‘Mean news’ into ‘Nice news’: John Travolta’s hair


At The Philosophers’ Mail, we scour the world’s media to pick out stories that are mean and then endeavour to turn them into stories that are nice.

The point isn’t to be sentimental or naively cheerful. We’re being ‘nice’ with a purpose: to get to the truth. Meanness merely confirms prejudice. Niceness is a better scalpel.


© Press Association Images

Since his hosting role at the Oscars last week, John Travolta has been pilloried not only for mispronouncing a name but also for his hair.

Photographs suggest that in reality Travolta has receding, closely cropped hair. But at the Oscars he had long, elegantly-styled, dark locks.

© Kevork Djansezian/AP/Press Association Images

The news was deeply nasty and said the following:

‘The only thing worse than John Travolta’s hair at the Oscars was John Travolta’s horrible mispronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name,’ said Entertainment Weekly. ‘Travolta hair sparks Twitter blooper,’ announced Hollywood News. ‘John Travolta’s hair is like a bad artist’s version of hair,’ opined the UK’s Daily Mirror. Fox News declared: ‘On a scary creepy scale of 1 to 10, John Travolta was a solid 15 last night. The toupee!’ In the Guardian, the drift was the same: He is lying to the world and himself. His wig is crazy, disgusting; he looks creepy; he looks like Dracula. The desire everywhere was to catch him out. Here was a rich and powerful man being ridiculous; ‘wouldn’t it be great if someone yanked that hair piece off?’, asked the Evening Standard.

A ‘nicer’ – that is, more truthful and constructive – response to Travolta’s hair would go like this:

Like many middle-aged men, John Travolta does not have the kind of hair he would prefer. Nature has decreed that hair follicles simply no longer grow on the front quadrant of his skull. Most people find it extremely upsetting when this starts to happen and wonder what they might do to disguise it, or cover it up. A minority will kill themselves. They are not prompted by inflated egoism. Simply, they are terrified of the judgement of others. They fear that others will see them as over-the-hill, boring, monstrous because of the appearance of their new shiny skull. And this fear is justified. Not because they are on the verge of decrepitude. But because experience teaches that this is what many people will in fact suppose.

It is worse for John Travolta than for most people. In his younger days his hair was famously thick and bountiful. When a former Olympic sprinter develops arthritis of the hip, we readily understand that there is a special pathos to their condition. Obviously a bad hip is miserable for anyone, but it is unusually disturbing for someone who once thrilled the world with their grace and speed. Maybe they would try to hide it; perhaps their pride would make them angrily deny that anything is wrong.

© REX/c.Paramount/Everett

Travolta is trying to present himself to the world in a form he hopes will make others like him. He is not being arrogant, he is fragile and in dire need of approval (this shouldn’t surprise us; no one would bother to become a star if they didn’t care a little too much about what others thought of them). The longing to be liked and understood are crucial parts of human dignity. But they have to be pursued in a world jealous of the attention that others get. Our society gives extreme prestige to youth. So it is hard to resist the impulse to align one’s appearance, by whatever artifice, with younger characteristics. It is unfortunate that this is so. But to change it, we need to give more prestige to better things: maturity, dignity, courage. Until we do, a man’s impulse to put on a wig deserves sympathy not ridicule.

Mocking Travolta isn’t just needlessly unkind to him. How we judge and talk about celebrities seeps into our wider culture. We should be nice not for his sake, but for ours. Every man who has ever hated going bald is, in the end, the butt of the criticism of John’s appearance at the Oscars. The mockery suggests it fair game to go for someone who happens to want to try to hide something about themselves they really don’t like, mainly out of anxiety about other people.

It’s true that in a fully mature society, it might be easier to come to terms with, and even be proud of, a loss of hair. But for that to be the norm, we will – collectively – need to be generous and tactful. Ridiculing an actor for wearing a wig is no way to get there.