Stereotypes of blondes
There are several aspects to the stereotypical perception of blond-haired women. On one hand, over history, blond hair in women has been considered attractive and desirable. On the other hand, a blond woman is often perceived as making little use of intelligence and as a "woman who relie[s] on her looks rather than on intelligence." The latter stereotype of "dumb blonde" is exploited in blonde jokes.
Background and typology
Blond hair has been considered attractive for long periods of time in various European cultures, particularly when coupled with blue eyes. This perception is exploited in culture and advertising.
At the same time, people tend to presume that blondes are less serious-minded and less intelligent than brunettes, as reflected in "blonde jokes."  The roots of this notion may be traced to Europe, with the "dumb blonde" in question being a French courtesan named Rosalie Duthe, satirised in a 1775 play Les curiosites de la Foire for her habit of pausing a long time before speaking, appearing not only stupid but literally dumb (in the sense of mute).
Annette Kuhn divides blonde stereotypes in cinema into three categories in The Women's Companion to International Film:
- The ice-cold blonde: Kuhn defined it as "a blonde who hides a fire beneath an exterior of coldness". She provided Grace Kelly, Veronica Lake, Kim Novak, Mae Murray, and Eva Marie Saint as examples.
- The blonde bombshell: Kuhn defined it as "a blonde with explosive sexuality and is available to men at a price". She provided Brigitte Bardot, Lana Turner, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Mae West, Barbara Eden, Marilyn Monroe, and Diana Dors as examples.
- The dumb blonde: Kuhn defined it as "a blonde with an overt and natural sexuality and a profound manifestation of ignorance". She provided Jayne Mansfield, Marion Davies, Alice White, Marie Wilson, and Mamie Van Doren as examples.
The blond bombshell is also one of the most notable and consistently popular female character types in cinema. Many showbiz stars have used it to their advantage, including Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Mamie Van Doren. A review of English language tabloids from the United Kingdom has shown it to be recurring blond stereotype, along with "busty blonde" and "blond babe".
Jean Harlow started the stereotype with her film Bombshell. Following her, Monroe, Mansfield and Van Doren helped establish the stereotype typified by a combination of curvaceous physique, very light-colored hair and a perceived lack of intelligence. In 1993, Sharon Stone hosted a documentary about Jean Harlow, Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell.
In cognitive linguistics, the stereotype uses expressivity of words to affect an emotional response which determines a gender role of a certain kind. In feminist critique, stereotypes like the blonde bombshell or the "dumb blonde" are seen as negative images that undermine the power of women.
The notion of "dumb blonde" has been a topic of academic research reported in scholarly articles and university symposia, which tend to confirm that many people hold to the perception that light-haired women are less intelligent than women with dark hair. There is no evidence to support this perception, which raises the question of its origin.
A possible explanation is that attractive women have less pressing incentives to cultivate and demonstrate their intellect in order to ensure their future, since attractiveness is an asset as well. The validity of this explanation is corroborated by its applicability to a similar pervasiveness of the "dumb athlete" stereotype. The dumb blonde stereotype (and the associated cognitive bias) may have some negative consequences and it can also damage a blond person's career prospects.
According to psychological research, hair color is a relevant trait in the perception of an individual’s intelligence and overall ability. In a study by Kyle and Mahler (1996), the researchers asked subjects to evaluate photographs of the same woman with brown, red, and blond hair in the context of a job application. After making sure that the hair color in all three conditions was rated as looking “natural” (not dyed) in a pilot study, participants in Kyle and Mahler’s study, both males and females, were asked to rate the applicant’s capability based on the photograph for an accounting position.
The researchers found that the blond-haired applicant was rated as significantly less capable than her brunette doppelganger. In addition, participants designated the female applicant’s starting salary as significantly lower when she was depicted as a blonde than when she was shown with brown hair.
Although associated with females, the application of the dumb blonde stereotype can be applied to men as well. A study that looked at the CEOs of the London Financial Times Stock Exchange’s (FTSE) top 500 companies investigated how hair color could be a potential barrier to professional success. Because it has been shown that blond hair is associated with incompetency, it was hypothesized that there would be fewer blond CEOs among this group – a group of individuals that is viewed as extremely competent – than was representative of the general population. According to the CIA Fact Book at the time of the study, the distribution of individuals who have naturally blond hair in the UK is approximately 25%, while the study found that only 25 (5%) of the 500 CEOs were blond. Furthermore, only two (0.4%) of these CEOs were women, neither of whom happened to have blond hair.
