This piece is from our series, Hairstory. We interview an array of women from different walks of life to discover what their hair means to them. From photographing non-binary people who challenge society's norms by wearing their hair in bright colours, to investigating stereotypes, this series explores the intrinsic link between hair and identity.
Being blonde is loaded. You can be an expensive blonde like Gwyneth Paltrow. You can be rock'n'roll blonde like Debbie Harry. You can be sexpot blonde like Marilyn Monroe. Hell, you can be any kind of blonde you want – as long as you’re a dumb one.
Of course, of all the stereotypes women face, the 'dumb blonde' is a mild one, especially considering how harmful and dangerous the hair stereotypes faced by women of colour can be. But it is curiously persistent. I’ve been blonde for all my adult life and a generous fraction of my childhood. Born blonde, like many Caucasian babies, I enjoyed nature’s very own caramel highlights until I was about six or seven, when my Neapolitan genes kicked in. I waded in the waters of dirty, dishwater blonde until I was about 18, and then I was finally allowed to dye my hair the way I really wanted. First, a half-head of highlights. Then, a full head followed, with appointments every 12 weeks, until I finally decided I wanted to be even blonder, and the lighter hue I desired pushed me into the 'hairline and parting every six weeks' club.
I climbed down from those giddy highs after a year, fatigued and with a sore neck, and have since settled for a mixture of a half-head and balayage that only needs attention every four or so months. I can’t ever remember being particularly concerned about being thought of as dumb (when you tell people you work in beauty, you can often see them docking points off your IQ and, quite frankly, I don’t care if anyone so superficial takes me seriously or not). But I’ve never forgotten a date in 2016 when, after an evening of what I believed to be pleasant chatter with a man, he uttered the immortal words: "Well, you don’t look clever."
It’s believed that blonde hair has been around for over 10,000 years and is the result of a genetic mutation. If you’re naturally blonde and able to digest lactose, congratulations – you’re officially a mutant twice over. Give Professor X a call. The lighter pigment of blonde hair allows more sunlight to penetrate to the scalp, which means better vitamin D absorption (or so the theory goes), which was useful in parts of the world that were cold and dark. It was rare and so, like a potential partner with a holiday home, became desirable.
Historians roundly agree that the notion of blondes being dumb dates back to a play performed some 250 years ago, titled Les Curiosités de la Foire, based on the misdemeanours of the legendary courtesan Rosalie Duthé, which established blondes as both stupid and sexually available. Duthé took long pauses before she spoke, leading people to believe she was literally dumb, as well as stupid. Fast-forward to 1953, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes hit the box office with Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei, epitomised as the dumb blonde. Portrayed as absentminded, slightly scatty and interested in marrying solely for money, some of Lorelei's most famous lines only emphasise the stereotype: "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it." In contrast, her co-star, Dorothy (a brunette) is characterised as smart and more capable.
Aside from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Hitchcock, who described blonde characters as "virgin snow", spoke of his preference for casting them in his films, as he believed that the audience would not find them as dubious as other personas. Meant to project an air of unsuspecting innocence, it seems Hitchcock employed blonde hair as a tool to throw viewers off course when narrowing down suspects.
But the dumb blonde trope transcends popular culture, as Shona Pickersgill, Refinery29's marketing research manager, recalls. "In interviews there is sometimes a look of shock when I explain that I did my dissertation on the salience of the term 'terrorism' in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and not a good kind of shock. I work in insight and when debriefing large, data heavy research projects to clients, questions about my work are often directed to men or other more senior people in the room. This leaves me with quite a strong sense of self-doubt."
Shona's case is not an isolated one. Production manager, Liz Kyneur recounts: "It drives me mad whenever I'm labelled as a 'dumb blonde'. I worked in a company with a lot of men and my blonde hair was always the go-to joke they made whenever I would question the rationale behind anything or suggest a different approach to a project. That said, I'd always have a snappy response handy. The sad thing is, though, as soon as I joke about my light locks, I feel like my opinions are considered less worthwhile, even if people don't realise they're doing it!"
Interestingly, it seems the dangerous stereotype is ingrained in blonde women themselves, as Jess Commons, lifestyle director, adds. "There are times I've felt stupid myself because of my blonde hair. Often, I have felt like I didn't appear as intellectual as women in the room who had cool or short, sensible haircuts. In the past, I have felt as though I was being judged for being stupid and basic – when I almost certainly wasn't being judged at all."
I've never forgotten a date in 2016 when, after an evening of what I believed to be pleasant chatter with a man, he uttered the immortal words: 'Well, you don't look clever.'
Over time, the dumb blonde trope has morphed into the 'beauty and brains' dichotomy, which at least allows a whole other crop of women to have their intelligence questioned. This is not a step forward, even if it does represent inching away from Western beauty ideals. Calling a blonde 'dumb' is a surprisingly effective way to curb someone’s appetite for life and confidence in their own abilities, effective enough to render them docile so they can’t unlock their powers. But then think of Valencia in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Gretchen in Mean Girls. It’s not blondeness that renders them dumb – it’s their beauty. If blonde is beautiful (and for the record, I wholeheartedly believe Eurocentric beauty standards to be violent colonialist hogwash, but I digress), then as we know from the trope, a beautiful blonde will empty your wallet (Rebecca Romijn, Femme Fatale), ruin your marriage (Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction) and perhaps even end your life (Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct).
Dumb blonde is just another stereotype in a long line of misogynist lies that aim to silence and humiliate women. In the Venn diagram of stereotypes, blondeness is the overlap between stupidity, promiscuity, gold-digging and naked self-interest. But one thing is for sure: just because I’m blonde, don’t think I’m dumb, because this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool.
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