Hero or villain, black or white, gay or straight — why does almost every female character on TV have the same perfect locks? asks Emily Witt
I JUDGE TELEVISION shows by the women’s hair. It turns out this is a binary judgment: Either the women have TV hair, or they don’t. What is TV hair? It’s shiny, long, has obviously been styled with a curling iron at the ends, and looks like that of a beauty pageant contestant. (The style is known as ‘‘The Cosmo’’ in the parlance of Drybar, the blowout salon that has more than 70 locations across America.)
It is also ubiquitous. On the show Divorce, as the life of Frances, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, falls apart around her, she maintains the absurdly perfect hair of someone perpetually about to attend the prom.
There is the slightly messier version of TV hair worn by the hacker character Darlene on Mr Robot, which is still too close to the usual TV hair to convince the viewer we’re watching an original, complex female character. Even the sci-fi heroine Wynonna Earp, whose occupation is ‘‘demon protector,’’ has glossy tresses.
The artificial look of the protagonists on shows like Love, 2 Broke Girls and New Girl — stories of ‘‘quirky’’ young women who don’t conform to stereotypical gender roles — is a signal that the only thing layered about them is their hair.
TV hair does not discriminate against age, race or class. Mindy of The Mindy Project has TV hair, Olivia Pope of Scandal has it, Jane the Virgin has it, Kimmy Schmidt has it, Jessica Jones has it, Cersei Lannister has a slightly longer fantasy-book version of it.
Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope and Dana Scully on the rebooted X-Files all had it. The haircut transforms all television heroines into variations on an ur-woman. Who is she, this feminine ideal? Where does this hair exist in the wild?
When I see it I think of housewives giving firm instructions to their nannies, of Lululemon, of SoulCycle classes, of green juice, and of West LA, of bleached teeth, shiny shopping bags and white couches.’
My frustration with TV hair began in 2014, during the first season of True Detective.
Many critics hailed True Detective as ‘‘smart’’ television because the misanthropic detective-protagonist Rust Cohle spoke in monologues that sounded like undergraduate philosophy essays.
‘‘I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution,’’ he murmured.
‘‘We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self.’’
In True Detective, Rust’s hair reflected the chronology of his nihilism: clean-cut cop haircut before he quits policing and starts drinking heavily; a messy ponytail accessorised with a handlebar mustache seven years later.
The frizzy air-dried mess of his later years reflected his disillusionment, the hair equivalent of ‘‘the ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel’’ (to quote another line).
Whatever intelligence or innovation I had been promised by positive reviews of the show was belied by the second episode, when Rust and his partner Marty visit a brothel in a trailer park.
I knew I was just watching TV, basic TV, when even a down-on-her-luck bayou sex worker had TV hair and a gym-toned body.
The nuance of the male characters was not extended to the female ones. They were sometimes given makeup and costumes to make them look a little rough around the edges, but to have central roles they still had to be pretty, and have pretty hair.
This isn’t to say there aren’t moments when TV hair makes sense. The Good Wife is about a woman forced into an archetypal role of the supportive spouse of a politician. Of course she is artificially coiffed. So too with Westworld: If a rich man were to design a theme park and populate it with live-action sex dolls, one would expect the women to have a rote, cookie-cutter appearance.
But there is a direct correlation between some of the best television shows and female characters whose hair does not conform.
Take Transparent, where Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali goes through a series of disastrous hairstyles that reflect her difficulties settling on an identity.
‘‘That’s an interesting braid... did you join a New Wave polygamist cult?’’ one girlfriend asks her.
Annalise Keating, the character played by Viola Davis on How to Get Away With Murder has TV hair, but it demands regular upkeep by Mary J. Blige, who plays her hairdresser, and in one episode her flawless hair was famously revealed to be a wig.
In fact, the less sleek the hair, the more likely a show will have a memorable female protagonist: Issa Dee’s cropped hair on Insecure; the unstyled look of the best friends on the stoner comedy Broad City; Dory’s low-maintenance hair on Search Party.
The disastrous perm of Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson on The People v. O.J. Simpson, is so outside the realm of what is usually seen on television — even period dramas about the mid-90s — that it became a subplot in one episode of the miniseries.
When Clark’s boss, district attorney Gil Garcetti, advises her to hire a media consultant to help her public image, she ends up at a hairdresser who gives her a haircut that will present, he says, ‘‘the best version of yourself.’’ It doesn’t, in the end, but it offers at least the best possible option for a woman on television: to look like a real person.
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