Retire This Trope: A Character Cutting His Hair Is Not Powerful Symbolism

Retire This is a column about movie clichés. Now, we’re not here to tell you that a movie should never have any clichés, plenty of great movies have lots of them. Clichés can work wonderfully if you know how to use them. But the first step towards incorporating them successfully is knowing they exist.

Here’s a trope I’ve already seen three times this month: characters cutting off their hair in front of mirror. The classic use of this one is that there’s a protagonist who has experienced some personal tragedy, and has thus sworn off doing whatever thing makes him the hero, and has spent the last few weeks/months/years hiding behind a big, bushy beard while he walks the Earth or lives in a monastery or whatever. Until, that is, the third act when he’s finally convinced that the world really needs him, at which point he triumphantly shaves off the beard and becomes the baby-faced hero we all know and love. Now he looks like the guy! Cue theme music.

This has been an action movie staple for so long that it was already being parodied by the early ’90s. The shearing-yourself-as-shorthand-for-character-transition cliché has since expanded far beyond beardy action heroes.

In fact, speaking specifically of action movies, the shave shot is now the domain of both heroes and villains. Most recently it was Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, who had us all on pins and needles waiting for the precise moment when he’d finally cut off his hair and become the bald guy we all remember. (To be fair, Lex’s hair was cut off against his will, but it still functioned as a symbolic turning point.) Superman had a beard in Man of Steel, but only when he wasn’t really being Superman (apparently glasses alone weren’t enough of a disguise). He still had to show up clean-shaven to fight General Zod.

It’s an odd narrative strategy, all this buildup. It’s a lot of narrative pressure to put on a haircut, isn’t it? Have you ever had a climactic haircut? I haven’t. (Though to be fair, I haven’t flown or melted steel with my eyes either.) Batman V Superman‘s haircut use seems even more odd in the context of the film being released just as the X-Men franchise was pulling the same thing with Professor X.

As far as I know, James McAvoy doesn’t shave it all off in a symbolic moment in front of the mirror, but you never know.

Batman V Superman characteristically used Lex’s shearing for a “big moment.” Yahoo even asked Jesse Eisenberg about it during the promo tour, which is a question perfectly suited for both Yahoo and for pointless press tours, because I can’t think of a movie moment that less requires unpacking. Here’s the actual question:

“For you as an actor, when you suddenly now are bald, do you feel like you encompassed a different, like you felt like a different Lex Luthor, like a different stage?”

Here I’d just like to point out that an entire team of publicists and planners had to set up an “event” in order for this man to ask this question. Which basically boiled down to “Did you feel different when you got a haircut?”

This transformation is one that Eisenberg definitely felt as he portrayed the character, but not in the way you might think.


“It’s probably the exact opposite from what he should feel, which is, like, to me I feel totally vulnerable without hair, because, you know, hair protects and keeps you warm and stuff,” Eisenberg told Yahoo Movies. “To go to that kind of physical place is probably the opposite of what the character experiences in the comics, where he’s this confident bald person.”

Whoa, like, deep, man. (And here we have a beautiful example of the age-old press tour dilemma: Should we hold it against actors for giving obnoxious answers to staggeringly stupid questions?)

I’m picking on Batman V Superman because it’s fun, but the cliché is by no means limited to BvS, or to superhero movies. It seems to show up everywhere. Comedies, dramas, indies, blockbusters. If you see some characters sharing a cathartic hug in a bathtub or coming to a life revelation underwater, it’s a good bet that you’re watching an indie dramedy.  But a momentous hair change in front of a mirror? It could be anything. At this point, all it says is “this moment is important!”

It indicates “a different stage,” as Yahoo’s animatronic dingleberry so eloquently put it.


To name just two recent examples, which I experienced barely a week apart: Demolition and Midnight Special. In Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character loses his wife in a car crash and goes through an intense personal transition. He suddenly begins to notice all the wonder in the world around him that he’d been taking for granted all these years. The first sign of his change? He grows a beard. In the final transition of his character arc, he shaves his new beard in front of the mirror to symbolize a new-new phase of his personal growth, before he goes off and makes nice with his boss/father in law.

In Midnight Special, Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon play the parents of a “special” boy, who are both in varying stages of leaving a religious cult called The Farm, which clearly borrows elements of Warren Jeff’s Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, specifically the part where women wear long braids and dresses with puffy sleeves. In an important moment late in the film, Kirsten Dunst cuts off her braid in front of the mirror. We’re left to infer that she’s entering an important new phase. Transition, closure, catharsis. It’s all there in her discarded braid!


Meanwhile, while neither quite go so far as to include the momentous mirror scene, two other films I saw these past few weeks — The Invitation and Green Room — also had nods to hair-as-symbolism trope. I can’t spoil Green Room‘s, but in The Invitation, more than one character comments on main character Will’s big beard (he’s experienced an intense personal tragedy and his friends haven’t seen him in two years, natch), the implication being that he’d grown it to hide from the world. This despite the fact that the host of the same party also had a beard. It exists as literal and metaphorical in the same scene.

And that’s partly why I think this cliché needs to be retired, at least as far as some grooming choice is meant to represent an important psychological transition. In 1988, growing a big beard (or shaving one) might have said something about your psychological state. These days, it could just mean that you watch Duck Dynasty, or that you attend Comic-Con, or that you drink IPAs, or that you’re simply an 18-to-45-year-old male in contemporary America. It doesn’t mean much in daily life, and most of the time it shows up in film, we only know it’s meant to be meaningful because we’ve seen it used that way in so many other movies, which is basically the definition of a movie cliché. Having to watch a character climatically shear themselves isn’t going to ruin a movie, but at this point, it’s probably worth finding another way to illustrate a character transition.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.