Dickinson's Hair

For Dear Television, Sarah Mesle explores the follicular politics of gender, race, and poetics on Apple TV+'s revisionist fantasy Dickinson.

By Sarah MesleJanuary 21, 2021

Dickinson's Hair

Dear Television,

What color was Emily Dickinson’s hair? The hair of Hailee Steinfeld — who plays the central character in AppleTV’s excellent Dickinson, which you should all be watching —  flows in stirring thick brunette cascades around her strong face and elegant shoulders. These rich locks, which give the constant and hot impression that Dickinson, in an iconic gesture of white lady liberation, just a moment ago released her hair from a swirling updo, aren’t just a look. In Dickinson, hair is a narrative strategy. The opening episodes of last year’s first season juxtaposed Emily’s flowing tresses with the careful and tidy looks of the other white women around her. Unlike these women, her mother and sister and lover, Emily Dickinson, we seem initially to be meant to see, is free, or wants to be — free from constraint, free from convention, free from the shitty ache of bobby pins.

Free in fact from the image of Dickinson you may have had in your mind — or at least, the one you maybe had before you started to see Steinfeld-as-Dickinson on billboards and internet ads, hair flowing, gazing at you with piercing enticement. If the hair rules aren’t fair, break them! Watch this Dickinson, these ads promise us, and you’ll see the free Dickinson, the one you may only have dared to imagine when all you have seen of her comes from one extremely famous daguerreotype:

Listen. I have been writing about televisual hair studies since Connie Britton, I have spent literally hours of my one and precious life pondering the hair of television ladies from Gilead to Westeros to (as special consultant) the NFL, so I can say with confidence that Dickinson is a major Hair Studies event.

Critical hair studies, in my mind, is special branch of gender studies that, when partnered with media analysis, finds in TV hair a barometer for what kind of reality, what kind of relation, a given show can imagine for its (especially women) characters. It’s a part of gendered, raced, world building; how a show teaches us about what, in its portrait of gender, counts as real.

And, Dear Television, let me bring you the good news that, considered from this perspective, Dickinson is one of our richest televisual texts yet. What Dickinson does with the fantasy and reality of Emily Dickinson’s hair — how her hair plays into what the show aims to make us consider about ourselves, the past, and the fantasies and realities of raced gender — ripens into a lush part of its broader exploration about what freedom might mean. A spoiler here (the first of several, but mostly about season 1): Dickinson is so much more subtle about hair than the opening flowing-hair-is-freedom imagery would lead us to believe.

But that just makes it all the more interesting that when it comes to hair, Dickinson makes a significant choice. Hailee Steinfeld’s hair, like the hair we see when we look at the famous daguerreotype, is a dark, rich, brown. But the real Emily Dickinson’s hair was — wait for it — red!


Do you care that it was red? About your (my) concerns, Dickinson takes a cavalier tone. C’mon, it says, c’mon: take this opium, throw this party, sneak into this private event, crawl into this narrow bed. Are you (me) concerned something might go wrong, something with, hmm, poetry, historical accuracy, Emily Dickinson’s legacy itself? Are you concerned that the show’s zaniness may at moments be the teensiest bit grating or that emphasizing poor grieving Henry David Thoreau’s statement neck beard is okay funny but really not actually very fair (this one especially, me)? Don’t be so basic. Very much as any charismatic young woman herself might, this show’s vibrancy renders most potential criticisms moot. Dickinson, as one relevant aesthetic metric would put it, fully slaps, and here it is, inviting you. Go with it, to the side of freedom and youth. Go, or feel yourself morph into what you — you (me), as a lover of the 19th century, of Emily Dickinson, of bookish rebels, of girlhood — never wanted to be: a prude.

Despite my antiquarian/fan girl concern trolling, I am happy to report that by and large, while Dickinson is famed for its taking of anachronistic stylistic liberties — Dickinson swearing, Dickinson twerking, Dickinson scrabbling at Wiz Khalifa’s (I mean, Death’s) belt buckle — it more than gets away with them, not just because of its sheer unrepentant commitment, but also because while these aesthetic choices are not actually true they are sort of spiritually true, in that they work to represent for us Emily Dickinson’s commitment to a lived energetic weirdness, which surely she had.

