Shaving one’s head, like getting mustard on one’s tie or having a bird defecate on one’s head, is a visual metaphor. The moment expresses a vivid emotion, a feeling of anything ranging from relief to dread. The emotional head-shaving scene is a sorely under-utilized cliché, but perhaps it’s the scarcity that gives it its punch to the gut. (That’s another visual metaphor, son.)
Demi Moore’s head-shaving scene in G.I. Jane is an obvious example but is probably the least interesting. We get it: you’re a woman, a super hot woman, in a man’s word, and that’s gotta be hard. Parting with those locks is proof that you’re one of the boys now, as long as we overlook your sexy lady-moans during one-armed pushups and eerily rock-hard nipples. But the whole act is relatively one-note. It’s the female soldier equivalent of a football player putting that shit under his eyes as he prepares to take the field. Personally, I think it would have been much more impressive had Demi taken on the Vietcong in an updo. (They were fighting the Vietcong, right? I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really playing attention.)
Now Empire Records is a different story.
Robin Tunney’s character’s head-shaving is as much a moment of catharsis as it is an act of defiance. This scene is our introduction to Debra. From the walk through the record store to the bathroom, we already get a sense that she’s a bad ass chick. Chains? Check. Facial piercing? Check. Black clothes? Check. Perma-sneer? Oh man, check. But there is pain beneath that rugged exterior. Her wrists are bandaged, the aftermath of a suicide attempt. Debra is infinitely unhappy, and the head-shaving scene makes it clear that part of the reason she feels that way is because she is at war with her persona. She wants to show the world that she is not to be messed with–an extreme and mostly contrived statement–and she does so by trying to differentiate herself from the Barbie-like airheads she works with, people she consider to be fake and insincere. So who’s phony and who’s real? Ahh, to be full of angst.
Not every head-shaving is willing, though, and that difference obviously brings with it a different set of emotions. In V for Vendetta, Natalie Portman’s character gets involved with the disturbingly well-spoken political terrorist V. Evey (Portman) is child-like and excitable and enraptured and, unfortunately, dead fucking weight. So, predictably, she gets nicked by the bobbies, or whatever those Brits say, with the purpose of getting vital information about V. You see, the movie is a heavy-handed commentary on terrorism and political and civil unrest. But rather than waterboard her or shove bamboo shoots under her finger nails (Is it that obvious that I just watched Rambo: First Blood Part II?), they did the most torturous thing you could do to a petite young dish: shave her hair.
This punishment sends the message, essentially, that, “Bitch, you are incarcerated. And we mean business.”
For Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the upcoming 50/50, shaving his head sent a very different message. In the film, Gordon-Levitt, a healthy, spry, adorable (I mean, look at him) young man gets diagnosed with cancer. The trailer suggests that the character struggles with coming to grips with his condition. It must be tough to be of two minds when that diagnosis comes back positive–to be both strong enough to fight the disease and also accepting enough to embrace the long road ahead.
Here, the character decides to shave his head prior to chemotherapy in an attempt to own his disease. It’s admirable to preemptively, uh, balden yourself, and it’s a fascinating direction to go in with the emotional head shave. The moment is heart-breaking, for sure, and the empowerment gained is all that would help the character get through. Unlike in Empire Records, this head-shaving is less about who the character wants to become and more about coming to terms with the person he will be forced to be.