As I said in my review of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about this movie for a while. I find that to be the case whenever I am reminded about it and other films of Lynch’s. There’s always that feeling one gets after watching his films that there’s something missing, and the viewer needs to spend time thinking carefully about what in the film is making it difficult to think about anything else. Recently, my brother was one of those people. He sent me a message on Facebook, asking me why Lynch tended to use hair color to show the differences and similarities between the women in his movies.
That spurred a Facebook lecture that lasted about twenty minutes, but did leave me with one notable impression that I hadn’t thought about a lot in Lynch’s films: hair color is an element Lynch tends to default to when he wants to make a statement about the women in his films. Now, this sort of thing isn’t exactly new to David Lynch; there’s been plenty of fictional media that has used contrasting hair color as tools to identify the characters, particularly female characters. What’s interesting is to think how Lynch uses something that is centuries old and how he applies it to his films.
Traditionally, the use of hair color to identify character traits with women has been fairly traditional. Many cultures would use the same kind of dichotomy for how women with light hair are compared to women with dark hair. For the most part, it fits with the Madonna/Whore complex, where one hair color signifies purity and goodness and the other represents promiscuity and badness. Considering dark hair tends to be a more dominant trait, lighter hair colors such as blonde and red tend to be seen as more exotic to some cultures, while white hair comes to represent wisdom and knowledge.
At the same time, each hair color tends to have positive and negative traits attached to it depending on the point of view. Blonde women tend to be viewed as more attractive and desirable, but are often viewed as dumber or more sexual. At the same time, brunette or black haired women are usually identified as being more down-to-earth or intelligent, but are also seen as more corrupted and villainous. Either way, there are positive and negative traits associated with hair color, and how the character with the hair color is portrayed often depends on the lens the writer or filmmaker chooses to view them.
With Lynch, he tends to take the approach that most vampire literature tales followed. In books like Carmilla and Dracula, there tends to be a trend where light haired women come to represent goodness and dark haired women are evil. In Carmilla, the heroine, Laura, is a blonde Englishwoman who has an encounter with the brunette and mysterious vampire Carmilla. This story plays this with the light=good/dark=bad approach completely straight. In that story, Laura is so innocent and good that she’s entirely a passive character. Carmilla is more free spirited and is also implied to be a lesbian considering she only feeds on female victims and can get a little clingy to Laura.
Dracula plays the color trope in both directions. The two good young women in the story, Lucy and Mina, are both blondes, but encompass different ideals with that. When Lucy, the more naive and sexually curious of the two, is turned into a vampire, her hair darkens and she attacks children, showing how a good, moral woman of England has become a corrupted creature. Mina, on the other hand, remains the moral character English women at the time were expected to be, but also retains her good nature even as she slowly turns into a vampire. Despite this, Dracula doesn’t entirely make blonde hair a sign of good, as one of Dracula’s brides is a blonde haired woman. With this story, there’s a showing that any woman can be a saint or a monster regardless of hair color.
Lynch also borrows a lot of elements from film noir in his films, and this also includes how hair color was used to portray women. Alfred Hitchcock and many other directors in the black-and-white era tended to use blonde actresses because of how their hair made them stand out in the black and grey cinematography. Noir films tended to carry multiple uses for hair color, mostly because these films tended to cast female characters in the same general character sphere. Most women in these films tended to be either good, assistant characters to the male protagonist, mysterious and deadly femme fatales, or disposable victims. Because the women in these films tended to fall into these archetypes, at any point light hair and dark hair could carry the good and bad traits associated with the hair color.
Since Lynch is a fan of deconstruction, many of his films tend to use multiple versions of the associations paired with hair color, subverting the tropes and playing them straight. One of the earliest versions of this is the film Blue Velvet. The film follows a college-aged man named Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) getting wrapped up in a small town mystery that seems anchored around the dark-haired, attractive lounge singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini). Dorothy seems to play the femme fatale role straight for the first part of the film. It isn’t until we meet the sociopathic gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) that we realize that Dorothy has no real power. Frank has her husband and her son, and unless she submit to every sexual whim of his, they will die.
Dorothy is contrasted by Sandy (Laura Dern), the teenage daughter of the sheriff who joins Jeffrey on the investigation. Sandy plays the small-town innocence straight. She’s blonde, she’s young, she desires adventure, and she pretty much exists to help Jeffrey. Both Sandy and Dorothy exist as romantic possibilities for Jeffrey, with Sandy representing the small-town peaceful life and Dorothy representing the dangerous but alluring life. With this film, Lynch uses them to represent different ideas of the small town ideal, but never goes too far with this element.
