Movember: Hairy Symbolism in Literature

12th Nov 2012

Madame Moustache

This month, men everywhere are participating in the hair-growing charity extravaganza known as Movember. Unshaven faces become sources of solidarity with those who are suffering or who have suffered because of prostate cancer.

But where do women come in to all this? Typically Movember calls for manly moustaches but many women are taking part by ceasing to shave their womanly bits (despite the now infamous disgust over Twitter).

Hairy women have been a controversy in society ever since it became vogue for women to pluck their lady gardens, but hairy women are nothing new. Let’s take a look at the different kinds of symbolism women’s hair provides in literature across the ages…

Growing It Out

Earlier literature demonstrates female characters with very little say in their own hairstyle. The most obvious character that springs to mind when hair is mentioned is Rapunzel, first coming to prominence in the collection written by the Brothers Grimm. Both the 1812 and 1857 versions state that the baby Rapunzel is taken by a witch, Gothel, and locked in a doorless tower.

The first mention of Rapunzel’s hair comes when Gothel calls up to the tower window the now-famous phrase, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair to me.” Rapunzel dutifully throws down “splendid hair, as fine as spun gold.”

Is the long hair a symbol of neglect and subjugation? The witch lets Rapunzel’s hair stay at a ridiculous length in order to cultivate a way of leaving and returning to the tower whilst keeping the child locked up.

Rapunzel herself has no agency: when a prince realises that her hair is the only way into the tower, he repeats the chant he has overheard Gothel saying. Obediently, Rapunzel throws her hair down. She performs her only purpose on cue.

However, being locked away has also preserved Rapunzel’s virginity. When she and the prince give in to “joy and pleasure,” a chain reaction of events is set off: the witch’s anger causes her to slice off Rapunzel’s hair and banish her.

It’s hard to miss the parallel between losing her virginity and having her hair cut. Freed of the only thing of value to the witch, Rapunzel is cast off – she gives birth to her children, and lives happily ever after with her prince.

Letting Loose

Going back two hundred years earlier, we can see that loose hair is the opposite of virginity. Shakespeare invoked the trope of long, loose hair in the character of Ophelia. In her essay Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, Elaine Showalter discusses how Ophelia’s stage appearance – notably, long hair worn without restraint – would have prompted the assumption that Ophelia is either “mad or the victim of a rape.”

The exact roots of sensuality being connected with loose hair are not clear. However, it is easy to see the visual link between sexual activity and messy hair. At this period in literature, female characters are dominated by their fathers, brothers and husbands, and so have very little control over their appearance.

Released hair is indicative of besmirched family honour – with diminished emphasis on the plight of the young lady in question.

Shaping Up

In more contemporary literature, we find authors and characters taking control of their own hair to make a statement. Agatha Christie’s famous investigator Hercule Poirot certainly knows the pain Movember can bring: It is an art,” he murmured, “the growing of the mustache! I have sympathy for all who attempt it.”

Poirot’s moustache is as recognisable as many of its real-life companions – Chaplin’s and Dali’s – and it’s become a beacon of the Christie brand, even making its way into jewellery.

Within the text, Poirot’s moustache is telling of his character. He is fastidious and meticulous. He lavishes the same methodical attention on his professional appearance as on his work. Can you tell a lot about a man by his moustache? Well, in Christie’s world, apparently you can.

Rebel Rebel

Of course, taking control of your hair can also mean growing it long again. There could not be a mention of rebellious hair without revisiting one of the most popular characters of the last century. J. K. Rowling gave Harry Potter a messy black mop that has passed into common knowledge right alongside his glasses and scar.

It is through his hair that Harry has one of his first inklings of his power. Aunt Petunia attacks his hair with kitchen scissors and cuts his hair until “he was almost bald except for his fringe.”

However, instead of having to endure the embarrassment, Harry’s accidental magic ensures his hair grow overnight until it is “exactly as it had been before.”  It is an early step in Harry’s journey to fight back against the abuse he has been subjected to.

But you can rebel using the hair that’s not on show, too. Sara Banerji’s magic realism The Tea-Planter’s Daughter has a girl whose soul comes out at night as its central character.

Julia Clockhouse at twenty-five is a hot-tempered young woman whose poor, odd relationship with her now dead father pervades her life.

Part of her father’s fight for control over her extends to him ordering her to shave her first lone pubic hair off. He may want her to stay as his little girl, but Julia’s body ignores this whim and after shaving, “the hair grew back thicker than ever.”

As an adult, Julia is caught in a thunderstorm while out riding, and Banerji makes much of the bodily soaking the young woman gets. Interestingly, Banerji does not talk about Julia’s head hair, but goes below the belt: the rain water is “gathering in a pool at her crutch, wetting the thick hair there.”

Julia’s pubic hair is abundant: at the same time, she has broken free of her father and grown into a married woman after all.

The differing symbolism across the ages of literature shows that women’s hair has always been a big topic of societal conversation. Whatever the style, whether on the head or below the belt, women have always been controlled or judged by their hair.

What are your experiences with hair? How accurate do you find this symbolism? And which literary character’s ‘do do you most admire?

Kristina Wilde

(Image via Amy~)