Brunettes Have it Better

A born-blonde reflects on 'The Blonde Mystique.'

By Shannon Rupp 16 Nov 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read previous column by Shannon Rupp.

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Blondedom: State of mind?

As any woman born blonde will tell you, golden tresses guarantee a lifetime of weird encounters. Certainly, with men who have bought into the myth about the sexual allure and availability of blondes. Just consider Mae West's quip, "A hard man is good to find," or Lauren Bacall's famous catchphrase in To Have and Have Not, in which she tells Humphrey Bogart that if he wants her he should "just whistle."

"You know how to whistle don't you?" she asks, confronting him with what became know as The Look. "You just put your lips together and blow."

That kind of blonde promotion is just a curse for anyone who lives outside of celluloid.

Then there are the teachers and employers who suspect blondes are dimwits. Other women may view them with hostility as strong competitors for the (dubious) favours of men in general, or as predators eyeing their man in particular.

Blondedom isn't the party everyone thinks, and I've long waited for someone to discuss it. So I was disappointed by W channel's documentary The Blonde Mystique (which airs Sunday evening) because it didn't get much beyond the Clairol question of whether blondes have more fun -- meaning more attention, or more men. (And I'm here to tell you that "men" and "attention" don't necessarily add up to fun.)

We're treated to a few facts about the centuries-old lure of blondes. For example, Canadian anthropologist Peter Frost published a 2006 study in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour that showed that blondes ruled even in the Ice Age. How else to explain the prevalence of bright hair and blue eyes in northern European tribes, except by the preference a relatively small pool of men showed for blonde mates?

But our young women investigators -- one blonde and two brunettes -- spend most of the showing bringing stereotypes to life. There's the broken-down car at the side of the road test in which a hidden camera records the blonde actress attracting four times as many men to her rescue as her brunette sisters. Then again, men practically queue to ask blondie if she remembered to fill the gas tank -- a question no one puts to the women with brainier tresses.

In the bar, the blonde has much the same affect on men as a Venus flytrap on insects, while the two brunettes (who are both prettier) get a fraction of the free drinks. But here too there's evidence of the dark side of light hair. While blondie enjoys free flowing booze, she also earns the crude comments and clumsy mauling that brunettes are spared.

Is that because men assume brunettes are the only ones with self-defence training? A risky assumption, I'd say, and I was wishing someone would ask that masher what the hell he was thinking.

Dumb assumptions

What is it about flaxen locks that implies blondes are an easy mark? That's what the faired haired really want to know.

Why are only blonde women assumed to be dumb? If blonde is the ne plus ultra of femininity, and masculinity is defined as dark, then why haven't men been combing soot-based concoctions into their hair for centuries? And why is that the icon of feminine beauty is also the image of stupidity? Is it because smart women are less feminine?

But our trio doesn't dwell on any unpleasantness, they're all about the mystical power of blonde. Of course, glossing over the hazards is part of the myth of blonde supremacy. Everyone remembers the bombshell of bombshells, Marilyn Monroe, and her signature film, Gentleman Prefer Blondes. They conveniently forget that the film was inspired by an Anita Loos story, and the rest of the saying is "...but they marry brunettes."

Blondes are obviously perceived as playthings rather than people -- several men our trio chats up claim fair-haired girls are "more fun" and I don't think they were referring to their wit. One also comments that they're "more approachable." Whoa! What makes him think that? I want to hear more of his musings. Alas, our guides are less reporters than they are walking mike stands. Apparently blonde is a state of mind as much as a hair colour.

And therein lies the problem with this doc -- or maybe that's its appeal? -- it's written for bottle blondes. For the record, it's the peroxide queens who give blondes a bad name, and they're a hefty audience -- hair dye companies say blonde shades sell 5-1.

How do I know they inspired the belief that there's a connection between the brightness of a woman's hair and the dimness of her intellect? Because you'd have to be a fool to volunteer for all the unwelcome attention, patronizing, and downright harassment that comes with a head of hair that is actually telling the world that you come from a long line of Celtic warriors whose ancestors were the models for Valkyries. Yeah, and some blondes still have the ancestral broadsword, boyo...

But I digress.

Roman goddesses

The documentary includes sound bites of the occasional academic theorizing about Rapunzel, Goldilocks, Aphrodite and all the other fair-haired babes. Historians tell us that blonde has long been the hooker's halo, and that call girls in ancient Rome dyed their hair to compete with the Nordic spoils of war their husbands brought back to populate the brothels. The Virgin Mary was depicted as a chaste brunette in art, until the 14th century when the relentless spread of Christianity into Europe began equating light skin and hair with superiority and virtue.

Evolutionary biology contributes the idea that since pale hair is common in children, it's perceived as a sign of youth and therefore fertility in grown women. Then there's the simple explanation: sunny locks make a woman more noticeable.

Maybe. But then, why aren't red heads the ones with all the mystique since their hair is far more noticeable than blondes? And given how rare a natural redhead is, you'd think there might be some cachet in catching one. But I've never heard some wag commenting about a Titian-haired girlfriend the way he would about a blonde mate, with the line "...and she's a real redhead, too." The quip is always accompanied with some variation on a nudge-and-a-wink that invites a retort of equal wit. Perhaps with a broadsword?

No, this doc is a frothy romp that reinforces the notion that blondes do have more fun. Well, for most of the show. Our trio decides to swap hair colours and run all their tests again, with some predictable results -- the blondes still get all the attention. Only the girls don't enjoy it as much as they (or other non-blondes) might expect. One former brunette admits that she felt she had to keep proving herself to people because they assumed she was dumb.

Much hairdo about nothing

In the end, no one wants to part with her raven hair, even the natural blonde who is going to need upkeep on those fair roots. Turns out these three aren't psychological blondes after all, just actors who know how to pull the biggest audience. And their conclusion is n eye-opener for any dusky-haired woman who has envied a golden girl.

So the audience that really needs to see this doc is hairdressers. Especially the woman who has cut my hair for more than decade and watched my luminous locks mellow into a caramel colour that is much less of a nuisance. Recently, she decided it was time to return it to its original shade, and couldn't understand why I balked.

"I thought everyone wanted to be blonde?" she asked, perplexed.

Nooooo. Genetics thrust it upon me. And as the filmmakers found, once you've achieved the hair colour of credibility, you shouldn't mess with it. Although it wasn't the film's intention, The Blonde Mystique ends up showing us why it's so much better to be a brunette.

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