When we watch movies, we are often gripped by a compelling plot, or thrilled by the adrenaline-packed action or absolutely terrified by the horror. Films are very powerful if they are well made. However, we often do not get the chance to observe a whole lot with our first viewing of the film. When we watch films again, we are, more often than not, able to sift out subliminal messages, particular connotations and hidden ideologies. It is very important to understand that there are different types of social assumptions at play in what might be some of our favorite movies. Female characters that have short (boyish) haircuts are often portrayed in a negative manner in many space travel science fiction movies. This trend occurs in films such as Interstellar (2014), Prometheus (2012) and The Martian (2015).
The epic science fiction film by Christopher Nolan Interstellar (2014) depicts a dystopian future. Some time before the end of the twenty first century, Earth has run out of most of its resources while NASA looks for another planet that humans can potentially habituate. Having sent 12 astronauts for the first expedition to explore possibly habitable planets, they send another group of astronauts in order to explore the promising planets. The new team consisted of Joe Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Dr. Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Dr. Romily (David Gyasi). There were also two very intelligent (and charismatic) male robots named TARS and CASE on board. They all get on the voyage in order to save the human race. The most important thing to note is that Anne Hathaway’s character has a very short haircut in this film.
Another important thing to note as well is that she is the only female character on board.
In a particular scene, Cooper, Dr. Doyle, Dr. Brand, and CASE arrive on the first planet of their voyage, the latter trio gets off the ship to explore while Cooper stays in the ship. They soon realize that it is inhabitable as the planet had mega tsunamis about every 20 minutes or so. Cooper opts to leave immediately knowing that there was a tsunami right behind their ship. He commands everyone to get back on the ship immediately. While Doyle and CASE followed Cooper’s commands, Brand chose to ignore his instructions and opts to go after important data that Miller (an astronaut from the first group) left behind. This causes the death of Dr. Doyle. This incident certainly highlighted the irrationality and recklessness of Brand. There was also this moment where she fell on her back in panic after seeing the size of the tsunami wave.
This behavior was not shown by anyone of the male characters on board.
This is the first of the three examples where this idea that female characters with short haircuts is negatively portrayed. In that particular scene, Anne Hathaway’s character was shown to the audience as someone who was rash and irrational. After Doyle’s death, the rest of the crew decides which of the two remaining planet they should go to next. There was even a scene that showed that she is willing to trust her emotions and feelings rather than logic (even though she was proven to be right). In contrast, Murphy Cooper, the doctor played by Jessica Chastain who ends up saving the human race, does not have short hair.
Similarly, in Prometheus (2012), Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) almost jeopardized the space mission when she made a mistake that was very similar to Brand’s. Prometheus (2012) was also another epic science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott. Even though it was released later, it serves as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed Alien (1979). In Prometheus, Dr. Shaw and her fiancé Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green) finds a star map that is identical to many others that are found in various regions across the world, in the year 2089. They conclude that this is a message from our “creator/s” or referred to in the movie as “engineers”. They decide to travel to the planet along with a crew and a very human like robot, David (played by Michael Fassbender).
After landing safely on the planet, they decide to explore a huge hollow artificial mountain that was assumed to be constructed by the engineers. In the structure, Dr. Shaw manages to obtain the head of a dead engineer as a sample. However, the team receives commands from the ship to return immediately due to a very big incoming debris storm. The team returns to the spaceship as they were ordered, however, the sample bag falls out of Dr. Shaw’s vehicle. Despite the protests of some other crew members, she rushes out to retain the sample bag and gets caught in the storm, along with her fiancé Charlie. Fortunately, David saved them both. Even though there was no tragedy in this scene, it is clear to the audience that Dr. Shaw acted in a very irrational manner that is extremely similar to what Dr. Brand did in Interstellar.
Noomi Rapace’s character also has a short (boyish) haircut in this film.
