Merida's fabulous hair.

Disney’s Brave New Hair

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Snapshot from a poster of Disney Pixar's 'Brave'

So, I saw Brave the other night. And, of course, I loved it. It was the kind of Disney I remember from my girlhood: moving, uplifting, and dreamily beautiful. After the movie, my friend and I whirled out of the cinema with eyes as big as hope. I felt like I wanted to say something profound about the incredible animation, or the sensitive portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship … But as we stepped into the foyer, all we talked about was hair. Merida’s hair. We leaned up against reflective surfaces and started scrunching our locks to make them more curly, wondering if we would look weird as redheads. “But then,” I sighed, “You could never get Merida’s exact colour in real life.” We both sank a little. And that was it. We were bumming out over hair.

It’s not a new observation that Disney gives girls unrealistic hair expectations. (I read it on an internet meme somewhere.) Those hair standards are simply impossible to live up to – I mean, Ariel’s fringe defies gravity at all times. Jasmine’s hair has more body than her body. And Pocahontas’s hair never tangles or gets caught in her lip gloss, even though she’s always standing on windy hilltops. Come on.

Disney has a propensity to create what I call ‘hairoines’. This means that the female protagonist’s personality is expressed mainly through her hairstyle. And while she may be a Disney-Pixar hybrid, it looks like Brave’s Scottish princess could join the Disney hairoine ranks. In Merida’s defence, she is definitely a step out of the old Disney princess mold – she has no wish to marry, she actively shapes her own fate, and she has a benevolent mother figure. (On a side note, ever noticed the lack of maternal role-models in Disney? Cinderella and Snow White had evil stepmothers; the mothers of Jasmine, Pocahontas, Ariel and Belle are ‘assumed dead’; and Rapunzel was held hostage by her fake mother … Not a great run for mothers.) Merida is a breath of fresh air.

Nevertheless, in the lead-up to Brave’s release, many of the articles about the Magic Kingdom’s newest daughter centred around … her hair. The tech blogs were abuzz about Merida’s hair. Pixar spent three years developing new technology in order to animate her hair. Apparently none of the existing technology was good enough. They needed ground-breaking hair! Tresses that would stop the presses! Locks that would really pop! (You get the point.)

I feel I should ask, why is hair so important? But I just know that it is. When Mulan disguised herself as a man, the most significant part of the transformation was when she cut her hair short. It was a symbolic act of defiance, and a demonstration of her commitment. By chopping off her hair, she changed her identity, even her gender. Such is the power of hair. Any woman who has cropped long hair, or shaved her head, or gotten a pixie cut (guilty), knows that hair is a big deal.

Often, when I think that something is a big deal, I think of Africa. Like many middle-class Westerners, that is how I get perspective. I think of Africa. But even the Third World knows that hair is important. I visited Ghana a few years ago, and as we trundled along a dirt road through some pretty rough-looking slums, I remember thinking, “Damn, these women all have perfect hair.” How did they do it? They were walking barefoot along muddy roads with stray dogs running around them, and they had Michelle Obama hair. So I asked somebody about it, and they told me: “They’re wigs.” These women had all buzzed off their own hair, and saved up their money to buy perfectly coiffed wigs. That way they always had perfect hair. This is in an area where they did not yet have indoor plumbing. Hair is a big deal.

I know, I know – I will never have hair like Merida. Or Ariel, or Sleeping Beauty, or Jasmine. (Maybe like Belle, if I had my own team of hairdressers always on standby.) Once I admit that, I feel a lot better about my own plain, brown hair. I can’t say I’m not annoyed at Disney for encouraging such high expectations in me. However, I am grateful to Brave for providing me with a Disney heroine to whom I can relate: a girl with depth of character, complexity of emotion; a rising spirit. A heroine who isn’t just a hairoine. Merida’s hair is spectacular, but next to the power of her personality, it is merely an ornament. And, really, isn’t that the way it should be?

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