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Timothée Chalomet and Kyrsten Sinema’s Hair

This week brought important #hairstudies news from two controversial leaders of desert landscapes: Timothée Chalamet and Kyrsten Sinema. Timothée Chalamet is the French/American actor who plays Paul Atreides, the hero of Denis Villeneuve’s sand-swept film Dune. Kyrsten Sinema is the politically-perplexing Democratic junior senator from Arizona. Chalamet and Sinema have their differences. But both Chalamet and Sinema, in their hair-forward appearances on this week’s American scenes and screens, display how white feminine hair can serve as a valuable— and dangerous — political resource. We know that Dune serves as a complex allegory for American politics. But Chalamet’s Paul and his hair demonstrate something more specific within that allegory: how white femininity is its own imperial system.

First, a few words on Krysten Sinema. You may know Kyrsten Sinema from such major political events as Flipping the Senate and Surprising Progressives by Being Conservative Despite Wearing Those Glasses. Sinema and I are both 45 year old white women, and when I look at Sinema I feel a certain kind of sympathy: it’s hard, I imagine, to navigate how to appear on a stage made for male performance and power, and let me say from the outset that I think it’s good to be a weirdo. Sinema and I probably have a lot of similar hair references: when she wore that purple wig last year I was like — hey, yes, I’ve been to parties with that wig too! When I see her very highlighted bob, I see how she is signaling that she is doing something similar to but definitely not a Rachel (as we shall see, her “this but also not” move is exactly what interests me). But also, just now, I googled Sinema to find out how to spell her name (like Chalamet and another desert queen, Daenerys Targaryan, Sinema had parents who flexed a little bit with the vowels) and saw the headline “Joe Manchin  and Kyrsten Sinema blocking Biden’s climate agenda” and, truly, fuck this noise.

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema Wears Purple Wig On Senate Floor : NPR

The reason I am spurred to write about Kyrsten Sinema’s hair — when I didn’t write about all the so-called “wry wigs” — is that this week a short c-span video of Kyrsten Sinema presiding over a senate vote made its way around the internets. Let’s watch it, to see how Sinema’s hair matters to these other political events.

The initial discussion of Sinema focused on her incongruous-for-the-senate raw denim fashion choices. But as Roxanne Gay and Tressie Cottom immediately mentioned, just as significant as the vest is Sinema’s stroking and flipping of her not-Rachel hair. Gay, noting that the stroking went on way longer than the hair seemed to merit, which is just another way Sinema seems to try to inhabit both the choices she’s making and the choices she’s “not”. And Cottom tweeted:

This is absolutely true and worth discussing more. What is it her hair stroking projects, or imagines to? It’s maybe a weird kind of imagination of or desire for feminine perception power. I have stroked my own white feminine hair for all sorts of reasons: sometimes pride, yes, but just as often anxiousness or insecurity— note, here, that sometimes I am anxious about my hair, and sometimes I touch my hair to ballast me through some other anxiety as though (I had never thought about it this way until just now) my white feminine hair was some kind of wubbie. When I look at Sinema’s hair stroking with my highly trained white woman detecting eyes, that is what I see her doing:  comforting herself with her hair, in a moment when she feels self-conscious. That she is doing so, I think, turns her self-consciousness into something that we shouldn’t read as weak. Why not? Because when she’s touching her white hair, she’s channeling the power of her white femininity. This power, and especially how it works with her vest, is what Timothée Chalamet’s hair helps us see.

Denis Villeneuve's Biggest Challenge On Dune Was Timothee Chalamet's Hair

Now, Timothée Chalamet, unlike Kyrsten Sinema, is not a white woman. But I’m not really talking about womanhood, whatever that is. I’m talking about white femininity, which we might consider to be an embodied web of social practices and relationships. White femininity has something to do with your body but a lot to do with acting like others want to treat you as though you are pure, ethical, and valuable: it’s an entitlement enacted through deferral and deflection. Further, white femininity’s way of occupying the center of that Venn Diagram and soliciting that treatment is by codifying the relationship between these internal qualities and an external one: beauty, or the aspiration towards it.