Sandy is, ultimately, a pretty flat character. While she acts as an assistant to Jeffrey, she isn’t really able to have much of an effect on the story. She does exist as a reward, but she’s also sort of there to be a comforting element. Dorothy, at the same time, is so broken by the story that she can’t do anything for her situation. She can’t be the femme fatale, but she also can’t be Jeffrey’s lover. It’s uncertain if Dorothy will recover from this whole ordeal, but whatever does happen, she’s ultimately more of the disposable character. Frank tosses her aside, and Jeffrey also ends up leaving her behind once the story’s done.
This kind of dichotomy comes up in Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks as well as his feature film Lost Highway. Both Twin Peaks and Lost Highway use the same trick with hair color, using blonde hair to represent one type of character and brown hair to represent another. With these works, Lynch has the added twist of using the same actress to play two different characters. In Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee plays the murder victim Laura Palmer and her dorky cousin Maddy Fitzgerald. In Lost Highway, Patricia Arquette plays Renee the housewife and Alice the gangster’s girlfriend.
In these stories, the blonde characters (Laura and Alice), represent the unattainable and the dangerous. Laura’s death reveals a sinister layer beneath the quaint town of Twin Peaks, and also comes to reveal that the beloved homecoming queen and town daughter happened to be a victim of sexual abuse, a drug addict, and a prostitute. Laura also leaves a heavy impact on many characters, and many of them suffer because of her existence and because of her absence. Alice represents a noir femme fatale more, being the girlfriend of the crazy gangster Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia) and the lover of Pete the mechanic (Balthazar Getty). Alice spurs most of the second half of the film, but also exists as an enigma. What she wants and why she does the things she does are never explained, but there’s the fact that people desire her that allows her to do the actions she commits in the film.
On the flip side, Maddy and Renee are a lot simpler and passive. Renee is the wife who would stay at home reading, but also be difficult to connect to emotionally. Her scenes with her husband, Fred (Bill Pullman), are awkward and devoid of passion, but we get the sense that she represents a bit of stability in his life. Maddy is the ingenue of Twin Peaks, coming to the city to see her cousin’s life and ends up wrapped up in the mystery of her murder. However, Maddy is so passive and normal that she feels compelled to become a lot more exciting just to fit in with the people in the town. She breaks her glasses, straightens her hair, and begins to act more like Laura, even though she can’t explain why she’s compelled to do this. Like Renee, her attempts to break the normalcy of her life only lead to her downfall.
Mulholland Drive is where Lynch really plays with the trope, mostly by using the differing performances of the leading actresses to play both sides of the hair color dichotomy. The first part of the film follows Betty (Naomi Watts) as she helps an amnesiac named Rita (Laura Elena Harring) regain her memory. The second part of the film shows Diane (Watts) as she deals with the end of her relationship to Camilla (Harring) and the despair she falls into. With these characters, they each come to represent both sides of the characteristics associated with hair color, although the extent varies depending on the character.
For the first part, Rita is a blank slate, being the mysterious, dark haired woman who the toe headed Betty finds herself responsible for. Rita lacks a personality, but never really carries the malicious nature that a femme fatale like her should have. Betty, meanwhile, is almost cheesily happy and positive. She’s excited to be starting her life in Hollywood and wants to have the adventure she would see in the movies.
Once Betty and Rita become Diane and Camilla, everything changes. Now, Camilla is the vamp, seducing the director of her debut film and ruining Diane’s life. Diane becomes better and jaded, but she also becomes a schemer, plotting Camilla’s assassination as revenge for her spurned affections. Because of the nature of the film, Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla both represent the extremes of each side of how hair color is used to perceive female characters. It’s never clear if one personality is the true one or if anything we see is exaggerated, but they both personify and subvert the common perceptions of how hair color can identify a character.
Overall, hair color is an interesting tool to use to compare characters in a story, and the Lynchian twist on it is interesting because it never truly subscribes to one belief or another. It’s something that changes depending on the setting, something that works with how the environment shapes the characters. Ultimately, it shows that outer perceptions of a character are never truly how the person is, and how this kind of mistake can only lead to chaos. One has to look beyond the hair to see who the person is, and it’s then that the true self emerges.