Some Literary Politics... of Hair

Celebrate divers-- Oh, wait.

Our crowning glory is all tied all up in knots with issues of power, privilege, history, and tradition. You think I exaggerate? Ask a Pentecostal woman why she doesn’t cut her hair, an Orthodox Jewish man why he wears his peyot, a Black woman about the politics of straightening, a woman media star how long she’s sported hair extensions. You think it’s a coincidence that 18% of Americans have blond hair and 2% of the world’s population sports blond hair and yet you can't shake a rice cake in Hollywood without touching a towhead?*

"My feisty redhead does feminism right."
Even books, an arguably more cerebral popular cultural medium, aren't immune. Novels may not contribute directly to visual culture, but they do verbally represent and reproduce it. I mean, for not even being visual media, most books get all (representationally) dressed up in a host of visual tropes. In my genre, paranormal romance, for example, ever notice how many sheroes’ tresses tumble down their back like May Day ribbons? How come no, or very few, characters have receding hairlines, limp and lifeless locks, cowlicks that leave their hair in perpetual disarray? For that matter, where are the cornrows, the fauxhawks, the feminine brush cuts, the masculine ponytails, the springy natural hair? Why are historical romances exploding like cover models out of their bodices with thin, feisty, redheaded sheroes who sorta-defy oppressive gender conventions?

See what I mean? Politics. Hair is all wrapped up in ‘em.

Jew 'fros are fine --
as long as they're on a comedian!
I get it: romances aren’t about accuracy; they’re about fantasy. Escapism. No straight woman, the story goes, wants to imagine herself falling in love with some 40-something middle manager with a receding hairline and a paunch, right? And what feminine reader wants to identify with a stick-thin woman whose brown ‘fro punches through literary conventions and reminds us of our own sources of marginalization? We’re here to forget and enjoy, right?

Yeah, but… I like baldness. I dig dreadlocks. I call gray hair “tinsel” and celebrate its festiveness. I think Jew ‘fros are hot. And I can’t be the only person who has a special fondness for un-mane-like brown and black hair and who is sick to her bones of sheroes’ blonde locks that flow like tatters of yellow silk in… blah, blah, blah.

Imagine this hottie with a blond cutie on her arm.
I would argue it’s not all a matter of taste, though. I mean, shouldn’t writers be mindful about the visual and representational culture to which we contribute? Perhaps readers are expecting the usual, European-featured, feminine-but-spunky-and-independent blonde shero™ and the alphalicious,-violent-but-tamable earl, brigand, or CEO with raven black hair and flashing indigo eyes™? Does that mean we’re obligated to package it up and present it to them with a shiny purple bow? Wouldn’t it be fun- -- and maybe, sorta, kinda socially responsible -- to occasionally defy, or perhaps even toy with, some of those tired and exclusive expectations?  Imagine a shero with kickass dreadlocks and a hero with dark blond, wavy hair. Kinda cool, right? Or what about a redheaded hero? A shero with a short, punky ‘do and some face jewelry? A shiny-pated hero? (Speaking of which, did you know testosterone causes baldness and baldness is correlated with lower rates of prostate cancer? You want your hero to remain healthy and virile, right?) These images might not meet expectations, but they sure as heck might help change them.

I like a little bit of reality mixed into my fantasy. Goodness knows I’m not going to start centering my plots around folding laundry and cleaning up cat vomit, so perhaps it’s best to start with the characterizations of the people who inhabit my literary worlds. I like thinking I may be encouraging my readers – and myself – to expand our mental palette and challenge our hierarchies of beauty.

Be the change I wish to see, Gandhi? Howzabout I represent it and give my readers a brief opportunity to join me in inhabiting it?

* Sorry, but I couldn’t find stats on how many actors are blond, naturally or not. 


  1. Would like to see a couple of instances of cat-vomit cleaning in thrillers...(perhaps it could be the incident on which the plot turns..Villain timed dastardly deed when she or he knew the s/hero would be cleaning the cat-vomit..)

    1. Who knew the mundane aspects of my life could be so universally appealing? ;)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. As usual, your wisdom and compassion defy simple description. Great, fab post. And of course I agree. Of COURSE. I am sick to DEATH of the two hair colors for women in books - red and blonde. Time to move on.

    1. Thanks, LJ, for your super sweet words. Who knew it could be such a political statement to make a shero's hair brown or black? Long live Kiera, a fat, dark-haired single mom, and all those characters who poke expectations in the eye!

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