Beauty, as we know, is neither a personal preference nor a universal standard; it’s a currency. Only some people have physical features that, when held up for scrutiny by the metaphorical clerk at the cultural currency exchange kiosk (a shorthand for this clerk might be “the media”) are recognizable as “beautiful” and thus as exchangeable for other currencies like money and attention. But all or most of us have hair, and, more than many other bodily features, our hair can easily be stylized to indicate our aspirations towards beauty. With our hair, we can show that we value, that we recognize as valuable, the currency of beauty. This ability to display a recognition of value, a willingness to participate in beauty’s economic system, is what makes hair particularly valuable to white femininity (and, through white femininity, white supremacy).

Note: of the many Black Feminists on whose work these formulations depend, I want to mention one in particular: Paulette M. Caldwell’s astonishingA Hair Piece: Perspectives on the Intersections of Race and Gender,” published thirty years ago this summer and still jaw-dropping in its relevance.

All of this #hairtheory is to make the point that despite not going around as a white woman, Chalamet clearly aspires towards beauty, and femininity, in his hair. He’s just the latest American heartthrob to do so (for instance, I nurse an ongoing affection for the feminine-hair heartthrob of my and also Kyrstin Sinema’s youth, River Phoenix). When a young beautiful white man uses his beautiful white hair to signal his possession, whatever his gender, of white femininity, he’s claiming a very special kind of white femininity-infused power.

River Phoenix died 25 years ago. He's still slipping away from us. - Chicago Tribune

When you are doing white femininity, you project through beauty (or your investment in it) your morals, ethics, and value. When you are all these things, you are also vulnerable. But when you are valuable, being vulnerable is not the same thing as being weak. It is a kind of strength, because of how it compels those who value you to act on your behalf.  White femininity has a sacrificial quality (see: Little Eva) but it also solicits sacrifice. It makes people bend towards your will. When John Berger, also a genius, wrote that “men act, women appear,” he was aptly pointing out the bullshit of the gender binary, but he was also definitely privileging the “action” side of that binary. I get it, but as a white woman in 2021 I can’t fully agree. Like Timothee and Kyrsten, I know that when your appearance manifests white femininity, men act for you, on your behalf; acting for you is one way, in fact, that they show that they are men. And while, yes, this is a bullshit arrangement, it’s not necessarily one in which those in the feminine side come out the worst.

In Dune, Paul Atreides emerges as a kind of messiah, and the story isn’t shy about how he can play that role because of his feminine qualities. Paul’s mother Jessica, a member of a badass order of space witches, the Bene Gesserit (pause to note that this story features space witches) chose to both have a son and to pass her womanly witch ways on it him. You can’t miss this part of the story because people keep talking about it, and also it’s basically the plot.[*]

What Dune Reveals about Reproductive Control and Eugenics - Scientific American

I’m not a super expert on Dune, and I don’t know if Frank Herbert’s Paul had Chalamet’s touseled curls or Kyla McLachlan’s gel job or what. I do know that in casting Chalamet, French director Denis Villeneuve really doubled down on Paul’s feminine quality. Chalamet’s most recent roles suffuse the actor with femininity: appearing as the sad boi-friend in a girlhood story for girls (Little Women) makes you girlish even if you’re a boy; in Call Me By Your Name Chalamet displays a peachiness that art historian Emily Gerhard and other students of femininity such as Steve Miller have taught me is a distinctly white feminine mode. I would say that Chalamet’s hair is part of what got him cast in those roles and also that those roles fed back in to the femininity his hair signals. You can’t think of that hair, now, without thinking of a whole history of glorious, European-American, whiteness. Chalamet was born in New York just like any number of Disney Princesses were “born” in Anaheim, California, but like these princesses (Elsa, say, or Ariel) everything about him becomes a tool to reinforce the transhistorical value of white femininity; to signal that American beauty ideals are not simply cultural currencies but rather deep, enduring truths.

Little Women trailer: first look at Greta Gerwig's starry adaptation | Greta Gerwig | The Guardian

I was also struck by how Villaneuve’s costume team styled Paul to look like The Little Prince — another extremely feminine character (he dies, like Little Eva). The Paul-Prince connection matters because of how it connects Dune to a lovely (and beloved by me) book that also romanticizes the extremely un-lovely history of French colonialism. The Little Prince — winsome, tousle-haired, and naïve, like Chalamet’s Paul looks to be — manifests the colonizing traveller not like a brutal agent of suffering but rather as an object of concern and an emblem of love.

