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Crowns of Glory: The Importance of Hair in Women-Centered Literature

Throughout women-centered literature, hair is a popular symbol and motif. The Bible consistently describes hair as a woman’s source of beauty and glory, even her vanity. In classic novels such as Little Women, hair serves as a symbol; Jo March cuts off and sells her hair, her "one beauty," to help her wounded father. In so doing, she symbolically casts off immaturity and vanity in favor of womanhood.

The trend persists in modern books such as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent; women brush, braid, and stroke each other’s hair during crucial moments throughout the novel. Women whose hair is forcibly cut or shaved are consistently shamed, and they mourn the loss as if mourning a person. Male characters often stroke, twist, or otherwise fondle love interests’ hair as a form of non-sexual intimacy. Even in fairytales and children’s lit, a young girl’s hair is often pointed out as a defining trait.

Using the examples listed and/or any others you are familiar with, examine why hair is so important in women-centered literature. Have attitudes toward hair played a role in the shaping of females and feminism? What about the lack of hair for female characters who have cancer or other conditions? Are the perceptions and usages of hair in literature changing, and are our perceptions of womanhood changing with it?

  • Fun Fact: early comic books made female characters have bright red hair to sell more books, as it was very eye-catching, leading to the many red-haired comic book characters of today – m-cubed 5 years ago
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  • Didn't know that! :) I don't know if it would be quite on topic, but one could certainly explore hair color as part of this. It tends to be symbolic. For instance, did you know directors of child-centered movies, such as those starring Shirley Temple, would often cast dark-haired girls in "nemesis" parts? – Stephanie M. 5 years ago
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  • Ooo, this is a really interesting topic. Hair is so important in gender and race in lit and film and I would love to see more about this. It's interesting as well the different ways that haircuts can be framed in film (a shaved head on a woman can often be a demeaning act, but a woman cutting or shaving her own hair can be a moment of liberation.) – Emily Christ 5 years ago
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  • I also think this is an incredibly interesting topic. The symbolism behind hair is present through ALL our human history, from vikings to monarchies. The obsession with hair and hierarchy reflects so well today, as it did hundreds of years ago, and the use of it, the natural importance we imbue upon hair (or lack thereof) is inherent in our perception of each other. To use it in literature is a fine tool indeed. – bbartonshaw 5 years ago
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  • I was actually considering posting a topic of braided hair used as artistic political statements. I've noticed a trend that braided hair is a common design element in many propaganda campaigns. Many Nazi propaganda pieces used women (such as athletes and pilots) in braided hair in their posters. I noticed the same trend in Chinese propaganda during the 1960s. In modern times, I noticed that strong female characters in movies also sport this hair style such as Katniss Everdeen from the hunger Games and Maddie Ross from True Grit. I think hair is a very interesting topic that I would like to explore! – AaronJRobert 5 years ago
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  • I didn't think of braids in particular, but you're right. They do seem to be a popular hairstyle in real life and fictional mediums. In fiction, especially for young girls, they're also often used to denote childhood. A girl begins to grow up when she trades braids for a French twist or other up-do. For example, in The Giver, little girls stop wearing braids when they turn ten. Laura Ingalls Wilder was shown wearing them in the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, until she began dating Almanzo. There are thousands of things to say about braids, for sure. – Stephanie M. 5 years ago
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  • The more I think about this topic, the more complex and vast I realize it is. You can break this topic down by hairstyle, culture, chronology, genre, or medium. I was also thinking of Laura from the Little House on the Prairie. As a child with braided hair, she challenged conventions and ventured on her own (I remember an episode where Laura ran away to a mountain for a spiritual retreat). But when she grew older and began seeing Almanzo (taking a more domestic role), her hairstyle changed into a bun. Braids could be a sign of girlhood, but maybe they can also be a symbol of female empowerment? – AaronJRobert 5 years ago
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  • There is also importance placed on when a woman foregoes her hair, by choice or otherwise. See: Mulan, Mad Max Fury Road, and V for Vendetta. – Triggerhappy938 5 years ago
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