I’ve always thought brunettes to possess an air of mystery and elegance which comes with intellect and wit. Probably something to do with the fact that I myself am one. Funny that.
Inevitably we all know someone who is both sexy and exceptionally bright who happens to have blonde hair. And yet, when we think of ‘the Blonde’ as a group of people, we do not perceive them with this quality of mystery we may ascribe to non-blondes. That undefinable nature of darker or redheaded girls: like trying to catch smoke. Hopeless. Why is it so easy, therefore, to comprehend or to grasp the nature of a blonde girl? Why is there a seeming simplicity to being blonde?
It is a strange perception that one has of blondes that we can easily grasp the ‘type’ of woman they are, as if they are neatly packaged with clear instructions, specifications and directions attached to their label. It is strange to the point of absurdity because no matter how much society tries to persuade us, the world does not operate in generalisations. It is simply not realistic. Just because one brunette may like reading doesn’t mean that all brunettes are librarians. Just because one impressively intelligent person may wear glasses, doesn’t mean that all visually impaired people are impressively intelligent.
Just because one Hollywood muse had blonde hair, doesn’t mean that beauty is defined by being blonde. Yet still, despite this, there is something about a darker or redhaired girl that I can’t quite put into words. I have come to realise, however, that it has nothing to do with non-blondes themselves, but entirely to do with blondes. It is precisely because ‘nonblondes’, if one can use that term, do not come neatly packaged with a label because society has never provided one. Blondes have had more attention historically allowing darker and red-haired women to slink into the shadows of mystery. Whose attention they captured is an easy question to answer but why is a question which provokes greater intrigue.
Why is it that it is at the sight, or mere thought, of a blonde girl, rather than a darker or red-haired girl, that a teenage boy is more likely to run desperately to the loos during P.E whilst failing miserably to cover up the betrayal of an erection?
It is not a new revelation that blondes have been fetishized and sexualised for a long time now. Ever since the celebrity magazines, advertisements, photos, pin-up posters and Hollywood cinema of the 50s and 60s, the stereotype of the ‘Blonde Bombshell’ has played an influencing, perhaps even dominating, role in beauty standards that we continue to live by today. When we think of this stereotype we think almost instantly of Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot whose screen time gave rise to their global reputations. But how did this mass hype come about? How did ‘being blonde’ become a trend and from then an accepted standard of beauty and/or sexiness? As with many unquestioned social norms, it was one advertising ploy which was to be responsible for the 70 year-long expectation that to be a ‘bombshell’, women (and girls!) must dye their hair blonde.
It was hair-brand Clairol advertising salon colour in the 1950s and 1960s who first coined the phrase ‘blondes have more fun’.
DOES SHE OR DOESN’T SHE? ONLY HER HAIRDRESSER KNOWS FOR SURE! DO BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN? IF I’VE ONE LIFE…LET ME LIVE IT AS A BLONDE!
‘Do blondes have more fun?’ or ‘Blondes have more fun’ came to be one of the most famous advertising slogans of all time, turning into the Clairol jingle of the 60s which continued to glorify blondeness: “Is it true blondes have more fun? A Lady Clairol blonde, a silky, shiny blonde?”. In an attempt to increase purchases of their home hair dyes and number of appointments in their beauty salon, Clairol ended up shaping how normative beauty was to be perceived.
The saying ‘blondes have more fun’ is defined by the Cambridge online dictionary as ‘said to express the common belief that men are more attracted to women with blonde hair and give them more attention’. Interestingly, prior to Clairol’s advertising ploy, a woman who succumbed to the deed of colouring her hair was considered ‘fast’ up until circa the end of World War II. Not only did what was once perceived as ‘fast’ become acceptable but it became entirely synonymous with ‘desirability’. Therefore, social attitudes towards hair colouring experienced a 180 degree turn. It is interesting to observe how the most desirable and heavily sexualised form of beauty, the ‘blonde bombshell’, originated from being perceived as fast. It demonstrates how advertising moves, largely devised by men, could completely regulate the limitations/ freedom of female sexuality for they governed how it was to be perceived. In addition to this, Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, for example, gave a certain glamour to the once frowned upon process of becoming a ‘bottle blonde’. On the one hand, women were finally allowed to be free to make beauty choices without being condemned by society. On the other hand, it set a beauty standard which was exclusive and linear, not only for white women of differing hair colours but more damagingly and importantly for women of differing ethnicities and races.
