Let’s Unpack That

‘Are those trauma bangs?’: From Emily in Paris to Grey’s Anatomy, TV’s long obsession with breakup hair

In the third series of ‘Emily in Paris’, our American naif abroad marks an emotional decision by snipping herself a new fringe. Amanda Whiting looks at TV’s most reliable (and relatable) cliché

Wednesday 21 December 2022 06:30 GMT
Emily (Lily Collins) is returning with a brand new fringe in season three of Netflix series ‘Emily in Paris’
Emily (Lily Collins) is returning with a brand new fringe in season three of Netflix series ‘Emily in Paris’ (Netflix)

Au revoir, dignity. Bonjour, trauma hair. On Emily in Paris, our American naif abroad is the latest character to submit to TV’s most reliable, relatable cliché: a new fringe, snipped in a moment of emotional distress.

“Oh, look, that shih tzu has bangs like you,” her pal Mindy says, gently negging Emily, played by Lily Collins, for the bathroom mirror haircut she gave herself on an insomnia-addled, rosé-soaked whim. Now in her third season roaming the 5th arrondissement in block heels, Emily still couldn’t pass GCSE French. But her fringe – delicate and feathery, so long that the edges graze her cheekbones – is très moderne, even if Mindy’s zinger lands, too. She’s right: it is giving Tibetan lap dog. “Are those trauma bangs, too?” she calls after the pup.

Emily is far from the first TV character to chop it all off in service of a storyline. On Grey’s Anatomy, George O’Malley hacks off his curly mop with cuticle scissors, desperate to cut his unrequited crush, Meredith, out of his life, along with his hair. The result is disaster. Star cheerleader Quinn gets over a traumatic school year on Glee with a hot pink shoulder-grazing bob. Lily dyes her hair after splitting from Marshall on How I Met Your Mother; Buffy takes sewing shears to her mane after a bad relationship decision. For Emily, the break-up that precedes the bangs isn’t romantic, but professional. She’s quitting the marketing mega-firm that brought her to Paris in favour of joining her unforgiving French boss’s boutique start-up. Which means, to her distress, she must bid her pregnant American mentor adieu, too.

As a cinematic shorthand, the trauma haircut is as efficient as it gets. Television specialises in capturing a character’s gradual evolution over the arc of several episodes or even entire seasons. But some emotional transformations are sudden. You love someone until you learn something about them that urgently breaks the spell. Or, like Emily, you’re faced with an unexpected ultimatum: return to humdrum life in Chicago or quit your job to stay in Paris.

Emily’s life, by this point in the series, is indistinguishable from her PR job. She lives it one Instagram story at a time. Her friends, like champagne heiress Camille, are her clients – same with her lovers (Mathieu, Gabriel, etc). So how does a TV show make her overnight shift from career woman to free spirit seem believable? Have a character overcommit to it with #breakuphair. It would be so unforgivably cliché if it wasn’t – and I speak from experience here – #tootrue.

Dr Jenn Mann, the Beverly Hills therapist who hosts the VH1 series Couples Therapy, remembers walking down the street in college with a friend who had just cut and coloured her hair. They ran into another friend. “He takes one look at her and goes, ‘aww’,” Mann tells me. “And she’s like, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Oh, you and John broke up, huh? It’s a breakup haircut’.”

I get it. Personally, I’ve been hunting down and destroying all photographic evidence of my own breakup makeover – an unfortunate and brassy bob – since its arrival in 2005. (I was aiming for Cameron Diaz circa Charlie’s Angels.) Emily’s fringe may be a chic triumph, but someone at L’Oreal should be arrested for selling “butterscotch blonde” to a person so young and heartbroken, whose skin has such unmissable pink undertones. Sometimes breakup hair really is a cry for help.

A change in appearance can reflect a change in mindset, but sometimes a “new hair, who dis” Insta post can anticipate it. “I think when we do something noticeable, or even drastic, to our appearance, we are looking to change the way we feel about ourselves,” says Samantha Burns, a mental health counsellor and dating coach who literally wrote the book on the subject – Breaking Up and Bouncing Back. “In the case of heartbreak, you’re in emotional pain or even clinically depressed, and you want to shake this dark feeling. It can be cathartic in some ways, letting go of the old version of yourself of who you were in the relationship, and embracing a new look.”

Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) cuts her hair off in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season (UPN)

It’s not just that people are treating their hair as a billboard for their relationship status. The symbolic power of a haircut can be a means of wresting back a feeling of control, particularly in situations that have been disempowering. “I see this more with clients who are female-identifying,” says Mann, who in three decades as a therapist reports that she’s never seen a male-identifying person show up to her office with a breakup buzz cut. “I think it is a way to take back your power, and move yourself physically away from who you were when you were in that last relationship or last situation.”

To prove the symbolic force hair can have, Mann – who has a therapist’s knack for drawing unlikely parallels – points to recent protests in Iran, an event so charged I doubt whether it figures in the rosy world of Emily in Paris at all. “All these women are cutting their hair as a gesture of freedom. And I think that hair is very symbolic. I think that it is about femininity, it’s about control, it’s about power.”

George (TR Knight) gives himself a bad haircut in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ (ABC Studios)

On TV, though, cutting one’s tresses is a coping mechanism – a healthy cipher for announcing to yourself as much as others that the future is squarely in your own hands. Not the surgically gifted hands of Meredith Grey, who will never love George the way he wants, and not in the cold, undead hands of some bad vampire Buffy wishes she hadn’t slept with. It’s in the hands of someone with a stylish bob or, in at least one regrettable case, a butterscotch pageboy.

For Emily, sporting a fringe that only makes sense beside the Seine is a declaration of independence from the big, bad American multinational that no longer controls her fate.

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