Gentlemen do prefer blondes—at least, that’s been my experience so far. I’ve been a bleached blonde for just over a year now, and I have received more male attention than I ever thought possible. At first, I thought it was all in my imagination. My hair stylist and friends teased me about “blondes having more fun”—maybe it was one of those self-fulfilling prophecies? Frankly, I had expected a certain amount of male attention as a blonde and now I was seeing it everywhere I turned.
I knew that wasn’t the case when I started actually listening to these men who preferred blondes (calling them “gentlemen” would be a stretch). Once, I had my hair in a messy bun and I was wearing glasses—a man asked if I was his “hot secretary” (believe me, I am overqualified for that position). A few times I’ve curled my hair and worn red lipstick—several men have referred to me as ‘Marilyn’. And once, while I waited for the streetcar in a sleeveless shirt, I refused to let a man touch my visible tattoo—he called me a blonde bitch.
In Toronto, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is running a film series: The Blonde in Fifties Hollywood Cinema. As their program note says, “Dumb, dizzy, ditzy, brassy, bimbo, bombshell—Hollywood never resisted a stereotype, and the invention in 1909 of a hair bleaching agent that could turn any tress blonde provided the nascent film factory with a range of glamorous possibilities.”
In The Girl Can’t Help It, Jayne Mansfield is at her most beautiful as a strange combination of sweet, naive, airhead, and voluptuous, comically sensual figure of desire. Her hair is so perfectly blonde white, it almost distracts from her breasts. Almost.
Mansfield’s breasts are a source of constant jokes throughout the film. For those who haven’t seen the film, her has-been agent is charged with making Jayne a star so she won’t embarrass her former mobster boyfriend by being merely a ridiculously attractive nobody. Of course, the former mobster doesn’t trust the formerly successful agent to keep his hands off her, because come on, look at those BOOBS. When the former agent actually talks to Jayne, however, he finds she doesn’t even want to be a star—instead, she is desperate to get married, have babies, and cook elaborate Thanksgiving meals.
Mansfield’s character is what Canadian anthropologist Grant McCracken might consider a combination “bombshell” and “sunny” blonde. In his 1996 book Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self, McCracken isolated six types of blonde archetypes: the bombshell blonde, the sunny blonde, the brassy blonde, the dangerous blonde, the society blonde, and the cool blonde.
The stereotypes that surround blonde haired women are, perhaps, a reflection of the inherent distrust that people feel about blonde haired women. Outside of Northern European territories, blonde hair is uncommon; the genes that lead to light hair are far, far rarer than the genes that lead to dark hair. Even the majority of people who are born blonde don’t keep that colour through adulthood (without the help of dye, of course).
The history of blonde hair is a pendulum that never stops swinging. During the Roman empire, prostitutes were legally required to dye their hair blonde or wear blonde wigs; later it was the colour only afforded by royalty and socialites. Blonde hair has been used in art to signify both original sin (the hair colour of Eve) and later as purity and goodness (the hair colour of Titian’s 16th century beauties). In the 1930s, Jean Harlow’s cover of Life magazine caused sales of peroxide to skyrocket, but when she tragically died at age 26, rumors circulated that it was the toxic effects of the bleach that had killed her. Tellingly, the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is called Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.
I bleached my hair in spring 2011. The expensive and laborious process was, oddly enough, both entirely impulsive and decades in the making. As a child, my hair was dark, thick, coarse, curly, and the apex of everything I hated about my looks. I felt like some sort of stereotypical Jewess in a world full of blonde, shiny, straight-haired WASPs. When I was a teenager, trading one stereotype for another felt like it could be an escape. I was going to write about why I finally made the decision to go blonde “as an adult” but that’s just too hilarious to me; I am hardly an adult, I am just a person of a certain age with too much disposable income, and that was really at the root of my decision. Being blonde was just something new, it was something I had always been curious about, and it just so happened I could afford to add a bleaching service to a hair appointment I had already made.
Many blondes are like me—they made a deliberate choice to be blonde. Sometimes, having blonde hair feels like someone else is speaking for me. I’m not being harassed because my blonde hair is just soOoOoOooO sexy (although, in my biased opinion, it is pretty hot); I think those people have made an assumption that I am a certain type of person because they know I’ve made a decision to have a certain kind of hair colour. Grant McCracken wrote that our culture has turned “blondeness into a beacon” for men. A siren song that my damaged follicles are singing. Maybe they think that there’s a one in six chance I’ll be a blonde they recognize—the icy bitch, the scary seductress, the naive bimbo with a heart and head of gold.
The Senior Programmer at TIFF, James Quandt, aptly points out that the previous decade of film had been dominated by brunette stereotypes—working class girls, heiresses, sultry molls—and that “the Hollywood blonde seemed to embody the retrogressive sexuality of the fifties,” characters that were “the willfully dim-witted, professionally virginal, or extravagantly wanton.” It was “a decade of nuclear panic, Commie paranoia, consumerist abandon, and burgeoning youth rebellion.” In his note, Quandt asks if “the tenor of our own right-wing times and the ubiquity of the blonde suggest some kind of natural concurrence?” Perhaps. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there is a connection between our politics and our vanity.
I do love my blonde hair. Sometimes, when I’m really broke, or my hair feels dry to the touch, I dramatically declare I’m done with the dye. It never lasts. Blonde hair feels right, maybe simply because I chose it. I think I know what other people see when they look at my hair, but really, they’re just broadcasting their own preconceptions about what blonde means to them. The next films in the TIFF series feature movie stars, cowgirls, wives, daughters, mothers, women who are part of oil dynasties, and interior decorators—a collection of very different representations of blonde women. I wonder if it isn’t that the tenor of all the other times that came before us that informs our ideas about hair colour, natural or otherwise, and not the other way around. Archetypes tend to be our way out of navigating a messy socio-cultural-historical bias.
There’s a lot of history to consider when confronted with our own stereotypes about what being a blonde does or doesn’t mean. I can’t control what other people see when they look at my hair. To me, it means autonomy, vanity, and a sense of belonging with women who are simultaneously wildly different and exactly alike me. Virgin, slut, scholar, airhead. Who can resist a stereotype? Allow me to butcher a famous quotation: “we see the blonde as we are.”
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Blonde in Fifties Hollywood Cinema is playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox until August 26, 2012.
text by Haley Mlotek
all images via TIFF