When Mary Pickford in 1928 cut her famous golden curls, opting for a more smart, cutting edge (no pun intended) haircut attuned to contemporary 1920s' fashion, it raised an outcry among her fans around the world. 'How could she do it?!', people gawped, miffed that their beloved, petite starlet could shed what had so long been connected with her image and stardom as 'America's Sweetheart' on screen; an image further enhanced by her most often chosen roles as innocent children, playing feisty, little girls and teenage spitfires.
The fact that Mary herself was well into her 30s by 1928 and greatly affected by her mother's death that same year didn't seem to matter to her audience. They still wanted the 'little girl'-image in their star that they were so used to see and admire throughout decades; not this new, sleek, elegant woman of the 1920s. Mary's ringlets had become the very symbol of female virtue and innocence, and the transformation - this symbolic loss of virtue in the public eye - was a shock.
One would say this notion was tightly connected to the society and standards at the time where women - young girls in particular - should walk the virtuous road until marriage (their sole purpose in life) and never step out of line before, during or afterwards. Even in the roaring '20s when women's roles had become somewhat more outgoing, this notion still wasn't dead.
And one would think we've come a long way since then, but interestingly, we have, in fact, seen the issue arise many times well into the 21st century.
The most similar and best known example was when another 'America's Sweetheart', Miley Cyrus, in 2012 opted for a fresh, blond pixie-cut instead of her long, dark tresses - which for a long time had been linked with her just as well-known and beloved, Disney-construed, feisty screen-persona, Hannah Montana. Along with a new dress-code and attitude, Miley was transformed, image-wise (and thus, inherently, identity-wise), but most importantly: No longer controlled by the Disney corporation. The break-away fueled an image-change which ran much deeper than just the hair.
Such life-changing episodes, just as Mary losing her mother, are often only the enablers for a natural, yet somehow always controversial process that is inevitable and sometimes just temporarily stalled: the transformation from girl to woman, from child to adult; the coming-of-age that everyone goes through at some point in their lives in various shades and sizes. Or simply the progression of identity and self-growth. It shouldn't come as such a shock, really, as it is common knowledge for even the simplest of minds, but what may make all the difference is that for Mary and Miley it happened while the whole world was watching. While we may have endured a couple of bullies at school, they endure the bullies of the entire world - probably for as long as they'll live - which is the curse of all celebrities! The definition of 'slut-shaming' reached a new high with Miley, and not even Britney Spears' infamous head shave in 2007 or Natalie Portman's role-required shave in 2006 (to just name a few) sparked quite the same amount of discussion about not just how women - especially female celebrities - are perceived in media, but how women still serve as the moralizing punching-bag in society and its measures of beauty and behavior.
A string of 'less' outrageous cases such as Felicity-star Keri Russell cutting her curly looks, Emma Watson's pixie-cut after ending the Harry Potter-film series or Jennifer Lawrence's sudden haircut at the peak of her career all sparked the question "Why?" in the media as well. Which again cemented the idea that stepping out of heteronormativity, even in the slightest (aka getting a haircut), makes society question the reason behind it as being 'abnormal' as well, such as 'coming out' or being mentally unstable etc., despite it often only is people innocently experimenting with their looks (as we all do); the least harmful deed of all, surely!
This notion is more than just the media overreacting as usual, and although it fuels the standards of heteronormativity, it works both ways. Like when the girls on America's Next Top Model cry their eyes out for hours whenever they are told of their 'complete' make-over - which often isn't more than getting a new hair-cut - one wonders why they are so attached to something that definitely will grow out again? Is it because they are young and coming-of-age and simply more sensitive about their own image and personal changes in general? Or does the show manipulate and edit in its material so that is what we see: Young women being hysterical every season so that we are made to think girls in general are behaving silly, when, in fact, they are made to do things in a very young age that one could question both the fashion and the television industry and its overly harsh attitude for?
Perhaps a combination of both where the show exploits the young girls' youth, hormones and inexperience, puts them in situations bound to create the wanted scenarios and affirm traditional views - all in order to create entertainment. It is shameless really, but unfortunately it sells and the contestants only get younger and younger for every season. Hell, we even have those perverse beauty pageants for small children! People are greatly entertained by Toddlers & Tiaras because they find it so absurd, but seemingly no one wants to do anything about this outrageous phenomenon...!!? Now that makes for a relevant and important "Why?"!
And why is it that only women are still caught in this hairy mess? (And yes, that pun was intended). Perhaps because the issue of hair is tightly connected to the idea of femininity. After all, men growing long hair as being something controversial basically became extinct after The Beatles and the hippie-generation happened. Today 'man buns' couldn't be more hip, being a skinhead no longer carries the ideological associations it once did and having bald spots is no more outrageous than having a zit, at most only serves as a pitiful vanity complex. Men don't seem to get any hate when it comes to their hair; they can experiment all they like for that matter - just look at David Beckham(!) - but for women the long tresses still serve as a symbolic phenomenon that shouldn't be tangled with for some reason.
Only the military cut serves as a symbolic loss of innocence among young men when they join the army - but that is in such a specific context that it's assumed only natural they should go through such a 'ritual' to become 'real men'. Of course, that notion itself makes for a lot of critique but it is pointing towards the system rather than the men. Here the men are the victims of such an action. I'm not saying women should be victimized, but they aren't necessarily forgiven either for cutting their hair - no matter the context. Perhaps it's a distorted comparison but the obvious distinction between the sexes in these matters strikes me as peculiar, nonetheless.
Apparently, virtue, in its essence, is still something going strong, despite its archaic use and the fact that the conditions since its origin have changed. But what is virtue? Well, it is basically asking for perfection; being able to live up to every damn stigmatic and dogmatic norm, tradition and expectation that come in your way all the time. Virtue may allude all good intention; a guideline made up long ago for young people to follow, containing many of the Christian values of inner strengths that we indeed treasure, such as love for your kin, kindness, humanity, tolerance, unselfishness etc.. But in the end, the virtue-package also picks up everything else from the outside world throughout time such as expectations of various, rigid kinds that keep the youngsters in a fearful leash - and it is made into this perfect ideal no one can live up to, yet so desperately, fruitlessly, unnecessarily tries. It isn't fair and never should be expected of anyone!
The word itself comes frighteningly close to the word virgin in my mind - along with all the frighteningly 'oh-so-good' associative words of moral excellence and an ascetic and abstinent life those two words conjure in your head. Bleh! NO ONE is or can be entirely virtuous, and it's highly hypocritical when we think we can judge other people on whether they are or aren't virtuous! And we always hit a new low, when we base these judgments solely on the imagery that the media sells us. (Sorry for my ranting; my temper just gets the better of me sometimes).
The whole Miley-incident has pointed out some critical facts in our time and age that mirror a frightfully rigid notion we all thought dead a long time ago. Hopefully, the discussion about women's roles in society will continue and be able to change something about this aspect - but enough with the female, virtuous hair already! After all, why do hairdressers even exist, you think!? The fact that we can STILL - after so much time and change - be outrageous about something so small as women cutting their hair short is beyond me. Apparently, some symbols die harder than I thought.