The question that remains, then, is why is it that blondes are generally rated as less competent than those who have other hair colors? One theory focuses on the feminization of blond hair, which can be seen by the overwhelming association of the dumb blond persona with females. This idea draws on the stereotype that females have a lower psychometric intelligence than males.
In fact, dumb blonde jokes are overwhelmingly female-specific: according to an extensive search in various publications and on the Internet, about 63% of dumb blonde jokes are directed exclusively at females (compared to less than 5% that directly referenced dumb blond men). Consequently, blonde-haired individuals – regardless of if they are male or female – may be viewed as less capable because they are regarded as more feminine and thus less intelligent.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (a comic novel, a Broadway musical, and two films) explores the appeal of blond women. The film starred Marilyn Monroe as the blonde and Jane Russell as her wise brunette friend. The Encyclopedia of Hair describes Monroe's role as that of "a fragile woman who relied on her looks rather than on intelligence—what some people refer to as 'dumb blond'." At the same time, in the film she demonstrates a certain amount of wit regarding her life position expressed in her hit "Diamonds are a girl's best friend". And when her fiancé's father (who initially disliked her but eventually was won over) asked her why she pretends to be dumb, she answers that men prefer her this way.
Many blond actresses have played stereotypical "dumb blondes", including Judy Holliday, Jayne Mansfield, Carol Wayne and Goldie Hawn, best known as the giggling "dumb blonde", stumbling over her lines, especially when she introduced Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In "News of the Future". In the American sitcom Three's Company the blond girl (originally Chrissy played by Suzanne Somers, and later Cindy and Terri) is sweet and naïve, while the brunette (Janet played by Joyce DeWitt) is smart. In Mexico, Aida Pierce and, later, Sheyla Tadeo, were often cast as "dumb blonde" characters on television and film; these included Pierce's nurse characterization, and Tadeo's Zoila Delgadillo (in Cero en conducta) and Nachita, the housekeeper (in La Juala).
At the same time, there are many examples where the stereotype is exploited only to combat it. The film Legally Blonde starring Reese Witherspoon featured the stereotype as a centerpiece of its plot. However the protagonist turns out to be very intelligent and is shown to have been underachieving due to society's low expectations of her. Country music entertainer Dolly Parton, aware of this occasional characterization of her, addressed it in her 1967 hit "Dumb Blonde". Parton's lyrics challenged the stereotype, stating "just because I'm blond, don't think I'm dumb 'cause this dumb blonde ain't nobody's fool". Parton has said she was not offended by "all the dumb-blonde jokes because I know I'm not dumb. I'm also not blonde."
The author of the comic strip Blondie, Chic Young, starting with "Dumb Dora", gradually transformed his subsequent Blondie into a smart, hard-working, family-oriented woman. In the Simpsons' season 21, episode 20 To Surveil With Love, Lisa faced prejudice from her brunette peers because of her blond hair at a debate meeting. Refusing to give up and wanting to prove the stereotype wrong, she intentionally dyed her hair dark brown. In the 1970s and 1980s, actress Loni Anderson portrayed curvy blond character Jennifer Marlowe as an intelligent, eloquent, and sophisticated anti-stereotype on the American sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.
There is a category of jokes called "blonde jokes" that employs the dumb blonde stereotype. It overlaps at times with the jokes that generally portray the subject of the joke as promiscuous and/or stupid.
Blonde jokes have been criticized as sexist by several authors, as most blondes in these jokes are female, although male variations also exist. Research indicates that because of this, men report being amused by blonde jokes significantly more than women do.
Blonde jokes nearly always take the format of the blond(e) placing himself or herself in an unusual situation, performing a silly act because he or she misconstrued the meaning of how an activity is supposed to play out, or making a comment that serves to highlight his or her supposed lack of intelligence, lack of common sense, or cluelessness, or promiscuity.
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