By anyone’s standards, actress Penelope Cruz is a sultry beauty. So when the directors of her latest film, the critically acclaimed satire Official Competition, wanted her to portray an eccentric, power-hungry woman, they gave her a whole new hairstyle.
Instead of her usual long, dark, sleek locks, she has a huge, bright red, clown-like mess of tousled curls. How predictable. As a naturally curly haired woman with an even more curly haired daughter, I am tired of the negative image that is so often reflected back to me through the silver screen. When a movie wants to show that a woman is crazy, bad, or dangerous to know, it gives her character frizzy, curly hair…like mine.
In thrillers, curls are reserved for the villain who will inevitably meet a well-deserved, sticky end. Perhaps the most iconic example of this is Fatal Attraction’s unhinged stalker and rabbit killer, Glenn Close, whose Medusa-like coils signified her lustful obsessions.
Hollywood believes natural curls can’t be beautiful or aspirational, which is why no leading lady ever has them, according to Hilary Freeman. Wild: Penelope Cruz got a big head of red curls for the new movie Official Competition
All three of The Witches of Eastwick had untamed curly hair that grew larger and more unruly as they became more powerful and hedonistic. And when Emma Thompson wore a frizzy wig in the Harry Potter films, it was to emphasize how eccentric her fortune-telling professor character, Sybill Trelawney, was.
Having big curls has also become a big (and small) screen for being wild, disorganized or unprofessional, not to mention crazy, clumsy or just plain weird, like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich. And common is the operative word. Hollywood believes that natural curls cannot be beautiful or aspirational, and therefore no leading lady ever has them.
Emma Thompson as Professor Sybil Trelawney in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Emma wore a frizzy wig in the Harry Potter films, this was to emphasize how eccentric her fortune teller professor character was
If the star has curls, you can be sure they’ll be smoothed into oblivion before she’s allowed to kiss her leading man. (Male leads are allowed to have tousled curls, of course, because it’s sexy.) This leads me to the most popular curly trope of all: the lost soul in need of a life makeover whose true beauty hides beneath the awful halo of mugs, if only she and we could see it. It’s Pygmalion with styling tools. To name just a few, there’s Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality, Anne Hathaway in Princess Diaries and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, who sport loose ringlets to match her supposedly loose morals until she falls for Richard Gere, gives up prostitution and gets a nice new hairstyle along with a new wardrobe.
Male strands are allowed with ruffled hair as it is sexy
This phenomenon is so ubiquitous that it would be almost laughable if there weren’t some rather unpleasant, even, dare I say, racist undertones to it. The idea that your physical features can convey something about your character is both outdated and offensive. While the Victorians may have believed in the pseudo-science of physiognomy—for example, that a high forehead signifies intelligence, or a hawk-like nose, criminality—we now dismiss such theories as lazy stereotypes with no basis in reality. Except, it seems, when it comes to frizzy hair.
Curly hair is far more common in women of ethnic backgrounds – black, Latino or, like me, Jewish. In my community, my hair type is often referred to as a ‘Jewish fro’. Without copious amounts of styling products on my candy-floss-like mop, I look like Art Garfunkel, or worse, Phil Spector.
Perhaps the most iconic example of this is Fatal Attraction’s unhinged stalker and rabbit killer, Glenn Close, whose Medusa-like spirals signified her lustful obsessions
Despite the number of Jewish actresses in Hollywood, only those who don’t seem to be – like Lauren Bacall or Scarlett Johansson – get leading roles. Those who look more obvious or stereotypically Jewish (except for Barbra Streisand – the exception to almost every rule) only get to play crazy characters.
And young actress Zendaya, who is mixed-race and has been straightening her hair for years, says: ‘Growing up, I wasn’t very confident about my curls. It wasn’t like the hair girls around me had. And nobody really knew what to do with my hair.’
Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman sporting loose ringlets is meant to match her supposedly loose morals until she falls for Richard Gere, gives up prostitution and gets a hot new haircut along with a new wardrobe
As a child I hated my curls which I felt separated me and made me look unattractive. At 12, my mother finally agreed to let me have my hair chemically straightened. The smelly treatment didn’t work, it only served to make it frizzier. Since then, I have decided to embrace my hair, refusing to bow to pressure to straighten it.
Some say my ringlets look unprofessional
Most people are free; I’ve been told that my curls make me look more youthful, more creative and more bohemian. But there have also been the negative ‘you look unprofessional’ comments. Once I decided not to pursue a job in an office where I was told to tie my hair back. Another friend says that her hairdresser advises her to straighten her hair to look like an adult.
When my daughter Sidonie, now seven, was learning to read, I bought her a book about a little girl who hates and then learns to love her curls, hoping she would embrace her own beautiful ringlets.
Anne Hathaway’s frizzy mop in The Princess Diaries is meant to signal the character’s wild, disorganized and clumsy nature
So far it’s worked, although I’m sure she’ll be reaching for the straighteners when she’s a teenager. While curly Merida from the Disney animated film Brave has been a helpful role model, Sidonie prefers the princesses with conventional blonde mermaid waves.
If only there were more examples of strong, fit and beautiful curly haired women on screen for her.