persona of their roles, changing and adapting them to their own thoughts and personalities. We see in the character creation of Mio, as Kyoko takes over the role in the reboot of this older series. Originally the Director and stylist has modeled her costume after the old character, with long straight black hair (commonly a symbol of upper class Japanese life) that covered a hideous scar on her face. The character was meant to be meek, shy, but full of rage and lust for revenge. Over the course of the arc, Kyoko searches for a way to come to terms with the role, developing the character into something she can be proud of and that makes sense given the character’s history. What she comes up with is drastically different than what the Director had in mind, and she returns to set with a short pixie cut that shows off the scar instead of hiding it. It comes to symbolize a new era in the character of Mio, as Kyoko takes her role to the next stage, further developing her hatred.
Yona of the Dawn is another great example of the symbolism around hair cutting. Yona, the sole princess of a nation under political struggle is forced out of her home after her father, the king, is murdered. Factually, her life as Princess has ended, and her new life as outlaw has begun. Symbolically, this is an emotional change from dependence on those around her to a newfound independence and strength to stand on her own two feet. The final change is symbolically shown through Yona cutting her own hair to escape certain danger, changing into a fiery-eyed fighter and protector of her friends.
Snow White with the Red Hair has a similar scene where the main character Shirayuki is sought after by the Prince of her kingdom to join his group of concubines because of her strikingly red hair. In an act of defiance, Shirayuki chops off a significant portion of her hair and leaves it as a testament to her answer, escaping to the neighboring kingdom. Here, her act of cutting her hair is a symbol of her change in status as an accomplished herbalist to outlaw, a symbol of leaving behind a part of herself in order to pursue change, and a symbolic answer to a question. Her hair and hair color takes on a variety of meanings that are too lengthy to talk about here, but it’s that simple act of cutting it that creates a divide between one life and the next.
Thanks for joining me on this philosophical jaunt, and let me know what shows or movies you love that involve scenes of dramatic hair styling.
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