Following up on conversations about anxiety grooming and the hair-saving power of bobby pins, I’d like to consider the recurring trope of what we’ll call the 'impulse haircut' in film and television—i.e., the shearing of one’s hair with dramatic flourish and preferably one's own hand.
When Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” he was not commenting on Britney Spears’ infamous post-rehab head shave at Esther’s Haircutting Studio in Tarzana, Calif., back in 2007. However the particular brand of off-the-wall catharsis present in the scene would surely have sparked a knowing twinkle in the writer’s eye. The pop-star reportedly cited a too-tight weave as the offending culprit, but the 'after' photos revealed a familiar expression of relief from more existential woes. Was it Demi Moore in G.I. Jane or Robin Tunney in Empire Records that Britney was channeling? Probably not. What’s for sure is we’d seen that look before in celluloid.
After years of protracted study—or a couple Saturday nights revisiting the classics—I’ve isolated a few core profiles of impulse haircutters in popular culture. They are as follows...
The quietest contingent, their lock-lobbing is induced by acts of selflessness. Winona Ryder’s Jo in Little Women sells a mane of chestnut curls to secure her mother’s train fare after her father is wounded in the Civil War. Though her tomboyish nature makes the sacrifice easier to bear, she nonetheless weeps for a night after the chop. In The English Patient, Juliette Binoche’s WWII nurse Hana breezily snips her way to a no-maintenance bob (mirror-free!) after taking residence in a bombed-out Italian villa. All the better to help her ease the pain of the titular burn victim in her care.
Likely the most cited example of the emo buzz cut, Robin Tunney’s Deb in Empire Records shaves her head in the employee restroom, '90s alt-rock soundtrack urging her onward. Bandaged wrists and a bad relationship reveal this makeover is Deb’s decision to make the best of an internal battle and what’s more—it suits her. She looks cool as a cue ball. And to show the anguish-shear is not gender-specific, the heavy-hearted, heavily bearded former-tennis pro Richie Tenenbaum embarks on full depilation before attempting suicide. It’s The Royal Tenenbaums' most brutal scene.
Felicity’s second season climax was a lesson in the fickleness of audience approval. As soon as title-star Keri Russell’s ringlets were cropped, ratings plummeted. The earnest undergraduate went to the salon to release herself from both hair and old hang-ups (oh, that tortured Noel-Ben love triangle), and the plan backfired. The show was nearly cancelled. Meanwhile, in Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow’s unencumbered Helen goes blonde and blunt post-break up—allowing the actress to twin then-boyfriend Brad Pitt’s style in real life.
A 2012 study suggested that bald men were seen as up to “13 percent stronger than those with full heads of hair,” and in the case of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, this poll is proven true. At the start of chemo treatment, the soft-spoken chemistry teacher preemptively shaves, and assumes his Heisenberg persona for the first time—a dead-eyed meth kingpin with serious swagger. And of course, this round-up would not be complete without mention of G.I. Jane’s Demi Moore, who takes the clippers into her own hands, then out-performs her fellow SEALS-in-training with those crazy one-armed push-ups.
And evading all categories (or maybe fitting a little bit into each), is Audrey Hepburn’s incognito Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. Never, ever have impromptu barrel-curled bangs looked so free and easy.
Photos via Getty.