Just over a year ago, in a feat of unparalleled Jared Leto–ness, Jared Leto emerged from a 12-day silent retreat in the desert to the news that COVID-19 had begun to spread throughout the United States. Apparently, despite what the Joker says, some of us can go a couple of weeks without living in a society. Leto’s reentry into the world sparked some media coverage, with each article accompanied by a photo of the actor showcasing his familiar cascading tresses. As a person who started losing his hair at age 19, I always respect when a guy really leans into his ability to grow a great head of hair, whether it’s Oscar winner Jared Leto or Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen. Seeing a fully realized coiffure feels like watching a naturally gifted piano player tackle a difficult piece of music. Conventional wisdom dictates that game recognize game, although in my experience, a complete lack of game (in this case, my hairline) can also recognize game (hirsute excellence).
But thanks to a picture released last week, we know that Jared Leto now looks like this. Paunchy and balding, with unruly hair dangling past the nape of his neck (a look I like to call “business in the front, party in the Back … to the Future”). Clad in a purple corduroy suit, Leto gives off the vibe of a professional wrestling manager, or a traveling quaalude salesman, or as one friend put it, the “You have no good car ideas!” guy from I Think You Should Leave. What a difference a year makes.
Of course, Jared Leto looks this way because he’s in full hair and makeup for his role as Paolo Gucci in the upcoming Ridley Scott biopic House of Gucci. I assume he’s in full wardrobe too, but I do think he could probably pull off the head-to-toe corduroy in his daily life without raising too many eyebrows, so I don’t want to speculate.
This is, of course, a long-standing Hollywood practice. Rather than hire Paul Giamatti, Jason Statham, J.K. Simmons, or Leslie David Baker to play a bald character, productions cast actors with full, thick heads of hair, and then bald them up. It’s double-dipping. You get the clout from a famous hot person’s name without them looking hot, and then they also get the actor cred for being brave enough to look regular on camera. Christian Bale was nominated for an Oscar for American Hustle, a movie that nobody liked (Writer’s admission: I did kind of like that movie), for putting a toupee on top of a bald cap. That is extreme bald guy stolen valor!!!
(A quick aside: My scorn does not extend to actors with fully shaved heads, which is a hairstyle that anyone can adopt regardless of their natural hairline, and which bald guys have been employing for years as a “leave something to the imagination” maneuver.)
I’m furious at Jared Leto, even though I understand this isn’t his fault. And this frustration isn’t unique to me. A few years ago, Shea Serrano (who, despite his self-deprecation, is a handsome guy) wrote for this website about the infuriating trend of conventionally hot actors playing ugly characters in movies. Regarding Matthew McConaughey’s “transformation” into an average schlub for his role in the film Gold, Shea said:
Technically […] he probably did work hard to make himself look ugly. He probably ate poorly and didn’t exercise. But guess what? I know people who don’t have to work at all to make themselves ugly. Maybe you’ve heard of them? They’re called ugly people. And guess what else? They have feelings and rights and dreams, same as attractive people.
Just as Shea stood up for those of us who are, let’s say, facially deficient, I would like to speak specifically for those among us with an abundance of forehead. Much like Jared Leto, I have also grown balder and puffier over the past year, but I did it the old-fashioned way: stress and stress-related snacking. Where, I ask, is my supporting role in an Adam Driver–Lady Gaga starring vehicle? MY CRANIUM IS NOT YOUR COSTUME, JARED.
Is this the most pressing issue of representation and authenticity in casting? No. Do bald male actors face the same level of scrutiny around their bodies as their female colleagues? Absolutely not. Is this whole opinion rooted in petty jealousy and insecurity? OF COURSE IT IS.
So does this matter at all? A little bit! We don’t need Jared Leto to be bald, because we’ve already got bald guys. But thanks to anti-baldness bias, our numbers are dwindling. Over the past several years, we’ve lost several prominent balds to hair restoration surgery, a process that used to make your skull look like a field of withered Dust Bowl cornstalks, but now works pretty well. Thanks to this technology (allegedly), the eroded hairlines of men ranging from Jason Alexander and Jeremy Piven to LeBron James and Joe Biden have, well, re-roded.
I do not fault anyone for wanting to look more traditionally handsome. There are obvious benefits to not looking like shit (and by “looking like shit” I of course mean failing to adhere to rigid cultural beauty norms). The issue of hair restoration falls firmly under the umbrella of “don’t hate the player, hate the game,” except in the cases of Piven and Elon Musk, where you can hate both player and game alike. If, based on personal preferences and societal pressures, you decide to erect various surgical and cosmetic levees to protect against the rushing and swelling river of age, I have no problem with that. But to go from a full head of scalp back to a full head of hair is to attempt the full-on reversal of time’s passage. It’s too much to expect people to believe. And if that’s what you’re after, just buckle down and build the time machine, Elon.
I don’t want to live in a world where Jason Alexander needs a full head of hair to make it through the day. If playing bald icon George Costanza for nine seasons of Seinfeld doesn’t earn you a lifetime pass on needing thick, credible hair, what chance do the rest of us have?
The expectation that one should be able to thrive in entertainment (or anywhere, really) while defying conventional standards of attractiveness is a male privilege for sure. But it’s not a privilege we should be trying to revoke. Instead, we should endeavor to extend similar privileges to as many types of people as possible. We should all feel free and happy living in the bodies we have, or adjusting them to suit our own personal needs rather than external expectations. To compel us balds to do otherwise isn’t just a windfall for big pharma and big hat (no offense, Pharrell), it’s a firm step in the wrong direction for our culture as a whole.
To say that it’s only OK to be bald if you are actually, underneath a layer of latex and someone else’s hair, traditionally hot is not just insulting to bald people; it’s limiting to every person whose body doesn’t fit a specific mold. The ripple effects of this are numerous and far-ranging. There are already so many people whose bodies are under constant surveillance because of their gender, their race, their age, and their size. And any additional compulsory traditional hotness heightens that vigilance. So yes, this is a dumb thing for me to be mad about. But on the other hand, no man’s hairline is an island, even when he has gone bald in a way that leaves a literal island of hair on top of his head.
Josh Gondelman is a comedian living in New York City. He’s currently a producer and writer on Showtime’s Desus & Mero. You can hear him on his weekly podcast Make My Day, and see him tweet at @joshgondelman.