And yet still I want to come picking about this red hair point. It’s not that I think it’s somehow “wrong” ethically for the show to creatively reinterpret Dickinson as a brunette. Even if it’s inaccurate, I don’t read it as necessarily a mistake. But I do think that the swirling hair is, like the twerking, a kind of fascinating aesthetic revisionism that, unlike the twerking, remains mostly invisible as such. And — hello, Dear Television, reading this in the midst of January 2021 — revisionism is a question it is pressing for us to consider, as showrunner and writer Alena Smith (who, full disclosure, I know a little on the internet), is clearly aware.

But before we get into the stakes of revision, let’s consider the hair itself. How do I know it’s red? Although I have not myself seen it,  a lock of her hair exists. Let’s all look at it and consider:

Now, you may say, that this is not red, at least it’s not Anne Shirley-fighting-with-Gilbert-Blythe levels of red. And I would agree with you but would also counter that this is at least an Anne-of-Ingleside shade of auburn, and would furthermore point  out — incontrovertibly, I think — that any Anne Shirley would have looked at Hailee Steinfeld’s dark tresses with a sense of profound envy.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Emily Dickinson once described her hair by saying that it was “bold, like the Chestnut Bur,” (sic) which could either be a color or a hair style, and either way is not how I would describe the flowing tresses of Hailee Steinfeld. Yet I agree that Dickinson’s own words are (guess what) gnomically inconclusive. So, for further corroboration, I consulted with two of the foremost scholars of 19th-century poetics, both of whom also are exemplary models of human noticing, Meredith McGill and Virginia Jackson. McGill said, “chestnut — drawing on textual, rather than follicular evidence.” When I asked Jackson to go on record regarding Dickinson’s hair color, she waited five hours before texting me a definitive word: “red.” Take it to the bank!

In case you cannot picture it, this is what a chestnut burr looks like. It does not look like Hailee Steinfeld.

Why does it matter? If Steinfeld, for this role, had dyed her hair red, I think it would have signaled to us that the show was interested in getting its aesthetics “right” in the factual, rather than spiritual, sense of the word. What we get instead is a constant dialogue with the familiar Dickinson fantasy, represented most famously by the daguerreotype, of a tiny, bobby-pinned-down, dark-haired “nun of Amherst” — Steinfeld’s hair matters because it allows the show to demonstrate the link textbooks have always made, implicitly, between Dickinson’s hair and other parts of her poetry and experience. This visual link, even in textbooks, has been a kind of storytelling, a fantasy about being a (white) woman in the 19th century.  

Crucially, what Dickinson offers us in place of this fantasy is not an attempt at reality but rather another fantasy. It knows this, all the time. How we fantasize about Emily Dickinson — an emblem of 19th-century white womanhood, and, in fact, one of the major sites of contemporary projections about what the forms of the past were like — is what this show wants its viewers to consider. Or, maybe: it wants us to consider what happens to our view of the present when our fantasies about Dickinson’s past change. 

Put differently, Dickinson’s value comes from what it helps visualize about crucial questions: what do historic fantasies have to do with our possible collective futures? And: which historic fantasies of femininity and freedom are available to whom?


Here’s a formative text into my own history of hair scholarship: the 1985 movie Witness.

Witness, which I saw when I was nine, is a movie about how hot it is to imagine Harrison Ford wearing Amish clothes and doing Amish carpentry tasks and falling in love with a beautiful widowed Amish mother, Kelly McGillis. There’s also a plot about a murder and  “witnessing” and police corruption and stuff, but all that for me was mostly an excuse to get Harrison Ford into a (white) fantasy of the 19th century. Watching it was like suddenly reading Little House and watching Han Solo all at once, which, what could be better? Kelly McGillis, in the movie, faces the extremely fraught and hot decision of whether she would like to stay in the Amish 19th century, with its rules and limits and safety, or join Harrison Ford somewhere/sometime else.

