Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good Hair (Spoiler!)

I finally saw Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" this weekend. Reviews have been mixed but mostly positive. A great article about it can be found here. My opinion of it is, like everything else that has to do with this subject, complicated.

The frame of the movie is the Bonner Bros. hair show in Atlanta, at which hundreds of hair product manufacturers and vendors set up sprawling display tables in the giant auditorium, beauticians and hair enthusiasts from around the world flock to the site, and several extra-talented stylists compete in stage shows involving dancing, scantily-clad women, gymnastics, and a bit of haircutting. At the show Rock interviews vendors and highlights the issue of how Asian Americans currently own most of the hair supply retail stores in the U.S. He discovers weaves, and is amazed to find out how much money women spend to weave foreign hair into their own, to get that "long, flowing look." He travels to India to follow the supply chain, finding that the hair is taken from temples where people sacrifice their hair to God, then it is cleaned, sewn, and shipped to the U.S.

The irony he highlights is that African Americans are giving money to Asians to get Indian hair in order to put it on their heads to achieve a certain look (a "white look," many would say, though he didn't really go there).

Mostly he interviews his Hollywood friends Eve, Raven Symone, Nia Long, and Tracie Thoms. These are women who admit to spending thousands of dollars on weaves.

Not a realistic depiction.

He interviews AA men about the subject, how these men know they are in a serious relationship when they start financing a woman's hair (this notion was mildly offensive, in my opinion), how they know not to run their fingers through a woman's hair if she has a weave. How they have to accept the presence of hair in their relationship, and even sex has to be modified to allow room for it. I found these opinions on the matter shallow and rude.

He interviews a few (very few) women in regular, everyday beauty shops and asks about relaxers. Some women say using a relaxer makes their hair more "natural." Hmmm. Rock is amazed at the young age at which many African American girls are getting relaxers. One small child had her first relaxer at age 3. Talk about getting started on the creamy crack early!
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Here was the one part that started to highlight the negative side of this hair pathology. The other part was a brief interview with some college students who say that in order to get a job they definitely wouldn't go for the natural, mini-Afro look that one of the girls had. It just wouldn't be "professional."

Critics are saying they're surprised by Rock's solid reportage. I would agree that he did a full-on immersion, traveling to India to find out where all the weave hair comes from, chronicling the hair show, etc. But there were big issues he only barely touched upon. He failed to mention how many other women (white included) wear weaves and are also obsessed with their hair. Why do women feel the need to look a certain way? Could men themselves be perpetuating this? And what about the growing natural hair movement? By not mentioning that, I felt in some ways he was taking a step back while so many of us are trying to move forward.

Perhaps part of this is because his angle was humorous, and I suspect he also didn't want to offend anyone. You can only go so deep while keeping a laugh track, which is actually something I've found myself when writing about my experiences with this subject. The obsession with hair is so extreme that the ridiculousness is just plain funny (think: tumbleweaves), but there can be very painful things at the root of that obsession that aren't so funny.

Rocks ends the documentary with the necessary conclusion of all these circular hair discussions: ALL hair is good hair. Let us do away with the parsing of positive and negative terms.

Black hair (and why black women spend ten times as much on their hair as white women) is an important conversation. It's not a new one for black folks. For whites, I suspect, it might be, and in that sense perhaps this documentary's mainstream presence will indeed do a service to the community. Though, because the movie shies away from many of the deeper issues, I worry that people who are new to this subject will leave the theater shaking their heads and thinking that black women are just simply crazy about hair. They might just chuckle and forget to ask what's under the weave. They might not be spurred to recognize the media's preference for a certain look, or question dominant standards of beauty.

But maybe, hopefully, not.


Anonymous said...

Lib, reading your blog has been very eye-opening for me. I think you're right that this issue is one that white people haven't thought about and don't understand. But seeing it through the eyes of your experience is enlightening, and I love reading your thoughts. (Remember the days when we all kept telling you what an awesome blogger you'd be? :))

As I was reading this, it made me think of black women I've seen in mainstream movies. It's bugged me for awhile that, more often than not, the women tend to have "white" features, including hair. (I'm thinking of Jada Pinkett Smith, Kerry Washington, and others) Why do black women have to be made to look like white women to be cast for certain roles? Why is that the media's perception (and perpetuated idea) of beauty? I know that's a question you've discussed on here many times, but movie roles are one place where I've noticed and been bothered by it particularly.

Liberty said...

Thanks for your comment, Erin :) I remember when you and Shannon kept trying to get me on the blogs. What foresight!

It's cool to hear that you notice these things too. You're so right that the mainstream moviestars of color often DO have more "white" features, Jada included.

Speaking of movies/TV, are you getting excited for the final season of LOST? I can't wait.

Sarah Grooms said...

I am definitely not well informed of all the issues with hair that AA women (and men?) face, but I do relate to the "curly hair not being as accepted" issue. It's true. I don't think the majority of people think curly hair is professional, but we need to keep working to erase such a ridiculous notion. I went curly 4 years ago and I don't want to go back. I feel more like myself this way and its actually easier to manage! Plus, I just think it suits me more, so I suppose I resent society thinking I need to straighten it to be sexier, more professional, more accepted, what have you, when I actually feel better about myself now than I ever did before.

This issue fascinates me and I enjoy reading all of your insights and learning from your posts. Keep raising awareness. And cheers to being ourselves! :)

Liberty said...

Hi Sarah,
I don't remember ever seeing you in college with curly hair. I'm glad you embraced it!

Peppermint Patty said...

"Rock is amazed at the young age at which many African American girls are getting relaxers. One small child had her first relaxer at age 3. Talk about getting started on the creamy crack early!"

Libby, remember when I said that my friend, Tami, told me NOT to take my foster daughter (6 yrs) to an AA beauty salon because she said "little girls are having too many adult things done to their hair?" Confirmation, huh?! :)

(I'll have to watch this movie. Haven't seen it yet.)

Can I be too bold to say that isn't the world always made up of people wanting what others have?

I'm 1/2 Hungarian and the other 1/2 is a grouping of English-type. Long and short (no pun intended)...European.

My hair is SUPER thick/textured AND grows very fast. I was told that one of my hair follicles is double the size of a normal hair follicle.

Do I straighten my hair every now and again? Yes. I also think about the ladies out there with naturally super straight hair and think, "How nice and convenient. Probably doesn't need thinned."

I've had women tell me how lucky I am that my hair is so thick (when their hair is thinning and balding).

So is "our" (ALL women of all races) hair problems because of "us?" Wanting something that we don't have? Always wanting something we think is "better?"

Liberty said...

What kind of relaxer did you use? So interesting!

You're right, though--if it weren't hair it would be something else. We do always want what we don't have.

Peppermint Patty said...


I actually haven't had my hair professionally straightened. The best I have been able to do is to apply OTC stuff to "help" with straightening with the flat iron.