Stereotypes of Blondes

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Blonde hair has several stereotypes associated with it. In women is has been considered attractive and desirable, but is also associate with the negative stereotypes of the women ‘who relies on her looks rather than on intelligence.’ The latter stereotype of a ‘dumb blonde’ is exploited in ‘blonde jokes.’ In cognitive linguistics, the stereotype uses expressivity of words to affect an emotional response which determines a gender role of a certain kind. In feminist critique, stereotypes like the blonde bombshell or the dumb blonde’ are seen as negative images that undermine the power of women.

Some blonde jokes rely on sexual humor to portray or stereotype their subjects as promiscuous. Many of these are rephrased ‘Valley girl’ or ‘Essex girl’ jokes. Others are based on long-running ethnic jokes, such as humor denigrating the intelligence of Polish people. Similar jokes about stereotyped minorities have circulated since the seventeenth century with only the wording and targeted groups changed. In 20th century, a class of meta-jokes about blondes (i.e. jokes about blonde jokes) has emerged where a blonde person complains about the unfairness of the stereotype propagated by blonde jokes, with a punch line actually reinforcing the stereotype.

Blond hair has been considered attractive for long periods of time in various European cultures, particularly when coupled with blue eyes. This perception is exploited in culture and advertising. At the same time, people tend to presume that blondes are less serious-minded and less intelligent than brunettes. The roots of this notion may be traced to Europe, with the ‘dumb blonde’ in question being a French courtesan named Rosalie Duthe, satirized in a 1775 play ‘Les curiosites de la Foire’ for her habit of pausing a long time before speaking, appearing not only stupid but literally dumb (in the sense of mute).

Professor of film studies Annette Kuhn divides blonde stereotypes in cinema into three categories in ‘The Women’s Companion to International Film’: Ice-cold Blonde (‘hides a fire beneath an exterior of coldness,’ e.g. Grace Kelly, Veronica Lake, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint), Blonde Bombshell (‘explosive sexuality and is available to men at a price,’ e.g. Brigitte Bardot, Mae West, Barbara Eden, Marilyn Monroe), and Dumb Blonde (‘overt and natural sexuality and a profound manifestation of ignorance’ e.g. Jayne Mansfield, Marion Davies, Mamie Van Doren).

The blonde bombshell is also one of the most notable and consistently popular female character types in cinema. Many showbiz stars have used it to their advantage, such as Marlene Dietrich and Clara Bow. A review of English language tabloids from the UK has shown it to be recurring blond stereotype, along with ‘busty blonde’ and ‘blonde babe.’ Jean Harlow started the stereotype with her film ‘Bombshell.’ Following her, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Mamie Van Doren helped establish the stereotype typified by a combination of curvaceous physique, very light-colored hair, and a perceived lack of intelligence.

The notion of ‘dumb blonde’ has been a topic of academic research reported in scholarly articles and university symposia, which tend to confirm that many people hold to the perception that light-haired women are less intelligent than women with dark hair. There is no evidence to support this perception, which raises the question of its origin. A possible explanation is that attractive women have less pressing incentives to cultivate and demonstrate their intellect in order to ensure their future, since attractiveness is an asset as well. The validity of this explanation is corroborated by its applicability to a similar pervasiveness of the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype. The dumb blonde stereotype (and the associated cognitive bias) may have some negative consequences and it can also damage a blonde person’s career prospects.

According to psychological research, hair color is a relevant trait in the perception of an individual’s intelligence and overall ability. In a 1996 study, researchers asked subjects to evaluate photographs of the same woman with brown, red, and blond hair in the context of a job application for an accounting position. The blond-haired applicant was rated as significantly less capable than her brunette doppelganger. In addition, participants designated the female applicant’s starting salary as significantly lower when she was depicted as a blonde than when she was shown with brown hair.

Although associated with females, the application of the dumb blonde stereotype can be applied to men as well. A study that looked at the CEOs of the London Financial Times Stock Exchange’s top 500 companies investigated how hair color could be a potential barrier to professional success. Because it has been shown that blond hair is associated with incompetency, it was hypothesized that there would be fewer blond CEOs among this group – a group of individuals that is viewed as extremely competent – than was representative of the general population. According to the CIA Fact Book at the time of the study, the distribution of individuals who have naturally blond hair in the UK is approximately 25%, while the study found that only 25 (5%) of the 500 CEOs were blond. Furthermore, only two (0.4%) of these CEOs were women, neither of whom happened to have blond hair.

The question that remains, then, is why is it that blondes are generally rated as less competent than those who have other hair colors? One theory focuses on the feminization of blond hair, which can be seen by the overwhelming association of the dumb blond persona with females. This idea draws on the stereotype that females have a lower psychometric intelligence than males. In fact, dumb blonde jokes are overwhelmingly female-specific: according to an extensive search in various publications and on the Internet, about 63% of dumb blonde jokes are directed exclusively at females (compared to less than 5% that directly referenced dumb blond men).

Success of Monroe and her contemporary actresses as dumb blondes led to many followers including Goldie Hawn. A 2014 Washington Postarticle suggested that Hawn was the last Hollywood actress to successfully exploit the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype. ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (a comic novel, a Broadway musical, and two films) explores the appeal of blond women. The film starred Marilyn Monroe as the blonde and Jane Russell as her wise brunette friend. ‘The Encyclopedia of Hair’ describes Monroe’s role as that of ‘a fragile woman who relied on her looks rather than on intelligence—what some people refer to as ‘dumb blond.” At the same time, in the film she demonstrates a certain amount of wit and pragmatism regarding her life position expressed in her hit ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.’ When her fiancé’s father (who initially dislikes her but eventually is won over) asks her why she pretends to be dumb, she answers that men prefer her this way.

Hawn was first known as the giggling ‘dumb blonde,’ stumbling over her lines, especially when she introduced ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’ ‘News of the Future.’ In the American sitcom ‘Three’s Company’ the blond girl (originally Chrissy played by Suzanne Somers, and later Cindy and Terri) is sweet and naïve, while the brunette (Janet played by Joyce DeWitt) is smart. The author of the comic strip ‘Blondie,’ Chic Young, starting with ‘Dumb Dora,’ gradually transformed his subsequent Blondie into a smart, hard-working, family-oriented woman. In the 1970s and 1980s, actress Loni Anderson portrayed curvy blond character Jennifer Marlowe as an intelligent, eloquent, and sophisticated anti-stereotype on the American sitcom ‘WKRP in Cincinnati.’

There are also examples of films where the stereotype is exploited only to combat it. ‘Legally Blonde’ starring Reese Witherspoon featured the stereotype as a centerpiece of its plot. However the protagonist turns out to be very intelligent and is shown to have been underachieving due to society’s low expectations of her. Country music entertainer Dolly Parton, aware of this occasional characterization of her, addressed it in her 1967 hit ‘Dumb Blonde.’ Parton’s lyrics challenged the stereotype, stating ‘just because I’m blond, don’t think I’m dumb ’cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool.’ Parton has said she was not offended by ‘all the dumb-blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. I’m also not blonde.’

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