Alexandra Lange | Essays

Bring Back Braids

Mattie Ross and her braids (Hailee Steinfeld) in True Grit.

Can we bring back braids? Little girls of my acquaintace have bobs with bangs, long "princess" hair, wild curls, but I rarely see braids. When I think of braids, I first think of my own, still coiled in a shoebox at my mother's house, but I also think of a variety of spunky literary heroines: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Green Gables, Tacy of the Betsy-Tacy books. Cutting off your braids has ever been a rite of passage and a sign of rebellion.

Which was why I was fascinated to see the starring role played by Mattie Ross's braids in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit. (The Coens appear on NPR's Fresh Air today; also see the show's excellent Tumblr.) Lustrous, practical, they summed up the character precisely. A bob would have been cute, the Dorothy Hamill haircut sported by the 1969 version's Kim Darby dated, long hair absurd. The braids say: "I happen to be a girl, but that is no matter. I am here to do business." Mattie may change into her father's pants to ride into Choctaw territory, but she's never pretending to be a boy, and no one mistakes her for one.

They also never mistake her for a young woman. Steinfeld was 13 when the Coens' film was shot, while Darby was 20 playing a girl. I so appreciated the avoidance of both romance and sexual menace in the movie's plot. We've come to expect the latter any time a bad man is alone with a young girl, and the Coens do not play that card. They don't have to, there's enough menace already, from man, beast and the elements. But most directors would throw it in for good measure. Why introduce a later 20th century preoccupation that has become pervasive cinematic cliche?

As I thought about Mattie and her blend of pragmatism, persistence and complete lack of imagination, I began to see her character (and the film) as a tribute to Frances McDormand and her epic performance in Fargo. Another relentless woman, and one who also sidesteps sexuality by being heavily pregnant. Marge Gunderson wears a bob, but it is a mom bob, the no-nonsense hairstyle of an older woman. Are braids, or pregnancy what is necessary for a female to be taken at face value in film? Listened to as a detective, negotiated with as an equal, accepted as an employer? At least the Coens show us how it might be done.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [4]

Upon reflection, I was reminded of Native American men, often in braids, which speaks of another sense of character.

Braids never went away for people of colour, little black children's hair would not be "presentable" without braids.

Good points, both of you. I was thinking about braids from my own limited hair perspective. Now I am trying to remember if any of the Chocktaw seen in the movie also have braids, but I don't think so. Just a bear head.

I just finished reading Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" which concerns (among too many other things) an interracial adoption. There is an ongoing dialogue in that book about whether the two-year-old adoptee's hair should be braided (the opinion of black adults) or left in a small Afro (the opinion of the white adoptive parents). It doesn't really discuss what the braids "mean" in that context, just that the Afro is seen as rather silly and out-of-date.

I also have to add, I can't believe I forgot Pippi Longstocking! A heroine with braids for all time.
Alexandra Lange

I noticed her braids also, but also saw that they NEVER looked messy the way braids do after sleeping on them for a few days (and outdoors, at that)! We never saw her take them out and rebraid them. I wondered if they were fake...

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