This Friday is the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War, a film so buzzy that it’s already broken presale records and is on track to become the biggest domestic box office opening in history. It combines characters from no fewer than 18 Marvel movies and an absolutely dizzying 76 superheroes and supporting characters, from Black Panther to Iron Man. But one thing you won’t be seeing a lot of? Hair ties.
Which, to anyone with longer than shoulder-length hair who has played on a recreational soccer league as a kid, seems nuts. Aren’t these people, like, fighting each other? While doing flips and jumps and stuff? Even Violet Baudelaire, the protagonist of A Series of Unfortunate Events, famously had to tie up her hair with a ribbon in order to focus, which requires basically zero physical exertion.
So why don’t Black Widow, Gamora, Scarlet Witch, and Mantis — and even superheroines beyond Infinity War, from Wonder Woman to Jessica Jones, Elektra, Storm, and She-Hulk — ever seem to take a second to throw their hair into a chic chignon (or, more likely, a half-assed messy bun like the rest of us do before an activity as simple as getting on the elliptical)?
The simplest answer is that comics are a visual medium, and a bunch of long, flowing hair swirling around during an already epic fight scene looks pretty cool. Camille Friend, the head of the hair departments for Marvel’s Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the upcoming Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson, pretty much confirms that that’s at least the way Hollywood sees it.
“In the history of superhero women in comic books, the hair has always been drawn down and flowing,” Friend explains. “When you are seeing them in action or flying, you want to be able to see the hair moving freely with the hair in constant motion.”
But there’s a reason we don’t see many male superheroes with waist-long hair just so we can watch all that cool hair fly around. Christina Dokou, an assistant professor of American literature and culture at the University of Athens, explains that the “boys’ club” legacy of comic books, in which female characters were stuck with sexist stereotypes, still endures. “Even today, the physical attributes and feminine beauty of superheroines are exaggerated to make them look like, well, frankly, porn stars at worst, and sexy female athletes at best,” she tells Racked over email.
The hair, by the way, isn’t only impractical in combat, Dokou notes, but also would have the effect of giving away one’s secret identity, causing a whole lotta sweat, and making the character suffer the unfortunate consequences of helmet hair.
Of course, comics are fun because they aren’t real life. But even in superhero universes, hair still has meaning. “Red or black hair is usually reserved for the strongest superheroine around, or the one with the most flamboyant personality — see, for example, Phoenix, Red Sonja, or Wonder Woman — while blondes are still mostly treated as glorified bimbos, regardless of their powers,” she explains, pointing to Supergirl and Smallville as examples of the latter.
Meanwhile, a shaved head often indicates a godlike mental ability — think Deadpool’s Negasonic Teenage Warhead or Stranger Things’ Eleven — but can also double as a signifier of sexual preferences. Dokou points to Moondragon, a ’70s-era telepathic martial arts superhero with a shaved head, who was eventually revealed to be bisexual after dating the pixie-cut alien Phylla-Vell. Then there’s the anarcho-punk outlaw Tank Girl, known for her mostly shaved head, who inspired weekly lesbian “Tank Girl nights” in London.
“To put it in a nutshell, the shorter the hair, the more precarious a character’s relationship with traditional femininity,” Dokou says. But she adds that over the past two decades, “comics and graphic novels seem more willing to experiment with hair color and length (as metonymies of gender identity), suggest[ing] a welcome, albeit still small, relaxation of gender fascism in favor of inclusiveness and equality.”
For Black Panther, in which every character was styled in natural hair, Camille Friend says that hairstyles were based on characters’ specific tribes and their position within Wakanda, from the shaved head of special forces team member Okoye to the Queen Mother Ramonda’s regal dreadlocks. For the hyper-intelligent and spunky Shuri, “we did individual microbraids with four different colors because we wanted to have the ability to change her hair into many different looks,” Friend says. “We wanted to keep her looking modern and fresh.”
Luckily, we’ll get to see some of that hair diversity in Infinity War — Okoye, Shuri, and Ramonda will all appear in the film, and Tessa Thompson will also reprise her gig as Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok, in which she sported a hint of a ponytail. For the most part, however, it’ll be hard not to notice the abundance of long, flowing, and wildly impractical hair all over fight scenes this Friday, proving that even female superheroes have to deal with extra bullshit.