Teenage rebellion is typically portrayed in stories, films, and other genres as a testosterone-based phenomenon. There is an overplayed need for one to acknowledge a boy’s rebellion against his father, his life direction, the “system,” in an effort to become a man, or rather an adult. However, rarely is the female addressed in such a scenario. What happens when little girls grow up? Do they rebel? Do they, in a sudden overpowering rush of estrogen, deny what has been taught to them from birth and shed their former youthful façades? Do they turn on their mothers? In Sharon Olds’ poem, “The Possessive,” the reader is finally introduced to the female version of the popular coming-of-age theme as a simple haircut becomes a symbol for the growing breach between mother and daughter through the use of striking images and specific word choice.
Olds begins the correlation of the daughter’s haircut and the idea of war early on in the poem. The reader is first exposed to the comparison in the line, “that girl with the hair wispy as a frayed bellpull/ has been to the barber, that knife grinder/ and has had the edge of her hair sharpened.” Olds immediately conjures up a frightful image of a barber viciously attacking her little girl’s hair. The image is enforced with the words Olds has placed carefully within the line. Instead of cutting her daughter’s hair, the barber sharpens it like one would a weapon. This haircut is the daughter’s first weapon in the war between mother and daughter. The haircut will be the first detachment of the daughter from her youth, the former “wispy” haired girl has in essence been murdered by the barber. To further emphasize this horrible image, Olds sneaks in a tactfully placed word next to the word “barber.” Olds gives him a follow-up description, “knife grinder.” This phrase is not particularly pleasant and by combining it with an already wicked sounding situation such as “sharpening” one’s hair, the unpleasant feeling the vision produces becomes undeniable. From here the tone of unease and apprehension often felt before a great battle is set. This is not a haircut. It is a preparation for war.
The next image Olds puts into play is that of the vision of her daughter reborn as the enemy. Olds describes the daughter’s hair by saying, “each strand now cuts/ both ways. The blade of new bangs hangs over her red-brown eyes/ like carbon steel.” This is not a typical description of hair. Olds specifically compares the young girl’s hair to a freshly sharpened weapon. With words such as “cuts,” “blade,” and “carbon steel,” Olds builds up an image of a lethal weapon such as a knife or perhaps sword, weapons both clearly used for battle. Olds further describes the girl’s hair by acknowledging that “all the little/ spliced ropes are sliced.” The line break in the poem which leaves the phrase “all the little” alone to be followed up by second line describing...