Q: When did the stereotype of “dumb blonde” start?
A: I recently asked a friend a question and, when she could not answer immediately, her response was “Sorry, I’m having a blonde moment.” Whoa – what did she mean by that? I wasn’t necessarily personally offended as I’m not a blonde (at least not this year). But why are blondes considered dumber than their darker-haired peers?
One theory is that the ancient Greeks and Romans admired their flaxen-haired neighbors to the north and would bleach their hair to make it blonde. As they didn’t exactly have the health standards we have today, a considerable amount of bleach repeatedly placed on the scalp and inhaled could have had some effect on their intellectual status.
Another explanation dates back to medieval Europe when members of the upper class tended to be have darker hair than the peasantry. This may have been because the lower classes spent more time working outdoors in the fields and their hair was lightened by the sun. Since peasants were often considered less intelligent than the upper class, and certainly were less educated, an association between fair-haired persons and a lack of intelligence surfaced.
In more recent history, blonde hair has been considered attractive in various European cultures, particularly when coupled with blue eyes. At the same time, people tend to presume that blondes are less serious-minded and less intelligent, resulting in numerous “dumb 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, satirized 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).
The 1925 Anita Loos novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, which explored the appeal of blonde women, was made into a hit film in 1953 starring Marilyn Monroe as a blonde who seemingly relied on her looks rather than intelligence. Numerous actresses of the 20th century have played “dumb blonde” characters, including Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield, Suzanne Somers, and Goldie Hawn. Of course, these roles have only further brought the stereotype into the limelight.
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 has said she was not offended by “all the dumb-blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. I’m also not blonde.”
In The Simpsons’ season 21, episode 20 “To Surveil With Love,” Lisa faced prejudice from her brunette peers because of her blonde hair at a debate meeting. Refusing to give up, she intentionally dyed her hair dark brown in order to disprove the stereotype.
Some evidence suggests that men might be responsible for this common stereotype. According to a study conducted by the British Psychological Society, male and female participants rated female models for traits such as intelligence and popularity. The platinum blonde was rated as popular by both male and female participants, but as less intelligent by male raters only.
With the notoriety this stereotype has garnered, serious concerns arise regarding its possible implications. Certainly, and no matter what the origin, the dumb blonde stereotype makes it harder for blondes who must work against its often negative effects. As with most stereotypes, it’s just unfair. And perhaps it’s simply the result of jealous brunettes (don’t blame me – I’m a redhead this year) with too much time on their hands who sit around making jokes about their rivals.