Why are we told blondes are dumb?

Why are we told blondes are dumb? Or have more fun? Or are preferred, as Anita Loos once said, ‘by gentlemen’?

Why, indeed, are people generally barraged with stereotypes about body shape, form or looks? Or attributed behaviours that are supposed to follow a particular physical characteristic?

There is no actual truth to any of these tropes. Yet socially imposed appearance ideals have been part of human societies through history. Often as prelude to the targets being convinced to buy some product that will ‘fix’ or ‘produce’ the ‘look’. It leverages from a raft of factors, including pressure to conform and anxieties over self-image, and is why men spent up large on wigs and women accepted being crushed in corsets, way back when. And it’s gained industrial dimension these days thanks to the way it’s been commercialised – a collision between industrial-age economics and the anxieties of the psyche.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

A recent photo of me – entering my ‘distinguished hair’ phase, according to my wife. As a kid I was naturally blond, went dark naturally as a teenager. Did that change my intellect? Of course not…

These days the pressure is mostly directed at women, but men get it too – witness the hair restorers and muscle building products on the market. And in past centuries – I’m thinking the dandified eighteenth in particular – it was men who led the image charge, primping and preening themselves in ridiculous ways.

As far as I can tell, today’s ‘dumb blonde’ trope – epitomising the phenomenon of socially imposed image and expected behaviour – emerged in its current form during the mid-twentieth century, building on earlier ideas but pushed on the back of the movie promotional machine. It was popularised by Hollywood stars from the early twentieth century, starting with Jean Harlow, but epitomised by Marilyn Monroe, who wasn’t naturally blonde (hydrogen peroxide is rocket fuel!) – and became both victim and a exploiter of the machine.

Blonde sold. Dumbness sold, particularly when run for laughs. Monroe played the part to a T in Howard Hawks comedies, presenting child-like innocence and vulnerability over an aura of seething availability. The mix keyed into the male psyche in fundamental ways. And all this was set in a mid-twentieth century world that by today’s standards was awash with sexism. Check out The Flintstones or Bewitched.

Monroe was a master at the game – Norma Jean Baker ‘playing’ Marilyn Monroe, perpetuating marketing imagery. The legend was sealed by her death – an event that transfixed two generations and was not superseded as regular magazine fodder until Princess Diana – another blonde – died in that Paris motor accident.

By the time Monroe was flourishing, the notion of ‘dumb blonde’ had  left the context of movie marketing and become a truth. Blondes, it seemed, were ‘dumb’ – an epithet also extended to fair haired men, the ‘dumb blond ox’ image.

None of it had any basis in reality. I know. As a kid I had fair hair, but that didn’t make me stupid. I could already read, write, do arithmetic and so on when I went to school. This was an age, alas, when both ability and left-handedness were punishable offences in primary schools, but I at least avoided the epithet ‘Snow’, the derogatory army term that teachers of the day invariably gave to fair-haired boys.

Needless to say, the specifics of the image we’re told bestows status or behaviours tells us an awful lot about the nature of the society we live in.

Can we do anything about tropes of this kind? US author August McLaughlin went blonde joke free for a year.

For myself, I think humour is as powerful a tool for reversing stereotypes as it is for perpetuating them. I’d reverse the jokes – spin them back on themselves. It’s time to turn the tables on negative social tropes, for us to think laterally and lampoon the whole phenomenon – underscoring just how dumb these tropes actually are.

Here’s what I mean. It’s severely geeky and I didn’t make it up. Be warned.

“Two male mathematicians are having lunch in a restaurant. One bets the other that the waitress, who’s blonde, won’t be able to solve the differential equation y=2x+1. Then he disappears to the men’s room. The second mathematician calls the waitress over and says ‘When my colleague asks you a question, tell him the answer’s y=x<exp2>+x. Just that. OK?’ She nods. A few minutes later the first mathematician returns and asks the question. The waitress smiles. ‘Why, it’s y=x<exp2>+x,’ she explains, and walks off. As she departs she adds: ‘Plus a constant.’”

I am sure everybody has their own stories about being classified by imagery – and the injustice of it. I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

(Confession – when I was a teenager, and still fair-haired, I failed a maths exam by NOT putting a constant at the end of my differentiations. Sigh.)

16 comments on “Why are we told blondes are dumb?

  1. Melissa says:

    Huh. I don’t get it. And I’m not even blonde. Crap. :)

    • I warned you it was geeky… :-) Differentiation is a part of calculus, a mathematical method for – among other things – working out the area under a curve in a graph. It was partly invented by Sir Isaac Newton and it’s absolutely pivotal to a lot of the math that’s done today. You can use it, for instance, to calculate when to stop heating a pot of boiling potatoes and leave them perfectly cooked when the water’s cooled (though I am sure nobody does). The joke here was that the blonde knew it better than the mathematicians did.

