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The Help: Hair Observations

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I went to see The Help yesterday and I am FULL of emotion. Gratitude, anger, sadness, happiness. BUT, given the purpose of this blog, I will focus my reflections on hair and identity.

One of the main characters, Aibileen is a 53 year old housemaid who works for a White family in Jackson, Mississippi (every single time I spell Mississippi, I think about the Good Times episode…every single time, it never fails. I looked for a clip of this classic scene but I couldn’t find it. Boooo). Viola Davis does an exceptional job portraying Aibileen with dignity, depth…BRILLIANCE! At the beginning of the movie, Aibileen is shown soaking in her tub, her hair in neat cornrows. Then, we see her wig which she dutifully rolls and pins in the evening so that it’s ready to wear the next day. I wondered, what would have happened had she shown up at her patron’s home with cornrows in her hair. Pure drama that’s what. They would have taken one look at her and probably either sent her home to make herself “respectable” or fired her on the spot. It dawned on me that her wig was as much a part of her uniform as her crisply starched maid’s uniform, stockings and sturdy black shoes. Actually, as I recollect, she wore her wig whenever she went outside whether to work, church or down the street to her neighbor’s house. Was her natural hair something to be covered and kept out of sight? Why?

The other person who clearly wore a wig (other folks may have but it wasn’t clearly pointed out) in the movie was Charlotte, mother of the main character (Skeeter). Charlotte has a cancerous ulcer and has apparently lost her hair due to the disease and / or her treatment. She is shown modeling different wigs for Skeeter, finally settling on a wig that seems better-suited to her age and personality. It didn’t escape me that the Black woman wore a wig to cover up her natural, seemingly healthy hair while the White woman wore a wig because she was losing her hair due to disease. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that. I think it’s just amazing how societal norms can lead us to cover our authentic selves.

It was also interesting to note that Skeeter had a mane of curly red hair that was the subject of derision from her mother (and probably the Junior League women who swarmed around the town like a bunch of queen bees). Her hair was considered to be so unmanageable that her mother bought an $11 jumbo piece of equipment from another state (I believe it was called the Smoothenator or something like that) when she learned that her single daughter had a date with an eligible bachelor. The message: Girl, do something with this unruly curly hair so that you can snag a man.

The movie was about much more than hair, much, MUCH more. But I think that the little snippets I’ve shared reflect the movie’s message about how people enforce unspoken rules of conduct. Our hair has to fall in line just like everything else. Something to think about.

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