“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”
That's the most famous line in one of the most famous fairy tales collected by German folklorists the Brothers Grimm.
Rapunzel is a beautiful, fair-skinned girl locked away in a door-less tower. Her hair? Long, straight, and blond—“as fine as spun gold,” according to the story—and strong enough to haul up the sorceress who imprisoned her, and then later on, a prince, from the ground.
But this is the 21st century, and television network ABC thinks it's time for change.
Its hit drama "Once Upon a Time" has shaken things up not only by casting the role of Rapunzel for next year as not blonde but also by giving it to a beautiful brown-skinned actor. Alexandra Metz, who is perhaps best known for roles in "The Originals" and "Chicago Fire," has natural black curls that float around her face like a halo.
Whether Metz’s hair will be kept natural or lightened and straightened to look more “golden” remains to be seen, but for black women whose textured hair has long been the subject of discussion, racism, marketing, and even films such as Chris Rock’s educational and hilarious 2009 documentary Good Hair, the show’s casting choice is encouraging. The various ways black women wear their hair—from braids to natural and curly Afros to chemically relaxed and bone-straight extensions, pieces, and weaves—is both personal and political.
“It’s a bold move on the decision of the casting director to pick this actress for this role. It fills me with joy,” says Patrice Yursik, founder of the popular black beauty, natural hair, and culture blog Afrobella.
“Some of the assumptions that others make about our hair is ‘Let down your weave.’ There’s the expectation that black women have assisted hair and cannot grow their hair to different lengths," said Yursik. "Her hair is fabulous. It’s a beautiful representation. It makes me want to watch the show.”
Public reaction to the casting has been mixed, from supportive social media comments to prejudiced vitriol spewed on Twitter. Yursik, like many, grew up reading fairy tales such as "Rapunzel," in which heroes and heroines always came from a European background.
Metz as Rapunzel rightfully broadens traditional views of these characters and how they should look, their hair included.
Shana Redmond, an assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California and author of the newly released book Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora, says that black women’s hair has too long been considered a “problem” to be touched on and pondered rather than accepted.
“To have this character whose hair is her strength, her power, is significant to be represented by a black woman,” Redmond says. “We have a black woman as a first lady in the White House. This casting does completely adjust the landscape of television and impact conceptions of beauty and difference.”
The hope of longtime casting director Billy Hopkins, whose credits include diverse movies such as Precious and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is that Metz’s hair isn’t straightened, but is kept natural as a good model for young black women such as his own 17-year-old daughter. Hopkins' teenage twins with his ex-partner, director Lee Daniels, are black.
“If they use her real hair, then that’s great, or extensions attached to her real hair. She’s a good actress, and it’s great they did color-blind casting,” he told TakePart.