If anyone knows about the allure of hair it’s little girls. Between the ages of seven and twelve, girls groom their Barbies and each other with an intensity bordering on the freakish. At least they did in my day. Among the females in my class at primary school, hair-styling, or, more accurately, hair-fondling, was far and away the playground pursuit of choice. (The only thing that came near it, in fact, was that other proto-erotic pastime – tickling the insides of each other’s forearms.) As with the more fully realised sexual acts of later years, hair-fondling sessions were fraught with tensions about technique and performance. Some girls were known to be ham-fisted with hair, while others were known to have the touch. Some girls earned reputations for being ‘selfish’ – always wanting to be the fondlee and never the fondler – while a few much sought-after eccentrics were famous for preferring to do rather than be done.
These sun-dappled recollections were activated while reading Off with Her Head!, a collection of essays about the cultural and religious symbolism of the female head. And it was just as well that they were, for if ever a book needed to lighten up, it is this dour little volume. All the essays began life as papers given at a conference of the American Academy of Religion and all advance the notion that in cultures where ‘the classic gender distinctions have linked men to speech, power, identity and the mind’, the image of the female head poses a threat to social order. As a means of dealing with that threat, the authors claim, such cultures generate myths, rituals and religious practices that enact the figurative – and sometimes literal – decapitation of women. As Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, the volume’s co-editor and lone male contributor, puts it in his introduction, ‘if the head is typically thought of as masculine, then what is to be made of the female head? Our contention is that the objectification of woman as a sexual body necessarily requires coming to terms with the presence of her head. Decapitation is one way of solving the dilemma.’
It’s amazing how a couple of years in academia will inure a person to the absurdity of a phrase like ‘coming to terms with the presence of her head’. Unfortunately, quite a bit of the book falls victim to this sort of unwitting silliness. Eilberg-Schwartz and his colleagues are concerned exclusively with forms of symbolic decapitation, the most common form of which they identify as the ‘eroticisation of the female head’ – the attribution of sexual meanings to female voice, hair or facial features. (The book’s frontispiece illustrates the supposed apotheosis of this misogynist, lower-to-upper-body displacement, with a reproduction of Magritte’s Le Viol, in which a woman’s face is figured as a torso, with nipples for eyes, navel for nose and pudenda for mouth.) Such erotic symbolism, the book argues, is what motivates certain cultures to veil women’s heads from the male gaze, but it is also what underlies those practices like wearing cosmetics, or hairstyling, that are designed to draw attention to the head. ‘Instead of resisting desire,’ Eilberg-Schwartz writes, these practices ‘play on and provoke it ... Ironically, then, the display of the female face can be another form of decapitation, turning the female head into a symbol of desire rather than a symbol of identity and the capacity for speech and language.’
This decapitation thesis is heavily indebted to the work of Hélène Cixous, who in a famous essay called ‘Castration or Decapitation’ claimed ‘decapitation anxiety’ as the female equivalent to male fear of castration: ‘If man operates under the threat of castration ... it might be said that the backlash, the return, on women, of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation, execution of women, as loss of her head.’ Thus while Freud reads the Medusa myth as a story of castration anxiety (her severed head and petrifying gaze invoking the moment when a little boy glimpses his mother’s genitals and confronts for the first time the threat of being without his penis) Cixous understands the myth as a story about both male fears and the dangerous results they may have for women. Medusa’s decapitation is seen as an effect, not a symbol of castration anxiety. As a post-Lacanian, Cixous maintains an arch ambivalence about the epistemological status of all psychoanalytical theory – hers included. Her real interest would seem to be less in establishing absolute truths, than in using her fancy footwork to undermine the ‘phallocentric’ discourse of psychoanalysis from within.
Compared to these stylish guerrilla incursions, there is something rather deadening about the way Eilberg-Schwartz and his colleagues extract Cixcous’s concept of decapitation and doggedly set about applying it to a series of cultural ‘texts’. Whether the object of their attention is early Judaic law, or the ‘gendered grammar’ of ancient Mediterranean hair, or the female composite figures of Greek mythology, they plonk down the same theoretical grid and – presto! – deduce the same grim moral.
Despite the nod that Eilberg-Schwartz gives in his introduction to fashionable notions of ‘multivalency’, the authors here pay little attention to the way the meaning of practices or myths may change according to where, how and by whom they are deployed. The agency of women themselves in determining meaning is largely ignored, or underplayed, as if in some irreversible act of God, all power to interpret had been meekly handed over to a bunch of male crazies. The book has an infuriating, damned-if-you-do and-damned-if-you-don’t pessimism about it which more or less guarantees that any move a woman makes will be the wrong one. Other than the women of Corinth (who receive brownie points from the author of ‘Veils, Virgins and the Tongues of Men and Angels’, for having ignored Paul’s strictures and prophesied bare-headed) none of the female communities considered in this book seems to have a chance in hell of escaping the putative beheading syndrome. Cover themselves up or show themselves off – either way they lose their heads.
