Pop Culture Pet Peeve: Having a breakdown? Better chop off all your hair first

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Image Credit: HBO

How did The Newsroom‘s Maggie Jordan go from cheerful, wide-eyed Goldilocks to twitchy, traumatized wraith — and a dead ringer for ex-Top Model Marjorie, who herself was none too stable? Spoiler alert: It’s not just because “women try things” with their hair, as Will McAvoy said with a shrug in season 2’s premiere.

No, the truth lies in Uganda — where, as we saw in last night’s episode, Maggie befriended an adorable little boy named Issa Daniel who just loved touching her shiny golden tresses. (“He’s never seen hair like yours,” Wise African Teacher or Whatever explained to Maggie. “That color’s called blond, Daniel. It’s nothing but trouble.” Sorkin. Sorkin.)

Alas, Maggie’s time abroad wasn’t all smiling children and vague racism. Thanks to the presence of News Night‘s crew, Daniel’s orphanage was targeted by gun-toting camera thieves. In the ensuing melee, the kid was of course shot and killed — leading a grieving Maggie to express her sorrow by staring dead-eyed into a mirror, picking up a giant pair of scissors, and hacking away until she was left with a coif that even Fantine would consider drastic.

Of course, she’s not alone.  Fictional characters have all sorts of rationales for chopping off their own hair — they do it to earn much-needed money, to prove they’re not vain, to disguise themselves as men and join the Chinese army in their father’s place. Most of the time, though, the auto-chop comes for a very specific reason: It’s both a symptom and a signal of major mental instability.

Travis Bickle gave himself a mohawk right before attempting to assassinate a senator in Taxi Driver. Both Deb in Empire Records and Richie of The Royal Tenenbaums methodically sheared themselves around the same time that they attempted suicide — she before the big cut, he in the midst of it. (If you’re making an auto-chop playlist, put “Free” by the Martinis and “Needle in the Hay” near the top.) Salma Hayek’s Frida Kahlo rid herself of her curls during her alcoholic low point, though at least she got a good painting out of it.

The auto-chop is such a cliche that Maggie isn’t even the first TV character — or the first HBO character — to engage in one this year: See also the season finale of Girls, in which Hannah Horvath tried to give herself bangs while fighting the OCD and the looming deadline that were slowly driving her bonkers. True, the scene wasn’t quite as melodramatic as most of the rest on this list — but given Hannah’s episode-ending breakdown, it totally still counts.

Don’t get me wrong — auto-chops don’t have to be bad. Nobody would ever accuse Taxi Driver of being cliche, and one of the genre’s pioneers — Natalie Wood’s Deanie in Splendor in the Grass — comes as the culmination of what could be the greatest breakdown ever caught on film. (“I’M NOT SPOILED! I’M NOT SPOILED, MOM!”)

But generally speaking, auto-chops have become an incredibly lazy way to signify a character’s precarious mental state. What’s more, the recent variations on this scene always seem to proceed in exactly the same way: blank stare, moody music, a pan to the piles of hair covering the sink and the floor, decisive chops with an enormous pair of scissors. (Seriously, the scissors are always so big! I guess it could be because normal people don’t usually own elegant little hair salon sheers — though I’ll bet the real reason is that bigger blades = more dramatic snipping sounds.)

So please, screenwriters of the world: When you want to convey that your protagonist has reached rock bottom, that she don’t even care about her appearance anymore, that she’s both lashing out and attempting to make a fresh start, look beyond the bathroom mirror. Unless you’re into aping Lifetime original movies about eighth graders, in which case — cut on!

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