Women’s History Month: Joan of Arc, Britney Spears, and the Ugly Carnival

Settle in folks, this one’s going to take us from 15th century France to 2007 Britney Spears, with a post WWII pit stop on the way.

Women and their hair, right? It’s a complex relationship, hopelessly tangled up with sexuality, youth, attractiveness, and power.

There is a rich history of symbolism braided into stories of women and hair: from thick, blonde Rapunzel locks to a snake-haired Medusa. But what happens when that hair is forcefully taken away?

Shaving a woman’s head as a means of shaming or punishment is not new. When desirability and femininity are linked to hair, forcefully removing that link deprives a woman of her identity, and presumably, her attractiveness. Rendering her unfeminine, and therefore, powerless. During the Middle Ages it was a common punishment for women accused of adultery.

I’ll get back to you when I find out what the punishment for the men was.

Holding a woman down and shearing her like a farm animal sends a pretty strong message. It bares her to the world. It marks her, as sure as any scarlet letter branded on her chest.

Joan of Arc was tried and convicted of heresy–not only for claiming to hear the voice of God, but also the unforgivable sin of dressing as a man and wearing her hair short. Before the English burned her at the stake–3 times–they shaved her head.

I’m sure she learned her lesson.

After the liberation of France in WWII, women accused of “collaboration horizontale” were dragged into town squares and forcefully, sometimes brutally, shorn. Collaboration horizonatale is a nice way of saying “we think you were sleeping with the enemy.” It sounds better in the French, non?

No doubt some women were, indeed, sympathetic to Nazis. It’s more likely many were raped. Single women had Wehrmacht soldiers billeted with them. A woman, on her own, in a house with a lonely, armed soldier.Some women had husbands at the front or as POWs. Many were starving, or had children who were. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the next part of the story.

Quick! Choose: death or sleeping with the enemy. Food or medicine for your children or sex with the Nazi. Quick! Choose! Don’t mind this gun to your head.

The brutal choices that face women left behind during wartime hardly get a mention in our histories.

It seems there were plenty who *were* ready to cast the first stone, however. In some cases, the ‘punishment’ of these women was meted out by men who had themselves collaborated with Nazis. One presumes this was in order to draw attention away from themselves. Oh, and the mere accusation of having “collaborated” was enough. One has to assume that among the many thousands of women who were forced to publicly “repent for their sins” there were plenty who had done nothing more than refuse the advance of Jaques down the rue.

And now here Jaques was, with a mob and some clippers.

Sometimes, it did not stop with the shearing: “the shorn women – were often paraded through the streets on the back of a lorry, occasionally to the sound of a drum as if it were a tumbril and France was reliving the revolution of 1789. Some were daubed with tar, some stripped half naked, some marked with swastikas in paint or lipstick.”

More than 20,000 French women had their heads forcefully shaved. Some historians, however, think that number is far too low: the number of French children “fathered by members of the Wehrmacht {is} as high as 80,000.”

When it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that war is a nasty, complex, brutal, never-ending series of horrific, awful, life or death decisions, let’s just blame the women, right?

It wasn’t just France. It also happened in Belgium, in Italy, in Norway, and to a lesser extent, the Netherlands.

Shaming women is nothing new. We’ve gotten really good at it.

Which brings me to Britney Spears. We sure do love us a “crazy woman on the edge”, don’t we? Fodder for the paparazzi, food for the masses, and there we are, front row, to witness the downfall. How many times did the media burn Britney Spears at the stake? I’d guess more than three. But Britney didn’t dare to wear men’s clothing, no, her handlers quite literally dressed her in a schoolgirl costume for the world’s consumption.

You need to be sexy, Brit, but not too sexy, and you certainly can’t have any agency over your own sexuality, heaven forbid.

Maybe–likely–Britney’s very public head shaving in 2007 was a cry for help. Or maybe it was more than that. Maybe she’d just had enough. Maybe it was a very public way of shedding the skin that others had forced her to wear. Maybe she just wanted to be free from the role others had put her in. At the very least, she did it herself.

Like I said, there is a lot of symbolism in hair.

Of course now we take a very different view. Women often shave their heads as a way to redefine femininity, or reclaim power, or, as it was my I shaved my own head in my early 20s, just because it’s really, really easy to take care of. The difference, of course, is having the choice.

And so the distance between Joan of Arc and Britney Spears really isn’t that great. An “ugly carnival”, both.

Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Happy Women’s History month.

Talk to me, Goose.

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