‘As has been remarked by feminists studying women’s relation to their own bodies,’ notes Amy Richlin in ‘Making up a Woman’, an essay about ancient Roman cosmetics, ‘women’s choice to beautify themselves is particularly problematic, peculiarly self-deconstructing, since this focus on the surface calls into question the existence of any underlying self.’ Hello? ‘Calls into question’ for whom – a bunch of old Roman misogynists? I doubt whether the Roman women Richlin is writing about regarded their underlying selves as being diminished in the slightest by a spot of poppy paste or the odd crocodile-dung mask. Radical idea: perhaps they were actually enjoying themselves with their powders and paints. For Richlin, who is unable or unwilling to countenance the idea of a female self-adornment that is not ‘self-deconstructing’, these women are trapped in the devilish vice of patriarchal ideology – unwittingly implicating themselves ‘in a system that conceals, derides and silences them’. Similarly, when Carol Delaney, author of ‘Untangling the Meanings of Hair in Turkish Society’, describes the braiding ritual that a Turkish bride must undergo before getting married, she portrays it as a lugubrious ‘ordeal’ far the bride, an event symbolising the taming of her sexuality. And this despite the observation that the members of the all-female braiding party dance and tell stories and jokes.
Confronted with this archaic, womyn’s drear, one could even begin to think fondly of Camille Paglia. Her famous exhortation to women to recognise and luxuriate in their ‘cosmic dominance of the emotional and sexual realm’ may have all sorts of shortcomings as a strategy for female emancipation, but a little bit of her feistiness – a little bit of her breezy, girls-just-want-to-have-fun chutzpah – would go a long, long way in this book.
Most glaringly absent is any serious consideration of pleasure – the pleasure that women may wrest even from those rituals traditionally deemed oppressive or patriarchal by feminism. In a recent magazine interview, the American soap-star Heather Locklear listed ‘bikini waxing’ – that process by which pubic triangles are transformed into odd little velcro mohawks – as one of her and her girlfriends’ favourite leisure activities. Presumably, Richlin would regard this alleged enthusiasm for pubic topiary as yet another symptom of patriarchal co-optation. And quite certainly this would be madness. Waxed pudenda may not be to everyone’s taste – and goodness knows, one wouldn’t want them to be mandatory or anything – but they are not necessarily symptoms of false consciousness either. The incontestable truth is that like a great many women – like the girls who fondled hair at primary school, in fact – Locklear and her pals enjoy faffing about with themselves.
Amy Fine Collins’s coffee-table book, Hair Style, is not the obvious choice of weapon to take into battle against the doom-sayers of Off with Her Head! Apart from anything else, several of the hair-dos presented by the nine featured hairdressers suggest acts of male cruelty far more vivid and immediate than mere metaphorical ‘beheadings’. I am thinking particularly of the gruesome bowl cut given to the Princess of Wales by Sam McKnight (yikes) and of the ‘digit cut’ pioneered by the Dutch hairdresser Christiaan – a Post-Modern ’do achieved by inserting scissors ‘like a pencil, at random spots in the hair, and snipping it into a succession of “pluses and minuses” or negative and positive thickets’.
The book’s text – such as it is – falls prey to many of the traditional fatuities and pretensions of salon talk. There is the twittering fore-word written by Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis (‘for an awful lot of us, our hair is our identity’). There are Collins’s glowing portraitlets of the nine featured stylists: ‘Christiaan is hairdressing’s wild man ... a tall, tousled soul ... His handsome face is as deeply weathered as a chunk of driftwood and his matted hair is coloured a daffodil yellow ... “I have modelled myself after a painter or a writer,” Christiaan says, pouring tea from a ceramic pot.’)
Finally, there are the hairdressers’ own ludicrous accounts of their ‘philosophies’ and methods: ‘When speaking about his work,’ Julien d’Ys ‘is at a loss to explain his prodigious imagination. “When I arrive at a job. I never know what I’m going to do ... It is a kind of magic that happens. I say to my angel: ‘Help me! Help me!’ I think it’s something from God. It’s very strange. If I’m asked to do something inspired by the 18th century, I suddenly feel as if I’m a hairdresser from that period.” ’
Yet in spite of all this eminently satirissable nonsense, Hair Style does demonstrate with admirable clarity the foolishness of affixing any single ‘bad’or ‘patriarchal’ significance to rituals of female grooming. The very fact that this expensive picture-book for women exists at all points up the extent to which hair-styling, along with all the other branches of female self-adornment, constitutes an autonomous female sub-culture that is only tenuously connected – and often not connected at all – to the business of arousing male desire. The cosy refuge of the ‘salon’, the figure of the stylist (archetypically a stud with whom you flirt or a gay man in whom you confide), the towels speckled with hair-dye, the nylon kimono robes, the glinting shampoo basins – these things are pleasurable ends in themselves.
Of course they may also be enlisted in the preparatory rituals of feminine seduction. Many of the photographs in Hair Style show models adopting the classic attitudes of sex kitten and vamp – brazenly erotic poses and sexual ‘objectifications’ that would no doubt offend Eilberg-Schwartz’s notions of female selfhood. His pious insistence that the female head should operate not as ‘a symbol of desire’ but as ‘a symbol of identity and the capacity for speech and language’ presupposes that female identity and sexuality are mutually exclusive. Rightly speaking, it seems, the sex stuff should stay ‘down there’ and leave identity alone upstairs, defining itself with views on European union and French nuclear policy. For most women, however, sexuality is not so readily extricable from all the other things that make them individuals. And who is to say that wearing lipstick and curling one’s hair are less authentic expressions of self than a love of Beethoven or a brilliance at maths?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.