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Bailey Ambrister
Robert Phillips
Cultural Media Literacy Honors
May 22, 2016
Pelo Malo and Stereotypes
In todays culture, the issues of both gender and race are becoming more
prevalent and more widely discussed. All around the world but especially in America
and specifically in North Carolina recently, race and gender have become the
subject of controversial debates and are topics that have even become involved in
politics. Gender specifically has been all over the news in North Carolina and all of
America after Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2, which completely took
away anti-discrimination laws in the state. The most controversial piece of this bill
has been the issue of allowing or not allowing transgender people, those who do not
feel that they fit in to their culturally prescribed gender or gender codes, into the
bathrooms that they choose. In the film Pelo Malo directed by Mariana Rondn, 9year-old Junior of Caracas, Venezuela struggles with his own racial and gender
identity as he paradoxically pushes his mother further away by fighting for her love
and acceptance. Ultimately, the film challenges the stereotypes and codes on Junior
concerning both gender and race through the use of his curly bad hair and his
obsession over it as a symbolic representation of his identity crisis.
Junior tries desperately throughout the film to win over his mothers love.
Junior is afrolatino, unlike his baby brother who is apparently from another father
and has light skin and straight hair. Mother Marta is shown as very caring and loving

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with the baby, but looks at Junior most often with frustration and disgust. Junior tries
to make his mother love him by straightening his hair out, and tries many different
methods such as using oil, or a strange mixture of mayonnaise, avocado and egg.
He locks himself in the bathroom and attempts to brush his curls out, but this only
angers his mother more as she bangs on the door for him to come out. She sees his
fixation with his hair as a sign that he is gay. He just wants to have his hair straight
to look like a pop singer for his yearbook photo when school starts. Juniors paternal
grandmother tries to help him achieve his dream. She plays him pop music and
teaches him to sing the song; she blow-dries half of his hair straight so he can see
how it will look, but makes sure he wets it back before his mother can see it.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times says that the dueling hairstyles suggest an
inner conflict between conformity and individuality in a restrictive environment.
She even makes him a suit like what the singer of the song he learns wore.
However, when he tries on the suit, he calls it a dress and according to a review by
Lisa Bolekaja the need for Martas love and acceptance is so strong, Junior
convinces himself that Grandma Carmen is trying to turn him into a girl. He then
tells his mother that Carmen is a crazy old lady and that he doesnt want to stay
with her anymore, choosing to conform to his mothers standards of masculinity.
This may seem on the surface like it reinforces masculine gender codes,
however Marta still doesnt accept Junior and the audience is left feeling
disappointed and sad. As Jake from the website Vamos a Leer recounts, the
actress that played Grandma Carmen, Nelly Ramos, said that she was originally
scared based on the title that the movie would perpetuate racial stereotypes, but
after getting involved with the movie she realized she had no reason to be worried.
Jake says that to expose and reflect on experiences of certain people that normally

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do not get attention by wider audiences has the power to break down stereotypes
by fighting ignorance, instead of reinforcing them. The movie Pelo Malo therefore
challenges and breaks down stereotypes about people like Junior who are struggling
with their identity, whether it is from a racial point of view, or the point of view of
someone conflicted with their gender identity. The film develops Juniors character
and his relationship with Marta, making her seem very cruel, and his innocent
longing for her love evokes pathos in the audience, making it clear that these
expectations are ridiculous and unfair.
Juniors mothers fear of her sons perceived homosexuality frightens her to
the point of making her incapable of loving him for who he is. She even asks a
doctor for help, wanting to know why he is gay. When he asks if Junior told her this,
she replies no, but that he sings and dances, and brushes his hair out all day. When
the doctor tells her that Junior needs a role model and to be shown that men and
women can love each other, Marta completely distorts the idea and takes it to mean
that she should let him see her having sex. This illustrates the lengths that some
can be willing to go in order to preserve social norms; she is so terrified of having a
son who is different sexually or racially from those surrounding them that she
attempts to straighten him out. When she finds him in a sea of young boys who
are break dancing to hip hop music and he is instead swaying with his eyes closed
to the music, she is immediately set off and takes him home. She asks him angrily
why do you have to dance like that? The fact that she is so filled with hatred for
her own son points out the tragic strength of these stereotypes in todays society.
Some have criticized the film as stereotypical or even sexist, as does Mike
DAngelo Person of a review website known as The A.V. Club. He claims that
Rondn pulls no punches in her portrait of a woman less concerned with loving and

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caring for her child than with enforcing societal norms; theres not a trace of
sentimentality in the films conception of motherhood, to the point where charges of
misogyny would be likely had a male filmmaker been at the helm. However, the
stereotypes in the film exist to be satirized. Perhaps the most powerful and moving
scene in the film is the very last, coupled with a clip in the credits. Marta tells Junior
she is going to take him to live with his grandmother, and the only way that he can
stay with her is to cut his hair off. Junior shaves his head, and the scene cuts to the
first day of school where all the kids are lined up in their uniforms, everyone singing
but Junior. He stands with his shaved head, silent, with an expression of deep
sadness and defeat. The credits roll, and there is a clip of Junior in the singer suit
that his grandmother made him, singing the song she taught him with his hair
straightened, and dancing with a smile on his face. The juxtaposition between these
two final sequences elucidates Rondns message: happiness does not stem from
conforming to societal guidelines, but rather from being oneself as Junior does in the

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Works Cited
Bolekaja, Lisa. "Pelo Malo (Bad Hair): Coding Blackness and Genderqueer
Identity." Bitch Flicks. 14 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 May 2016.
Holden, Stephen. "A Power Struggle, Roots and All." The New York Times. The New
York Times, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 May 2016.
Jake. "WWW: Pelo Malo and Venezuelan Pop Music from the 70s." Vamos a Leer.
World Wide Web, 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 May 2016.
Person, Mike D'Angelo, and Http:// DAngelo/. "The
Coming-of-age Story <i>Bad Hair</i> Is All Dispiriting Realism, No
Catharsis." Bad Hair Film Review The Coming-of-age Story Bad Hair Is All

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Dispiriting Realism, No Catharsis Movie Review The A.V. Club. A.V. Club, 18
Nov. 2014. Web. 22 May 2016.