In the upcoming film The Women, a remake of the 1939 George Cukor classic that’s been re-imagined by writer-director Diane English, Meg Ryan’s hair could be billed as a supporting character to its gaggle of stars: Annette Bening, Cloris Leachman, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Candice Bergen, Eva Mendes and, of course, Ms. Ryan. When we meet her character, Mary, she’s a kind of superhero suburban mom—stretched violin-string-thin between charitable committees, parenting and grouting her bathroom floor—and The Hair is long and exceedingly ringlety. In classic Meg Ryan fashion, Mary flits charmingly if exhaustedly between her myriad responsibilities, The Hair showing the kinetic energy she’s expended in contrast to her best friend, Sylvia (Ms. Bening), a high-powered magazine editor, who sports a perfectly smooth and polished coif. By the end of the film, after Ms. Ryan’s character has had to go through the obligatory soul-searching with a montage of pulling-her-life-back-together moments, she emerges with The Hair sleek and straight. And we know: Hey, she’s O.K.!
It’s an easy visual trick from Hollywoodland: a few adjustments in wardrobe, makeup and, most important, hair, and, voilà! Life’s good! Or, at least, getting better. Call it the The Princess Diaries effect, a film that seven years later still causes outrage—remember the first thing done to transform Anne Hathaway into appropriate-looking royalty? But why, many naturally curly-headed gals might be forgiven for wondering, does frizzled always equal frazzled? And how come a third-act makeover always seems to involve a flatiron?
“Meg and I talked about Mary, and the kind of differences between the original film—which was very cosmopolitan—and this one. Meg felt that Mary should be very earthy,” said Jonathan Hanousek, a celebrity stylist who was in charge of Ms. Ryan’s locks throughout the filming of The Women. “She wanted the sense that her appearance was not something she lingered on, and that her focus was devoted to her life and her daughter.”
Well, O.K., but as anyone who’s had to wake up with a tangled nest of curls could tell you, those gorgeous Botticelli tresses Ms. Ryan sports for the majority of the movie would certainly not have come easy. (“There was some time involved,” Mr. Hanousek admitted.) And besides, since when does having curly hair make one earthy? Neither have we found in our unscientific gatherings that curly hair necessarily translates to being unconcerned about one’s appearance, or more romantic, wild, creative, or crazy and lusty. (Oh, Glenn Close, your fine performance in 1987’s Fatal Attraction set back more than the 30-something single woman. Did you think about us naturally curly girls?)
“It’s all about being groomed and in control, isn’t it,” said Kerry Warn, a veteran movie hair designer who has worked repeatedly with Nicole Kidman (who sadly has never returned to the glorious, counterintuitive head of spirals from her Dead Calm and Days of Thunder era), and recently designed the coiffures of all the actors on the upcoming Baz Luhrman film Australia. “What you see and perceive is many times unspoken,” he said, pointing out that by quickly using visual clues—like curly hair—an audience is able to make all sorts of quick inferences about who a person is and what they’re all about.
Mr. Hanousek said that he has many female friends with curly hair and that he thought it was the “ultimate in confidence and strength. I don’t perceive those women to be frazzled.” And yet, when it came time to make Meg’s character emerge triumphant from the fray, straight her hair went. “We had to show the passing of time,” he explained, pointing out that Ms. Ryan’s wardrobe also became sleeker. “It was just to signify that she had gotten her life under control.” Of course, a wrinkled shirt and curly hair shouldn’t necessarily give off the same impression (trust us, even if our shirt is perfectly ironed, our hair retains the same amount of wave.). So, chicken or egg: Is pop culture a mirror for our society’s straight-ist attitude toward hair, or is it helping to perpetuate it?
"I THINK IT’S an important issue. We’re bordering the line of almost becoming a myth that if you have straight hair you are more professional or appear to be more professional, and that’s truly not the case,” said Ouidad, a pioneer in the pro-curly-hair movement since 1984, author of Curl Talk, and owner of the tony 57th street eponymous salon. She believes that straightening or smoothing out the hair is a way of erasing individual personality, and for examples pointed to news-channel talking heads (“[straight hair] doesn’t allow for any distraction except to listen to the information”), and more recently last week’s Democratic National Convention, when Barack Obama officially accepted the nomination for the presidency. “Michelle [Obama] has been wearing her hair with a wave, and her and her oldest daughter had their hair totally ironed out,” said Ouidad. “They wanted to blend. It’s to be accepted and not stick out.”
Like Ouidad, curly hair guru and author Lorraine Massey, founder and co-owner of Devachan Salon & Departure Lounge (which has the impressively punny and popular No Poo hair care line), preaches to the naturally curly to try and embrace their ringlets rather than quell them. “This whole pathetic straightening religion … it’s modern-day slavery,” said Ms. Massey, who is a passionate believer in her cause. “Everyone is trying to hide from their heritage—it’s anthropological. It goes very deep.”
Ms. Massey was still livid over a recent run-in with the producers for Bravo’s Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, which provides makeovers to the fashion-challenged, and who had asked her to participate. She agreed on the condition that for the final “reveal” they wouldn’t straighten the participant’s hair, something they ended up doing anyway. “They just don’t understand my view on this,” Ms. Massey said. “My whole philosophy is to not perpetuate the same crap over and over again.” Shari Harbinger, the director of education for Devachan, agreed: “Hollywood is reacting but Hollywood is also enabling this vicious cycle. Lorraine and I often refer to the drug addict and the drug dealer scenario.”
THE GOOD NEWS is that everyone The Observer spoke with seemed to feel a shift was occurring for the curly-haired landscape: more wave with less stereotype. (Look at all those spiraling tresses featured in the fall J.Crew catalog!) “I think people have to get over that straight hair,” said Mr. Warn. “Everyone is starting to look the same with this ironed hair. It’s sort of nice when you see curls; it’s almost refreshing. It looks alive again.”
In early August, Good Morning America aired a segment about people’s perceptions of curly or straight hair. Reporter Taryn Winter Brill went curly and straight for a panel of five “regular” men, and then did the same for job recruiters. With her own naturally curly hair she received higher marks from the recruiters on intelligence, confidence and ability to articulate ideas clearly, though from the random dudes she did better with the blow-out. (We think the message is clear from both tests: go natural!)
“I’m seeing more curls and freedom,” said Ouidad. “We still have a lot to go, but it’s just incredible how much more there is available. Just by the products on the market, it’s apparent.’
“Hollywood will embrace this truth when the people that are behind it get it and then do what they can to reeducate the union stylists and designers,” said Devachan’s Ms. Harbinger. “This is something that we at Deva want to get involved with. It’s almost like the Democratic convention. We have to first undo years of lies, and then reeducate, motivate and guide them to the truth. The truth is that curlies can have ‘neat’ and refined curls if the people who tend to them know what they are doing. And this will in fact significantly change the perception from a false belief to a new understanding of the beauty of curly hair.”
We know, we know, this could take years. Still, we look forward to the day we see Gwyneth Paltrow on the big screen, hitting rock bottom both professionally and personally, getting made over (cue Sheryl Crow!) with a lion’s mane of curls and then being promoted to CEO and winning the man of her dreams. Then, and only then, will we know Hollywood has learned that curls don’t have to signify frazzle. They can dazzle, too.