As the ‘Blonde Bombshell’ became normative, so did it seep into popular culture. In 1953 the Musical Comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released starring Marilyn Monroe, which was based on the novel originally published in 1925. This demonstrates how stereotypes about women from the 20s, which were exaggerated for comedic effect, were being used and reaffirmed in the 50s, revealing how non-progressive the social mentality was towards women and how beauty features defined the values of the woman. To prove how long-standing this preoccupation with blondes has been, I refer to Rod Stewart’s album Blondes (Have more fun) released in 1978. In the title track (song that has the same name as the album), the lyrics of the chorus go as follows:
You can keep your black and your red heads
You can keep your brunettes too
I wanna girl that’s semi-intelligent
Gimme a blonde that’s six feet two boy
And that ain’t all
Stewart continues ‘I had a crush on Bardot/ Fell in love with Monroe’, proving how the ‘Blonde Bombshell’ encapsulated desirability. Stewart’s lyrics also reaffirmed the generalisation that blondes were ‘semi-intelligent’ which was so effectively established by Hollywood in the 50s. This was further problematic to how women should compose themselves for, by extension, society continued to believe, or at least buy into the belief, that the slower-witted a girl was the more desirable she was. The danger of self-fashioning and performing a role outlined by, most presumably, a man (although women were complicit) thus reveals itself. Just like any performance, a costume is required. What may this costume look-like? Perhaps, blonde coloured hair.
All of this is not to say that women who dye their hair blonde today are buying into patriarchal or misogynistic social attitudes that under-pinned the 50s, 60s, 70s (and so on). Not at all. Yet, it is interesting to unpick how much history one beauty trend or aesthetic bears. If we were to view ‘blonde hair’ as a tool used to manipulate and distort perceptions about women and female beauty, something that is seemingly trivial becomes tainted and perhaps grotesque. I would stress that I am not suggesting that being blonde is grotesque (or that blondes are vulgar!), but rather how the history of prejudice in the world of beauty is problematic.
To explore this further, let us look at Rap’s Queen Bitch Lil’ Kim, American rapper of the late-nineties and noughties. Lil’ Kim made a name for herself partly due to her unapologetic looks and style to match her unapologetic lyrics. Despite her constant transformations, one look re-emerged throughout the 90s and 00s and remained a bit of a constant as Kim entered the new millennium: the Barbie-like look. Like many other black rappers and singers, Kim emulated the Barbie-like aesthetic. Kim refers to herself in her song The Jump off (2003) as a ‘black barbie dressed in Bulgari/ I’m trying to leave in somebody’s Ferrari’. Whilst Kim and her peers may be ‘affirm[ing] black female beauty’, as historian Tricia Rose stated, by reclaiming the racist beauty standards imposed by Barbie, in using the term ‘barbie’ itself the concepts encapsulated within the term are upheld to some extent. People, such as fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz, have commented on the problematic nature of Lil’ Kim’s ‘shape-shifter image as a black girl/ white girl’ because she is ‘not only dressing up to be a woman, but she’s dressing up to be a white woman, with that blonde wig’. Leibovitz’s point seems to align with comments that challenge Kim’s status as ‘Black Barbie’ and remark that her blonde hair and blue-eyed look resembles more of a ‘pseudo-white Barbie’.
On the one hand, there is something arguably empowering in the way Lil’ Kim proves that black women can, if they so wish, include themselves within these exclusive white beauty trends. Perhaps, Kim’s intention was to disillusion the fact that ‘being blonde’ was “for white women”. However, it is difficult to assess how subversive Kim’s intentions were when in 2016 debate arose about Kim’s potential skin bleaching in response to an Instagram post she made. The post depicted Kim with lighter skin, blonde hair, blue eyes and a thinner nose. Photographer Patience Zalanga referred to these terms as ‘the Hollywood standard of beauty’. In response to the debates the post triggered, Zalanga said ‘as a little girl, I was also one of the black kids that wanted to have lighter skin, so the transformation of Lil’ Kim is really just — it’s extreme. But it’s not a phenomenon’ (2016). Zalanga continued ‘black women and women of colour are always aspiring to get as close to white as possible to fit within those beauty standards’. Perhaps for Kim it was not a question of dressing up to be a white woman but a beautiful one. It seems that for Kim, and for many Black women and women of colour, the term ‘beautiful’ didn’t include them and so it is no wonder that they felt they must emulate these standards of desirability or ‘the Hollywood standards of beauty’. Even though since 2016 and over the pandemic more recently, attitudes towards and awareness of racism have improved drastically, there is still a great deal more work to be done in the media industries to ensure that girls of colour do not go through their most formative years as women desiring to transform into the idealised ‘beautiful blonde’, a stereotype which by now should be out-dated.