Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Spirit of Inquiry

Good Hair, that I awkwardly threw to in my last/first post, does something interesting both as a documentary, and as a feminist project. First, it's become quite refreshing to encounter a documentary that doesn't operate from a premise or conclusion already accepted and endorsed by the film. Now, I might agree with the political commitment of Michael Moore's films, but it seems to me they show no spirit of inquiry. From the first frame of Sicko, hell, from the preview, no one would rationally think that hey, this movie might find some positives in the American health care system. Which, fine. The Jungle needed to be written and certain elements of the American sociopolitical landscape need to be harshly critiqued. However, Moore's success seems to have spawned a slew of docu-children in which we all know where we're going to end up before we get there: e.g., Super Size Me, The Business of Being Born. However, Good Hair starts with an honest question--What is the nature of the relationship between African American women and their hair?--and comes up with what was, for me, a surprising answer.

Chris Rock, the producer and central consciousness of the movie, asks black women and black men, both famous and non- and in-, about their hair. And rather than focusing on the privileged definition of "good" (which is, no surprise here, European/white), Rock homes in on the
process of what can best be called managing hair. If he had done the former, exploring how and why (and really, if) African American women conflate "goodness" with "whiteness," I think the documentary would have slipped into the sort of self-fulfilling premise of the movies above. We can all agree that dominant beauty standards often dovetail with racial privilege, and we can all agree that this is a bad thing. But Good Hair is much more interested in what it means to devote large amounts of time, money, and emotional energy to creating and maintaining your hair as an entity that is both separate from and deeply connected to your sense of self. Because it seems that's what the women he interviews do. They buy weaves, apply harsh relaxing creams, and vigilantly police who and what has tactile access to their hair, and they don't feel a bit guilty about it. By looking at this one element of the experience of being human and female in America, the move gestures towards the way the female body is understood by many consciousnesses that inhabit one as an ongoing project, an activity rather than a stable object.

Rock's commitment to chasing down the Indian source of the human hair that comprises weaves and the spectacle of the Bronner Bros. International hair show and the economics behind selling African American hair care products becomes the engine of the movie, NOT Rock's own feelings about beauty and femininity. As a father of daughters and a husband (and a comedian) he no doubt holds some, but he lets the complexities of the personal and global politics of the question guide the film. And the movie ends up not saying much of anything definitive as to whether the young girl featured on the cover "should" be getting a perm before she hits puberty (though the power of the visual makes its own argument), or whether it's "bad" for a schoolteacher to spend a grand on a weave. The movie isn't interesting in judging the choices of individual women in that kind of crude way, which is a nice complement to the entire argument that getting your hair done has complicated social, economic, and psychological implications that resist neat categorization. The two concluding comments do come from men, which disturbs me a bit more in writing that than it did viewing it: Rock, who decided to emphasize to his daughters the importance of "what's in their heads" rather than "what's on top of them"; and Ice-T's observation, and I'm paraphrasing here, that women who aren't happy with themselves make everyone around them fucking miserable. The fucking isn't a paraphrase. I think what the movie ends up affirming is that women should be able to make their own choices about what's important to them. And it seems to me that's a really workable definition of feminism.

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