The movie represents McGillis’s choice about her erotic and social desires with — surprise! — a choice about her hair. In a key scene which I hope will be emblazoned in my memory until I die, McGillis gazes intently at Ford through her kitchen window while he (really this is what happens, let’s close read it forever) erects a large white house (for birds) in the yard. Surging with emotion, McGillis makes her choice: she chooses desire, she chooses love, she chooses freedom! Thus, she takes off her bonnet, uncovering her hair, and rushes out the door into one of cinema’s truly world-class passionate embraces.

Witness, which I recall as being quite good, has other points besides the hair freedom/Amish hotness one; if I watched the whole thing again I would probably have some Jacobin-article type things to say about secularism and community in the Reagan era. But as a nine-year-old girl, the key lesson was clear: if you want to be the person who gets to make out with Han Solo in a field, hair freedom is what you need.  

In other words, Witness, like Dickinson and many other popular fictions, offers a frisson-y encounter between the present and a 19th-century past, a way of transporting the viewer’s contemporary values to an imagined historical scene. And there’s a reason why so many stories tap into the electricity of this encounter, why so many romance novels take place in the 19th-century past or among the Amish, which in case you didn’t know is totally a thing. The reason has to do with a desire to feel free. In a forthcoming book I will shamelessly plug, Arielle Zibrak argues about romance novels: “If the 19th century is the imagined primal scene of gendered oppression for modern women — conjuring images of corsets and confinement — it’s no surprise that books where the corsets are ripped off and the sex that was previously only a vague fantasy is made real are cathartic to so many readers.” The more obvious the confinement the more gratifying the rebellion — the possibility for which turns confinement into its own tumescent-feeling source of pleasure.

Speaking personally as someone who basically refuses to read novels set in the present moment, I like fantasies of the past because they make a different frame to consider choices, particularly choices about self-determination. Self-determination right now feels so exhausting; I’d rather hang out in a situation where the seeming obstacle to self-determination is just a bonnet than can, with great panache, be tossed aside.

But careful scholars of Hair Studies, such as the Dickinson production team, know that Hair Freedom is a more complicated matter than it first may appear. If you read your way through an archive of 19th century imagery about bonnets, bonnet removal, social freedom, and Hair Narrative (which, here is a whole syllabus for you!) you’ll come to see that many narratives of hair freedom (Witness, I’m going to say, is one) work similarly to what Foucualt called the repressive hypothesis, or rather, reveal something that Foucault might have come up with about pleasure, identity, and repression if he had ever in his life thought about what it was like to be a girl (and had not been bald). Just think what he might have written about “bodies and pleasures” if he had ever been presented with the opportunity to buy “maximum body” shampoo.  

Anyway, all this context is important to understand Dickinson’s contribution to feminist political theory, which is what Hair Studies is, because — and I cannot stress this enough — rejecting an overly simplified understanding of hair freedom (and, thus, political freedom) is the whole point of Dickinson season 1. Emily Dickinson, in Dickinson, needs a lot of things — personal agency, creative role models, intense personal connection. She begins the series believing that hair freedom will help her achieve those things. She ends the season realizing that hair freedom will not.

Here is a good place for me to say that my experience of watching Dickinson Season 1 was a slow build of appreciation — each episode is better than the last. And the whole thing is most compelling when you re-watch so you can really see the truly elegant formal parallels the show sets up. For instance, there’s the matched encounters with idealistic/spoiled dude writer Henry David Thoreau (hair studies via neck beard, sigh) and hustling/awesome lady writer Louisa May Alcott. There’s also the juxtaposition between the super-queer party where Emily gets high and dances with a hallucinated bee and the super-straight-seeming Christmas dinner where Emily grates a “buttload of nutmeg” to show her beau she can be a “good little women.” These parallels seem, at first, like opposites, but in fact aren’t — Dickinson mostly sets up such binaries to reject them, which becomes dazzlingly clear during Emily’s Christmas Dinner, in which men hardly talk and all the women orgasm — either literally or in semi coded terms, i.e., by conceiving the plot of Little Women or by exclaiming that “the nutmeg is lovely!”

