Blonde vs. Brunette

betty and veronica

Three's Company

One aspect of how women are portrayed in popular culture is a purported rivalry between blonde and brunettes. The rivalry in American society dates back to at least 1875 when the first female professional baseball players were assigned to teams according to their hair color.

Baseball historian John Thorn notes that blonde and brunette baseball teams barnstormed the country in the late 1800s. A more contemporary example is the gridiron football game called ‘blondes vs. brunettes powderpuff football,’ a charity event that raises money for the Alzheimer’s Association. The annual contests were started in the fall of 2005, in Washington D.C.

The most enduring blonde vs. brunette rivalry in American culture may exist in the comic book industry where Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge have been engaged in a mostly friendly competition for over 70 years. The teenage girls form two-thirds of a blonde vs. brunette love triangle that is completed by their high school classmate and object of their affection, Archie Andrews. As Archie’s next door neighbor in the fictional town of Riverdale, the blonde and blue-eyed Betty Cooper is portrayed in the comic book series as a wholesome, popular, middle class girl. Her high school friend and chief competitor for Archie’s affection is the brunette Veronica Lodge, the only child of the richest man in Riverdale.

Media critic Tucker Cummings cited several TV shows that featured a ‘classic war between blonde and brunette love interests.’ Typically, she wrote, ‘… the blonde (is) stable, and typifies the ‘girl next door,’ while (the) … brunette, is haughty, and a bit more exotic. ‘Three’s Company,’ an ABC sitcom that ran from 1977-1984 also featured a blonde and brunette triangle. The blonde was played by Suzanne Somers and the brunette was played by Joyce DeWitt. The man in the middle was played by John Ritter. Somers and DeWitt were continually faced with media stories that described both an on and off-screen ‘rivalry’ between the two co-stars. Both women repeatedly denied the stories and attempted to dispel ‘…the myth that women, especially blondes and brunettes, can’t get along in Hollywood.’

At the same time ABC was running the ‘Three’s Company’ sitcom, it was also running ‘Dynasty,’ a night time soap opera. The show starred John Forsythe as an oil tycoon who was caught in the middle of a triangle that featured his wife, the blonde Linda Evans and his ex-wife, brunette Joan Collins. During the show’s 10 year run the women had a number of fights. The spectacle of two middle aged woman engaged in a catfight during prime time boosted the show’s ratings considerably. Feminist author and cultural critic Susan J. Douglas believed that the shows emphasis on the male lead character, highlighted by women fighting over him, confirmed the traditional patriarchal role of men in society. According to Douglas: ‘Dynasty upped the ante … On one side was the blonde stay at home Krystal Carrington … in the other corner was the most delicious bitch ever seen on television, the dark haired, scheming, career vixen, Alexis Carrington Colby … Krystal just wanted to make her husband happy; Alexis wanted to control the world. How could you not love a catfight between these two?’

Pitting blondes and brunettes against each other, especially as romantic rivals, is a Hollywood technique that extends back to at least the early 1930s. In a 1932 interview with an Australian newspaper, Hollywood director Dorothy Arzner stated that lead women and women in supporting roles must always have different hair color to accentuate the contrasting beauty of each type. Arzner also stated that blondes were usually cast as the fickle types while brunettes are cast as the more serious and emotional types.

Arraying blondes against brunettes, is not unique to the American film industry. The British film company Hammer Films produced a 1967 movie that took the blonde vs. brunette concept to an extreme. The film ‘Slave Girls’ (also released under the title ‘Prehistoric Women’) starred Martine Beswick in the role of Kari, the queen of a tribe of brunettes who had enslaved a tribe of blondes. Their existence was disrupted by the arrival of a male explorer who discovered the two tribes by means of a time portal. Witnessing the brunette’s cruel treatment of the blondes, he rejected Beswick’s advances and was subsequently enslaved himself. He soon discovered a group of men who were also held in bondage. He eventually led a rebellion where the blondes overwhelmed the brunettes, Beswick was killed, and the explorer managed to escape back through the portal. The production has been described as one of the most bizarre films ever released.

A number of studies have been conducted over the years to measure society’s attitude toward blondes and brunettes. Many of the studies have shown that men, especially those of European descent, find blonde women more attractive than brunettes, redheads, or women of other races who had darker hair, eyes, or complexion. Other studies have supported the findings by examining behavior shown in public settings. As an example, a Cornell University study showed that blonde waitresses receive larger tips than brunettes, even when controlling for other variables such as age, breast size, height and weight.

In a 2012 interview with NBC news, Dr. Lisa Walker, Sociology Department Chair at the University of North Carolina said that hair color ‘absolutely’ plays a role in the way people are treated and claimed that numerous studies had shown that blonde women were paid higher salaries than other women. ‘Most people would tell you, if asked, that it doesn’t matter what your hair color is. What style your hair is in. They would say whatever is best for your face,’ explained Walker. ‘But from a very young age these stereotypes appear. In cartoons and children’s programming, we see the way women are portrayed based on their hair. The associations continue through childhood into adulthood.’ The local NBC news affiliate in Charlotte tested Walker’s theory by asking a natural blonde to walk around the Charlotte business area, drop a scarf and keep going. The volunteer did it 20 times as a blonde and then 20 times wearing a brunette wig. As a blonde, every time she dropped the scarf a bystander picked it up for her, but when wearing a dark haired wig, people simply mentioned that the scarf was dropped or ignored it altogether.

A well publicized 2011 University of Westminster study evaluated how men perceived women who entered a London nightclub as a blonde or a brunette. The study, published in the ‘Scandinavian Journal of Psychology,’ used the same woman and had her dye her hair a different color for each visit. After spending some time in the club, she departed and then researchers entered to club and interviewed the men who had engaged her in conversation. The results showed that, as a blonde, she was more likely to be approached for conversation than as a brunette. However, when the researchers interviewed the men who spoke to her, the men rated her more intelligent and attractive as a brunette than as a blonde. Many news organizations covered the story as evidence that blondes were not preferred over brunettes.

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