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

Senior Editor
04.14.16 50 Comments

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.

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