And nowhere is the rejection of simple binaries more in evidence than in the first and last episodes of the season and their contrasting treatments of hair. Even a quick over view will suffice.

Here are some images from episode one:

And here is what you need to see about episode 10:

The iconography could not be clearer. If you just looked at the pictures after a girlhood spent watching Witness and believing the repressive hair hypothesis you might believe that Dickinson is a sad story, a tragedy — a story of a young woman going from freedom and innocence to confinement and grief. Dickinson ends with Emily in her room, while her now-married friend and lover Sue literally floats away in a hot air balloon.

But that is not Dickinson’s plot. In the final scenes, when Emily looks the most confined, she is also the most powerful.  It’s when her dress is black and her hair is bunned that Emily says, finally, both meme-ably and with dead seriousness: I am a poet. Her tied back hair, in this image, does not illustrate her submission to rules; instead, the bun parallels her ability to regulate her own boundaries. Her hair selects its own society, then shuts, to the room of her own, the door.

What happens over the course of the first season to get Emily to this poetical point? How does the season’s chiasmatic structure take her to this new realization about creative agency and the freedom possible in constraint? That’s a complicated question. It has something to do with falling in love with and then losing her boyfriend Ben (the excellently cast Matt Lauria who came to Dickinson after pursuing a degree in Hair Studies in Dillon, Texas with Connie Britton). And it has something to do with Sue’s marriage: Sue may look free but she is also, secretly, pregnant. She carries her confinement with her, her belly swelling like the hot air balloon that carries her away. Emily, shutting herself away from marriage/California, frees herself from this possibility too.

But Emily’s realization about the conditions of her freedom is not only about romance.

It has more to do with Emily’s changing relation to the women around her, and specifically to women’s labor. In the first episode (significantly, during the bedroom scene pictured  — disturbingly — above) Emily convinces her father to hire a maid, an Irish woman named Maggie (Darlene Hunt), who changes the dynamic of gender and work in the household. In the final episode, when Sue marries Austin, the only two people who know about her secret pregnancy are Emily and Betty, the Black woman who makes and fits Sue’s wedding dress (and dramatically repairs Mrs. Dickinson’s when she, intoxicated, burns it on the kitchen fire).

What I’m saying is that Dickinson highlights how Emily Dickinson’s decisions about her freedom and its style take place in a context in which women are working, all the time. Specifically, women of color, are working to create the signs of femininity — the beautiful dresses, the meals — against which white women then wonder if they should rebel.

To the extent it highlights hair as work, Dickinson has learned lessons vividly delivered in African American literature — I would recommend particularly the SCATHING WITH FIRE chapter 12 of Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative, one of the earliest known novels written by an African American woman (written, we might note, at almost the same time as Dickinson takes place, and, like Dickinson’s poems, though also completely fucking differently


hidden away all the author’s life).

To read simply and tightly bound hair and other frequently-deployed symbols of femininity — corsets, kitchens, pregnant bellies — as evidence of only constriction is to miss something Dickinson knows quite well; for one thing, that those symbols of “femininity” are powerfully racialized. It’s not confinement or mobility, tight hair or free flowing, that signals freedom. It’s the ability to maneuver within those symbols, the ability to wield them, from which women’s power — power, often, waged by white women — can come.

Which is why it’s important that Dickinson season 2 seems primed to raise for us a crucial question: what would we have to recognize about femininity as a set of emotions, styles, and symbols, in order for women, across class and race, to tell a story about creating  freedom together?


In Dickinson S2E3, Hattie, a Dickinson family servant, (Ayo Edebiri, who co-wrote the amazing eighth episode of the current season: you all, just wait), rolls her eyes at Emily’s request to serve as a medium during a seance. “I don’t need to talk to any more dead white people,” says Hattie. The line, addressed to Emily  Dickinson, is also about Emily Dickinson, and Dickinson, too: it’s one of the many head-jerky lines Dickinson offers as a kind of metacommentary about its own project. Who is it, really, who needs to talk more about (or to) dead white people?

