Attempting to confirm a cinematic merkin has to rank among the most delicate tasks of reportage: One thinks they know fakery upon seeing one, when perhaps they’ve merely glimpsed a hippie. Cineasts think they glimpsed phony curlies when Mary-Louise Parker disrobed in Angels in America or when Suzanna Hamilton did the same in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but only their hairdressers know. Perhaps the most undeniable instance of merkin-clad performing is Sasha Grey in Entourage. (We know, because the Internet.) We’re hip to the Elton John–esque realness of Kate Winslet in The Reader, Heidi Klum in Blow Dry, and Evan Rachel Wood in Mildred Pierce, as they have been candid in discussing cooch toupees. And pubic wigs aren’t just for the ladies, as Jake Gyllenhaal proved in his up-close-and-personal Love & Other Drugs sex scenes.
Merkins are often worn for comic effect, as in Scary Movie, Sex and the City, and Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. But as Rooney Mara pointed out when discussing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it can also preserve a veneer of privacy. As Emmy-winning makeup artist Nicki Ledermann said, “For some actors, a merkin is a safety blanket.”
These tiny faux-fros had already begun their odyssey of cultural utility when Antony and Cleopatra was staged at the Old Vic. Back then, merkins were the province of certain versatile male performers, who wore them during nude scenes to hide their manhood; women were not allowed onstage. In centuries after, while lice was still a thing — and penicillin was not — prostitutes obscured the scars associated with syphilis and other STDs by gluing hair down there.