“I Like Your Hair Better Down”: An Examination of YA Male Protagonists and Their Obsession With The Way Females Wear Their Hair by Janine Quimby
In the second half of the Victorian dramatic monologue “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning, the speaker of the poem, allegedly so overcome with Porphyria’s goodness and virginal beauty (and thus wanting to prevent her from spoiling her innocence), commits the following act: “A thing to do, and all her hair/ In one long yellow string I wound /Three times her little throat around,/ And strangled her” (ll. 38-41).
As an ardent reader and lover of all things Gothic and creepy, I began to notice this phenomenon replicated in the world of young adult literature. Now, that’s not to say that YA male protagonists are winding their female counterparts’ luminous locks thrice around their necks, but their obsession with female hairstyling is equally as disturbing. So, what gives?
During our school’s Summer Reading Finding and Vetting Committee meetings, I happened to pick up The Problem with Forever by Jennifer Armentrout. The novel focuses on two individuals who survived the foster care system: Rider Stark and Mallory Dodge. Rider, Mallory’s “protector” during their foster care years, is now a broad-shouldered, full-lipped, tawny-skinned (so clearly “stupid-hot”) young man who is hesitant to relinquish his protector role. Mallory, soft-spoken and reticent in just about every way, willingly allows this continued “protection.” While helping Mallory acclimate to public school following years of homeschooling, Rider offers his services even outside of school hours. (What a guy!) After texting “R u home?” (true romance), Mallory—already in her pajamas—answers the door to find Rider bleeding. Mallory, apparently a regular Florence Nightingale, cleans and dresses his wound, but not before Rider “work[s] the bun loose” from Mallory’s hair, proclaiming that he “like[s] it down” (Armentrout 97). Does Mallory object? No. Does she gather the “tangled mess” up in her hands and redo her bun? Also no. Does she offer a retort, indicating that she doesn’t care what Rider thinks about her hair? Still no. She just lets Rider sit there and awkwardly talk about her tresses.
Jenny Han, in her To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before series, spends quite a bit of time detailing loose waves, fishtail braids, and pigtails. Lara Jean Covey, the novel’s protagonist and love letter signator, has no problem “wak[ing] [her sister] Kitty up early so she can braid her hair” (Han 28). Now, I teach high school, and I’m going to say that this is a stretch for most sleep-deprived high school students. One of the recipients of Lara Jean’s amorous epistles is Peter Kavinsky—one of her middle school crushes. After Lara Jean and Peter enter into a consensual dating agreement to infuriate Peter’s ex-girlfriend, Genevieve, they embark on their first public outing as (not-really-but-kind-of) boyfriend and girlfriend. Instead of simply asking her if she’d like to go, Peter tricks Lara Jean into going to a party with him under the guise of going to Tart and Tangy (nothing says “true love” like duping your girlfriend). After hemming and hawing over what to wear, Lara Jean bounds down the stairs and out the front door. Outside of Steve Blendell’s house (ok, mansion), Peter stops Lara Jean and “pulls the hair tie out of [her] hair and tosses it into the front yard” telling Lara Jean that “[i]t [her hair] looks better down,” to “just trust [him]” on this (Han 183). Peter then quickly snaps a photo on his phone to set as his wallpaper, but not before he “runs his fingers through [her] hair and fluffs it up” (Han 183). While Lara Jean flirtatiously rebukes Peter, she ultimately acquiesces and follows him into the party.
In Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, Sarah Dunbar—an African American student at an all-white school—is grouped with Linda Hairston—the daughter of segregation proponents—on a French project. Linda comes from family who believes that segregation is the sole preserve of the public education system (and life), and while her parents remain steadfast in their beliefs “against mongrelization” and the “sanctity of Southern womanhood” (Talley 140), Linda admires Sarah for her tenacity. When Linda’s boyfriend, Jack, picks her up from school prior to her choir practice, Linda patiently puts up with his painstaking line of questioning reminding herself that once high school is over, she and Jack will get married (ahh! every teenage girl’s fantasy). Yet, Jack really seals the deal when he turns to Linda and says, “‘I like it when you wear your hair that way’” and then proceeds to “run his fingers through the curls [she] pinned up last night” (Talley 146). Even though “[i]t took an hour to do” and she mentions that “it hurt,” Linda thinks that “it’s worth it to see the twinkle in his eye” (Talley 146). Instead of detailing the arduousness (and pain) involved with styling her hair, Linda simply relinquishes herself to please her man.
I fully understand that the comments about hair are grossly overshadowed by the legitimate issues these books offer readers: racism, sexuality, parental death, child abuse. Yet, I can’t help but think about how insightful young readers are, how they pick up on subtleties woven into the deeper narrative. What most alarms me is not the blatant sexualization of the female body, for historically hair styling often denoted status—sexual and otherwise. For example, Elizabethan sumptuary laws attempted to curtail frivolity and denote rank by requiring men and women to dress and style their hair in particular ways. Outliers, though, sometimes bucked traditional laws in favor of style. Moreover, 1 Corinthians stresses the importance of women covering their hair during prayers; some biblical critics equate loose hair with prostitution (loose hair = loose morals, right?). Truly, what alarms me is the lack of autonomy on the female characters’ part: is this the example we want to set for adolescent girls?
The Victorian era was defined by rigid moral and religious standards–poor Porphyria never really stood a chance. The speaker uses her hair as a mechanism of control, to subdue her vibrancy and supposed wantonness. Must our YA heroines endure the same? Must they continue to be subject to the approval of men? Can’t they just embrace the messy top knot without caring what their boyfriends think? I sure hope so.
Janine Quimby is an English Language Arts teacher at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, NJ where she teaches AP Language and Composition and Honors World Literature. As avid reader, Janine devours books (both hard copies and audiobooks) during any free moment–she’s currently reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. She is married to an English teacher and is the mother of two small children.