Even though some might argue that this is mainly due to the fact that technical issues may arise when filming movies in a space suit, it is highly unusual for so many films to have female astronauts who have a very short haircut paired with one or two moments where they are portrayed as irrational or reckless. In another science fiction space travel Ridley Scott film The Martian (2015), there are no female astronauts that have a short haircut. Unsurprisingly, the two female astronaut characters in this movie are portrayed as logical and calculative. In the film, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) gets stuck on Mars after getting hit by a satellite dish during a storm. The spaceship commander, Melissa Lewis (played by Jessica Chastain), opted to leave him on Mars as the storm was getting so strong that it could make their vertical vehicular rocket tilt and fall. In the scenario, she made the most logical decision she could.
Jessica Chastain’s character had long hair again in this movie as well.
This very minute detail about haircuts correlate with what John Storey wrote in his book Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. For one of the definitions for Ideology he described it as something that “…is intended to draw attention to the way in which texts (television fiction, pop songs, novels, feature films, etc.) always present a particular image of the world.” He further wrote that, “This definition depends on a notion of society as conflictual rather than consensual, structured around inequality, exploitation and oppression. Texts are said to take sides, consciously or unconsciously, in this conflict.” As it was mentioned earlier, these female characters are portrayed negatively in across all the three films. We cannot possibly know if the screenwriters are consciously or unconsciously portraying them negatively, or in other words “taking sides”.
Historically, a female with long hair has always been perceived by our society as someone who is more feminine. An article on Psychology Today titled “Are Women With Long Hair Really Considered More Attractive?” by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano explores this idea in depth. She wrote, “Certainly in our culture, hair length is a loose, societally structured form of sexual dimorphism, or a trait that differentiates between the sexes.” It was further written, “Traits indicating sexual dimorphism are indeed the sort of things that beauty research, particularly that of evolutionary psychology, supports as being attractive…” These female characters across three films exemplify that very notion. These women are portrayed negatively not only because the screenwriters meant it but also because we, as the audience, are also much more susceptible to that notion. On the same article, it was mentioned that a research study done in 2004 that men perceive women with longer hair as healthier and more attractive. We have subconsciously registered these beauty standards in our memory that it has become so deeply embedded within us.
Also, a short haircut could be perceived as a challenge to our patriarchal society. A short haircut on a female implies that the female sees herself equal to a male. As much as we would like to deny it, our world is still very much sexist in some ways.
Short hair can be seen as a statement.
It is certainly a statement that challenges the patriarch. This idea is not susceptible to males but also to females who have been raised in cultures and societies where men and women are not regarded as equals. In other words, females can be sexist towards males and their own gender as well. Therefore, most people would have found it easier to sympathize with these female characters if they had longer hair because the character poses less of a threat to our society that is still in some ways, sexist.
After seeing many of these female characters and their hairstyles, we could conclude that people (both the filmmakers and the audience) might have a problem with women who are intellects. Sure, they can fight and curve bullets like Angelina Jolie in Wanted (2008). Sure, they can start a revolution like Jennifer Lawrence from The Hunger Games franchise. Sure, you could beat men up to a pulp like Gina Carano in Haywire (2011), but it is difficult to find a science fiction movie where intellectual women with short haircuts are portrayed in a positive way. It also certainly seems to imply that women are just caregivers or homemakers and that they don’t belong in the male-dominant field of science. There certainly seems to be this ideology that intellectual women are less attractive since it goes against the social assumption that women are homemakers.
In conclusion, we do not quite know what the reason is behind shorthaired female characters being portrayed negatively in many science fiction movies. Is a short haircut a statement? Is it a statement from the filmmakers that women are supposed to be homemakers and that they do not belong in the field of science? It could certainly be that filmmakers are consciously making it that way so that it reinforces the underpinning of our patriarchal society. On the contrary, they could also be vulnerable to this notion that they are subconsciously doing so. On the other hand, it is also interesting to see that the audience also plays a part in the bigger picture. The filmmakers are able to put these connotations in films because the audience is very susceptible to it as it was mentioned above. There are just many complex causes and inexplicable implications of the shorthaired trope of science fiction films for many to just ignore.
By: Brian Naing