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.
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.)