Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Bring Back Braids

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.

Originally published in Design Observer