Last Sunday, while everyone on my Twitter feed busied themselves with complaints about The Grammys, I watched The Simpsons episode “The Blue and the Gray”
In it, Marge Simpson discovers she’s had gray hair for years (which fits in the show’s continuity); the fumes from her blue hair dye were strong enough to give her hair coloring-related amnesia. As Marge’s stylist prepares to “rub this toxic blue goo onto [her] scalp,” she sees a confident gray-haired woman who uses the time she would spend in the salon to take hot air balloon rides with her husband. Marge decides to let her true colors show.
How Marge goes from blue with gray roots to gray all over is unexplained. Remember folks, this is a cartoon, and does not always engage in strict realism. And thank goodness, otherwise we would not have this scene, which made me laugh into the next commercial break:
For Hulu-impaired readers (sadly this includes my co-blogger Ramona), the funniest bit in the clip is Bart realizing he doesn’t know where his head ends and his hair begins, prompting Lisa and Maggie to freak out as well.
Before she’s distracted by that existential crisis of the hairline, Lisa tells Marge, “I know I use the word ‘empowering’ a lot, but this time it really is that.”
At the supermarket, Marge is complimented and thanked for her “audacity” in wearing her hair gray. Mrs. Krabapple says, “I hope I look as good as you when I give up.” Ralph provides another quotable nugget of Wiggum Wisdom:
Meanwhile, the B-plot follows Homer as he becomes an ace wingman for Moe. It’s peppered with sexism and not nearly as funny as the rest of the episode. I’m going to ignore it, even though it ultimately inspires Marge to dye her hair again. I mean, you knew she’d dye her hair back to blue before the end of the episode. The hows and whys aren’t important, are they?
Lisa says, “Mom, your choice to go back to blue is so empowering.” Marge asks how that can be when going gray was also empowering. Lisa explains, “Well, as a feminist, virtually anything a woman does in empowering.”
I realize that is supposed to be a joke, if not against feminism as a whole, at least against Lisa Simpson’s imperfect eight-year-old-girl brand of feminism. A feminism that lead her to design the Lisa Lionheart doll, but also to lose interest in joining the peewee football team when she sees there are already girls on it. Lisa occasionally sucking at feminism is one of the things I love about her, because I make feminism mistakes too, and I made even more when I was in the second grade.
So I may be misguided here, but I agree with Lisa that both of Marge’s hair-color decisions can be empowering. But I worry that I’m deluding myself to justify my own insecurity about going gray.
A lot of my feminism comes from my mother. My mother always said she got her first gray hair before she got her first period. By time I was born, she was more salt than pepper, and in the last ten to fifteen years of her life her hair was a very striking silver-white. So I’ve been prepared my whole life for my inevitable shift to gray. And I’ve always hoped I could gray gracefully, avoiding a lifetime of the expense, effort, and yes, toxic chemicals that come with regular dye jobs.
But as going gray has become a reality, I consider dyeing my hair more and more. I don’t particularly care for my natural pre-gray hair color, so why don’t I dye to get rid of that and cover the grays as a happy side effect!? I got highlights when I was twelve, and that wasn’t a concession to the patriarchy, so why is this? And it’s not like I’ve eschewed makeup entirely (as my mother did), and I never feel like I have to defend my feminist bona fides against rarely leaving the house without lipstick. Right? TELL ME I CAN DYE MY HAIR. I WANT TO DYE MY HAIR! I’m not ready to be gray! I want to get carded when I buy beer!
I think this is why the urge to dye away gray hair feels like a betrayal of self when wearing makeup does not: I don’t wear makeup to avoid looking older. It feels like more of a betrayal against feminism to try to look “young” than it does to merely try to look “attractive.” I don’t know if that makes sense, or if I’m just drawing a line inches past my toes so I can feel better about myself.
So what do you think? Can hair color be a feminist statement? Is Lisa Simpson a good feminist role model or a reminder of embarrassing youthful mistakes? Is everything a woman can do potentially empowering?