  2. Thanks for this insightful post, Matthew. You’re right about the startup of the jokes. They seemed to start with “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” starring Marilyn Monroe. The film’s motto was, “A girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.” Over time, the humor has evolved into a harsh stereotype, as you well pointed out.

    I love your thoughts on using humor to reverse such things. That joke would make a great movie scene. :)

    • It would indeed! It was definitely ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ that nailed the trope – though I think Monroe was very good at playing ‘Monroe’. She was a great deal smarter, I suspect, than anybody guessed…except perhaps Arthur Miller.

  3. Carol says:

    An interesting take on the ‘blonde’ question. Marilyn Monroe played up the ‘more fun’, ‘sexy’ aspects very well, but long before her, actresses played roles as naive but likeable and successful-in-the-end women. Intelligent blondes like Princess Diana and J.K. Rowling didn’t fit into the stereotype either. If women actually thought being blonde evoked only an image of dumb or stupid, I doubt L’Oreal, Clairol and the like would have convinced so many women to change their hair colour. LOL! (And no, I’ve never been blonde!)

    • What intrigues me is the way the notion of ‘dumb blonde’ (and, for men, ‘dumb blond’) has become such a trope – yet we can all point up how it obviously has no basis whatsoever in reality..

  4. EagleAye says:

    For me, I think the jokes themselves aren’t the problem. What gets me irritated is when people take them seriously. I’ve seen people who do take such jokes as a serious meter of human capability, and I can only wonder at the sad state of their intelligence. I love a good joke, even if “my stereotype” is targeted. If it’s clever and told in good spirit, I will like it. But treating someone poorly on the basis of such jokes is pure idiocy.

    When I was a kid, Polish jokes were commonplace. But when Lech Walensa and his “Solidarity” movement openly, and successfully, defied the mighty USSR, those jokes quickly fell out of fashion. I think that’s even funnier than the jokes!

    • Here in NZ we have plenty of Australian jokes which, curiously enough, are identical to the jokes the Aussies tell us about New Zealanders… :-) You’re right – the jokes are not the issue. But I think the frameworks sometimes are, the more so when we veer away from the obviously absurd into other territories of imposed behaviour or ideal body shape or any of the other pressures that are very seriously delivered to everyday people these days.

  5. I’m not blonde or dumb, but my math education cratered three weeks into calculus. But I got the point nevertheless!

    One of the best known comments on dumb blonde jokes here in America came from country music legend Dolly Parton, known for her hair and…well, other things. When asked if the jokes bothered her, she said no. Because “I know I’m not dumb. I also know I’m not blonde.”

    • My calculus education did too – the high school maths teacher I had used to walk in, set up a problem on the blackboard, and disappear again. He omitted to tell anybody what it was about or how to solve it. By lucky chance, the guy who’d co-authored the national high school maths textbook was the deputy principal – and he offered to teach the entire senior maths class…after school in the detention room. We did, and I learned a lot about calculus…

      I’d heard something similar to the Parton story. I think a lot of entertainers are way smarter than we often think. Apparently Neil Young has patents in ways of storing high-quality digital sound; Thomas Dolby has patents in cellphone tech; and Hedy Lamarr – who wasn’t blonde, but who played archetypal ditz characters in the 1940s anyway – invented a method of mechanising cryptography.

  6. Like you said in your article, I think that idea of dumb blonds was propagated by the movies and numerous jokes, although Lucille Ball had more than her fair share of stupidity as a redhead. I’m brunette with touches of gray at this point. On days when I’m feeling rather stupid, I joke that my blond roots are showing.
    I’ve had several run-ins with blonds that I’ve saved for including in novels. One was rude and a back-stabber; another, the only male, was insulting and rude, plus a thief. The last one was a constant liar, rude and extremely condescending.
    On the other end of the spectrum is my sister, a natural blond with a wonderful personality. She is pleasant, funny and fairly smart. She learned to do much of the maintenance around the house and enjoys working in her garden. Maybe I have a touch of bias because she is my sister, I’m not sure.
    I have met some really nice, smart blonds over the years; but because of the “bad” blonds, only one of the heroes is a blond in the books I currently am working on.

    • I always find it intriguing. There’s no truth, of course, in the notion that physical appearance determines persona, and yet we relentlessly make jokes about stereotypes based on precisely that notion.

  7. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    What do you think about blonds?

  8. […] Why are we told blondes are dumb? (mjwrightnz.wordpress.com) […]

  9. No Lie says:

    Definitely Air Heads.

  10. Megan says:

    excuse me but blondes are not dumb . why do people say that? it’s rude. blondes are smart to.

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