As part of our spring programming this semester, we held a free screening of the film Pelo Malo/Bad Hair. The film touches on a number of important themes relevant to this month’s topic of women’s history as we consider the complexity of gender constructs and expectations, and the stereotypes that result from these. For today’s post, I’ll share our thoughts and reflections on the film, as well as our accompanying educator’s guide.
It’s certainly not an easy film to watch, but one which I highly recommend. Set in Caracas, Venezuela, Pelo Malo tells the story of nine-year-old Junior who has stubbornly curly hair, or pelo malo. He desperately wants to have it straightened for his school photo, but his mother, a young widow, can’t understand his obsession. The more Junior fixates on his appearance in an attempt to make his mother love him, the more angry and hurtful she becomes, ultimately rejecting him.
It deals with heavy content, and is likely most appropriate for older students and adults. It’s certainly a powerful classroom resource, as it provides the context to discuss gender roles, expectations, and constructs, as well as race and its impact on societal norms of beauty. Much of Junior’s mother’s rejection comes from her inability to accept the ways in which her son doesn’t fit her own ideas of masculinity. As a result, she assumes he’s gay, something that is intolerable to her. The point of the film is not Junior’s sexual identity, but instead his mother’s issues and assumptions that provide the context to analyze the ways in which our gender stereotypes are harmful and superficial. Interestingly, while Junior’s mother holds him to stereotypical standards of masculinity, she defies these same standards of femininity in her work as a security guard. Much of this seems to be the purpose of the director, who writes, “I also wanted to talk about intolerance in a social context that is riddled with dogmas, which don’t embrace otherness, where public affairs extend to the private life of its inhabitants, highlighting their differences, be they social, political, or sexual.”
While reading reviews of the film, I was surprised to see descriptions that seemed to be making excuses for the mother’s behavior, describing her as a worn-out and tired single mother who had no patience with her son’s antics, as if this made her abusive behavior understandable or acceptable. I think this is an important distinction to discuss with students. The mother, a young widow struggling to find work, was overwhelmed and exhausted. But this does not make her psychological or emotional abuse okay. In past posts I’ve written about how important I think it is to talk about love in the classroom. Love is relevant here as well. As much as we want all of our students to be in nurturing, healthy, authentically loving environments, some of them aren’t. We need to give them the tools to recognize when something or someone is unloving. They need to have the language to discuss this with adults who can help. In talking about the film, the director writes, “I’m interested in talking about helpless characters, who lack resources for emotional survival. . .Bad Hair is the intimate story of a nine-year-old child’s initiation to life. A child who still plays, but who plays with everyday horror.” Perhaps in using the film, we can begin to discuss with our students some of these resources for emotional survival, better preparing them to be successful psychologically and emotionally, in addition to academically.
Of equal importance is the way in which the film engages in a discussion of race and racism. The title alone invites discussion of how and why certain types of hair are labeled “good hair” or “bad hair.” Societal notions of beauty as interpreted by Junior and his young female friend clearly demonstrate the damage such stereotypes can do. Their obsession with beauty pageants and their photographs plays an important and telling role throughout the film.
If you’re interested in reading more about the film, check out our educator’s guide. It includes general teaching ideas for using film in the classroom, as well as comprehension questions and projects specific to the film. Please note, the film is unrated, but with sexual scenes and nudity, some parts may need to be omitted for classroom use. In the guide we have clearly noted the times of these scenes so they can avoided if necessary.
If you’ve seen the film, or decide to watch it, we’d love to hear your thoughts. There was certainly some interesting conversation after our own screening.
Until next week,