That question is complicated, but one answer is that the stories white people told and wrote about themselves in exactly the moment Dickinson takes place have left, for many reasons, an outsized mark on American popular culture. Because we are living within that legacy, it’s worth remembering how often those stories featured a beautiful white woman, struggling to find her place in the world. A common feature of the beautiful white women in these stories is that all of them, all of them, all of them, have really amazing hair.

So much is this the case, in fact, that an oft-cited index of the best-selling stories from this time (collated by Nina Baym, genius) includes the hair-color of both the heroine and the antiheroine. The codes of how hair could tell a reader what to expect from a story were traveling around just like Dickinson’s Emily Dickinson, on the early trains of the 19th century. It was, put one way, the beginning of hair studies — the beginning of the white mass cultural myth that you could look at a (white) woman’s hair and tell whether she was good, tell whether she was free.

For me and the white women of my life, these stories of moral white womanhood have been something of a bane, but also, in ways that are less often brought to light, a blessing. Grappling with the legacy of this powerful story, white women can easily understand ourselves as victims in the very story that aimed to lift us up. White women need to get free of this story, many white feminists have told us (me); we need to wash it right out of their hair like a bad, oppressive man.

But when white women like me stage ourselves as the victims of the story of our constriction, it is easy to miss how that story was always a story. It was a story that celebrated a white domestic scene made for and by white women, often at huge, violent expense to people of color. One of the main functions of that story was to conceal the ways in which white women were hardly passive “angels in the house” — they  aggressively perpetuated the unfreedom of people and women of color. Hattie/Edebiri’s line resonates with a whole tradition of Black feminist scholars — here I’ll mention just a few who I have been reading while writing about Dickinson: Claudia Rankine (who specifically writes about “freedom” and blondness), Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Koritha Mitchell, and Michelle D. Commander. These scholars show how received narratives about white women obscure two things simultaneously: the cruelty that 19th century white women perpetuated in order to establish the domestic femininity for which they were praised, and what Black women, despite the ongoing threat of that cruelty, have managed to accomplish.  Among these accomplishments, as Hattie will go on to show, is to assert their own visibility — and to write stories of their own ghosts.

Among the many shows right now provocatively representing the dead white people of the 19th century (most obviously Bridgerton, another major hair studies event) Dickinson stands out to me for how it so forcefully engages the stories that white people have reiterated and believed about dead white women — and, by extension, about white women now.

It’s easy to see the political stakes of some kinds of historical veracity and fantasy — debates about constitutional originalism, for example, or the “greatness” of the American past. We talk about how these issues have real force for the security of people living in this strange country now. Sometimes aesthetic and symbolic fantasy register too: there has been a lot of discussion of that guy with the confederate flag invading the capital.

The inheritance of women’s style isn’t trivial; it matters for in this conversation too. When I look at, for instance, Jenna Ryan, realtor, I see her long flowing locks — cascading like the falsely “free” Emily of Dickinson episode 1. Hair studies would encourage us to see Jenna Ryan’s styling not as incidental to history or politics, but rather a perniciously deployed symbol of white supremacy guised as “freedom,” similar in power to the confederate flag as it bursts into the capital, and just as deadly, precisely because more subtle.

What I’m hoping to clarify about Dickinson’s forceful encounter with the fantasy of women’s aesthetics, as well as how to read Dickinson within the context of multiple similar shows, is that what counts as history and fantasy within these depictions isn’t just a matter of some “well, actually” squabbling about the past. Reading carefully, we can see that what counts on television as "historical realism” can in fact be (and often is) a re-deployment of a fictionalized narrative produced by those hoping to disguise brutality. Conversely, fantastic and escapist versions of the past can be provocative and necessary challenges to what counts, in the “real world,” as common sense.

Put differently, revisionist versions of the past can expose realities that some originalist versions try to conceal. I wouldn’t learn as much about what Emily Dickinson means to me, a 21st-century white woman, if Dickinson had played its aesthetic decisions more straight. And I wouldn’t be able to see so clearly what matters about the symbolism of white femininity in the present without Dickinson’s treatment of Emily Dickinson’s hair.

Here for Hattie and Lavinia,



LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.


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