They're called dumb, materialistic sexual predators - but millions are dyeing to join them

January 10, 2003

Blonde women have been stereotyped for decades - centuries even - but their numbers have been rising, says Faye Hammill.

"Roger said he had gone to a cocktail party and, when he walked in, there were seven single women in their mid to late thirties, all Upper East Side blond, wearing black cocktail dresses. 'You know that there's nothing you can say that's wrong,' Roger said. 'For women, it's desperation combined with reaching their sexual peak. You see that look in their eyes - possession at any cost mixed with a healthy respect for cash flow. When a man sees that look in their eyes - how can you feel passionate?'"

Is this the definition of the modern blonde: glamorous, experienced, materialistic - and slightly desperate? It is a passage from Candace Bushnell's novel Sex and the City , the inspiration for the successful TV show, which has just begun its fourth series in the UK. Bushnell's second novel, 4Blondes , juxtaposes four versions of the blonde material girl, ranging from Janie, a faintly idiotic B-list model who sleeps only with men able to accommodate her in luxury villas in the Hamptons, to Cecilia, a fragile, insecure Cinderella who escapes her impoverished background through marriage to a prince.

More than one reviewer has compared Bushnell to Anita Loos, author of the 1925 bestseller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . There are some obvious connections - both focus on the mating rituals of fashionable New York society, privilege female friendship over heterosexual relationships and use blondeness to signify sexual availability and vulnerability or naivete. Yet there is a key difference. Bushnell's characters genuinely are both sexually available and vulnerable. As a result, they are continually exploited, and disappointed, by men.

By contrast, Loos' heroine and narrator, Lorelei Lee, does all the exploiting herself. She induces her male friends to finance her luxurious lifestyle but avoids compromising her marital prospects. The dual meaning of blondeness is the basis of her success: she manipulates men by withholding the sexual favours she seems to promise, using her pose of child-like innocence to disarm her admirers and protect her reputation. "So I told Mr Spoffard that when I left Little Rock I thought that all of the gentlemen did not want to do anything but protect we girls and by the time I found out that they did not want to protect us so much, it was too late. So then he cried quite a lot," she says.

Lorelei may be a better strategist than the women in Sex and the City and 4Blondes , but she is far less intelligent. She is the original dumb blonde: an ignorant, uncultured, semiliterate gold-digger, much inferior to her witty brunette friend Dorothy. Lorelei writes of her trip to Paris: "When we stood at the corner of a place called the Place Vandome, if you turn your back on a monument they have in the middle and look up, you can see none other than Coty's sign. So I said to Dorothy, does it not really give you a thrill to realise that that is the historical spot where Mr Coty makes all the perfume? So then Dorothy said that she supposed Mr Coty came to Paris and he smelled Paris and he realised that something had to be done."

Lorelei literally turns her back on the "monuments" of culture to admire the icons of consumerism and luxury, and this definition of the blonde as brainless and materialistic quickly became entrenched as a stereotype.

Loos invented the dumb blonde, but some of the other cultural meanings of blondeness were established many centuries before her novel appeared. The link with sexual availability existed in Roman times, when prostitutes dyed their hair yellow or wore wigs, while the perception of fair women as especially attractive dates back just as far. In From the Beast to the Blonde , Marina Warner points out a connection with " blandus ", Latin for "charming", and traces the association between fair hair and beauty back to Homer. The very word "fair", which means both "light" and "beautiful", implies the ancient hierarchy of blonde over dark in judgements of female desirability. Warner also identifies medieval and Renaissance uses of the term "blonde" to suggest youthfulness and sweetness, and, in innumerable religious paintings, the golden hair beneath the golden halos of the Virgin and Child symbolises virtue.

In the late 18th century, John Caspar Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy lent scientific authority to the judgement of character by physical appearance, associating weakness and tenderness with fair hair and the opposite qualities with dark. The influence of his ideas can be discerned in many 19th-century texts: fair and dark heroines are contrasted in Madame de Staël's Corinne , Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White , James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and almost all of Walter Scott's novels. The fate of the blonde is happy, that of the brunette tragic - or at least unfulfilled. In Victorian novels, outward fairness is deceptive as an indicator of personality. Ginevra Fanshawe in Charlotte Brontë's Villette is a prototypical blonde coquette, and Rosamund Vincy in George Eliot's Middlemarch manipulates the traditional associations of pale hair to her advantage. She deliberately arouses in Dr Lydgate a desire to protect her, which leads to a proposal of marriage.

After platinum bleach became commercially available following the first world war, it was no longer possible to tell who was really blonde, let alone which blondes were really innocent. Initially, only the most daring flappers dyed their hair, and this started a link between bottle-blondeness and frank sexuality that was consolidated in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s, the blonde became the preferred type for the Hollywood film star.

In 1953, Loos wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine titled "History of the Preferred Blonde". The 1920s blonde, Loos points out, was discreet and sexually reticent, yet could rely on her male admirers to pay all her expenses. The 1950s blonde, by contrast, had to earn her living "by the more arduous method of posing for Vogue (in clothes) or being a showgirl (without)".

Accordingly, in the 1953 film of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , scripted by Loos, Lorelei was transformed. The demurely dressed, flat-chested, girlish flapper of the novel and the 1928 film, who referred to her gentlemen friends by nicknames such as "Daddy" or "Piggie", disappeared along with the 1920s setting. She was replaced by a post-war fantasy of femininity: a curvaceous, scantily clad, aggressively sexual showgirl, played by the ultimate blonde star, Marilyn Monroe. It is 50 years since that film was released, and the cultural meanings of blondeness that it encapsulates are still with us. The connotation of stupidity is evident in the revival of "dumb blonde" jokes, the contemporary habit of reprimanding instances of female idiocy with phrases such as "you're so blonde!", and the continuing tendency to cast fair actresses as brainless characters in films (a prime example being Alicia Silverstone in Clueless ).

Blondeness is also still linked to sex appeal: a vast proportion of female models, singers and film stars are blonde, just as they were in the 1950s. The replacement of Marilyn by Madonna betokens a certain continuity, emphasised in the Material Girl video, which refers to the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes film. The perceived connection between bottle-blonde hair and promiscuity has likewise persisted. Although Sex and the City can be understood as a challenge to traditional ideas about sexually active women, it is noticeable that the most sexually predatory of the protagonists (Samantha) is played in the TV series by the blondest actress (Kim Cattrall).

The only big change since 1953 is that there are now far more blondes. This is partly because the use of hair colour has become socially acceptable: until the 1960s, hair dyeing was done largely in secret as it was seen as something that only "fast" women would indulge in. Today, it is estimated that 40 per cent of US women use artificial methods to make their hair blonder.

Lorelei Lee once remarked: "Gentlemen always seem to remember blondes" - but that was at a time when blondes were rarer creatures.

Faye Hammill is a lecturer in English at Cardiff University.

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