And here we are getting to where Timothée Chalamet’s hair of white femininity can teach us about American politics. Paul, the character, has to navigate several divides: House Atreides and House Harkonnen; House Atreides and the Bene Gesserit; the Empire and the Fremen, the freedom fighters/tribal people who rightfully occupy the resource-rich Arrakis.[†] By casting chalomet as Paul (and also by casting hair-scrunchy-icon Jason Momoa as Paul’s trainer) Villeneuve tells his audience that Paul can bridge these divides because of how he, as a man, uses feminine power. He is both a lithe powerful fighter and a lady witch; he has both action and appearance; and this is key to what he is able to do, which is combine his own action with the supplicating action of others who are willing to sacrifice on his behalf. Most importantly, he is able to gain the trust of the natives, thereby helping them to keep their resources to the extent that they are willing to give control of themselves and their resources to him.

Dune' is another sci-fi Messiah tale. The New Testament references are everywhere. | America Magazine

What does this have to do with Kyrsten Sinema? Well, I don’t want to make the parallels too tidy. There really are difference between Sinema as senator and Paul as messiah. It’s not exactly like we, the democratic-party voters of America, are like the native Fremen of Dune.

Kyrsten Sinema defeats Martha McSally

But then, it’s not exactly not like that either. The democratic senator of a red state, Sinema is also tasked with bridging divides. For those of us who fear climate change and a desert future, the decisions Sinema makes matter profoundly to whether and how our resources can be preserved. So perhaps we should pay careful attention to the ways Sinema’s styling mirrors Paul’s. Sinema’s self-fashioning, with both the vest and the glasses (if not in every instance), reads directly against white femininity because neither the vest nor the glasses aspire towards beauty or purity. She is above that vulnerability, these things say. But her hair, and more importantly the way she acts around her hair, shows us that she’s not giving up on the currency of white femininity. Her hair is always what it is and what it’s not at the same time. In other words, her styling works chiasmatically to Paul’s: he is a soldier in training bending at the hair towards white femininity, which is where Sinema meets him before standing up back into her denim vest butchness.

Aaron Neville ribs Kyrsten Sinema's denim-vest-at-work look | The Week

Now: I am not saying that gender bending is a problem (any more than I am saying that the fantastical play of femininity, when it acknowledges itself as play rather than purity, is bad). Rejecting gender binaries is good, even necessary: as intersectional feminism has shown us, such binaries are themselves a product and tool of racism and racialization. But there’s a difference between rejecting gender binaries and exploiting them so that you can accrue to yourself the power of both halves, playing both sides towards a middle where you yourself stand to profit. This later move — one of many pernicious modes of compromise that white women deploy — is constitutive of white feminism, the political strategy of marshalling femininity’s resources for your own gain, rather than a collective good.

Dissecting the “spice” of Dune | CNRS News

Perhaps white women’s hair is not so intergalactically useful as the Spice that Paul Atreides is sent to Arrakis to harvest. But, on our planet and in on our country, white women’s hair allows its possessor to do something not dissimilar to Spice: to navigate between seemingly distant social positions, often with the goal of extracting resources for personal gain. The news from the hair front is, thus, the same as it always is: when it comes to white feminine hair and white feminine heroines, choose your leaders with caution.

Sarah Mesle: A little judgy


[1] I would like someone who knows Dune better than me to consider the racial politics of the Bene Gesserit and their bloodline scheme and also how, in this production of Dune, race matters to casting; the specific someone I would like to do this is Kyla Wazana Tompkins.

[2] Here we see how Dune, like its source texts Last of The Mohicans, the Tarzan books, and several others, really plays fast and loose with the American identifications across race and gender, typically with the goal of elevating whiteness, which is another essay — especially if it charted the Pocahontus/Channi axis — I would like to see written.


























[*] I would like someone who knows Dune better than me to consider the racial politics of the Bene Gesserit and their bloodline scheme and also how, in this production of Dune, race matters to casting; the specific someone I would like to do this is Kyla Wazana Tompkins.

[†] Here we see how Dune, like its source texts Last of The Mohicans, the Tarzan books, and several others, really plays fast and loose with the American identifications across race and gender, typically with the goal of elevating whiteness, which is another essay — especially if it charted the Pocahontus/Channi axis — I would like to see written.


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