The Myth Of The Dumb Blonde

Is the "dumb blonde" stereotype more dye-ist than color-ist?

The Explainer takes on the "Dumb Blonde" stereotype and find that it predates the acquisitive Lorelei Lee by some decades: that the stereotype was rooted in the British music hall. But Juliet Lapidos makes another claim that's at least as persuasive:

It's possible to find traces of the dumb-blonde concept in the ancient world. Just like modern gentlemen, Romans valued blondness-they would dye their hair using goat's fat mixed with beechwood ashes or vinegar concoctions or saffron. But as Pitman has noted, earnest types associated hair-dying with vanity and lack of gravitas. The poet Propertius, for example, wrote: "All beauty is best as nature made it … . In hell below may many an ill befall that girl who stupidly dyes her hair with a false color!" So while he didn't connect blondness with idiocy exactly, he implied that women who wish to be blondes, and contrive to be blondes using artificial means, don't have much going on.As for why the dumb-blonde idea resonates-one idea is that it's basically Propertius' logic at work. It's a fairly well-known fact that few adults are naturally blond, and that many apparent blondes actually dye their hair. If you dye your hair you must be superficial or vapid, Q.E.D. There's also a theory, outlined in The Encyclopedia of Hair, that blondness connotes youth, since children are far more likely than adults to have naturally blond hair. Blondness, then, seems innocent but also naïve.

We know why people want to be blonde: it's rare in nature and, as the author mentions, it connotes youth. But it's interesting to think that "vanity" should be conflated over time with "stupidity." (This conflict between natural and dyed blonds is far from resolved.) Nowadays, blonde hair doesn't just mean vanity — a good dye-job and its upkeep is expensive, and that shows. As such, it's frequently poof positive of a certain kind of prosperity. Again, a far cry from "dumb," but the stereotypes persist!

Some of this might be a chicken-and-egg effect. Writes Lapidos,

For a 1999 study, researchers at the University of Coventry asked 60 men and 60 women to look at the same model wearing four different wigs-one platinum, one natural blond, one brown, and one red. Both men and women (but men more than women) rated the platinum blonde as less intelligent than the others, and described the natural blonde as "popular." A German study conducted in 2004 showed that blondes completed lab tests more slowly after reading blond jokes. (This is a well-known effect called the "stereotype threat.")

It's interesting that "blonde" is still considered the de facto code for "attractive," even as — despite Dolly Parton's reclamation — dumb stereotypes persist. Makes you think.

When Did Blondes Get So Dumb? [Slate]