Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Blonde Mystique

I have always had a strong preference for blondes. That is not to say that I don't like brunettes (although I never have cared for red hair), but my feminine ideal has always been blonde. It seems that I am not alone in this. Throughout history it seems that blondes have been considered desirable, even in northern Europe where they weren't exactly uncommon.

Indeed, the fascination with blondes seems to go back to ancient times. In ancient Greece, the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, was thought of as being a blonde. In 350 BCE when the sculptor Praxiteles created his famous statue of Aphrodite, he concieved her as being blonde. In The Iliad Homer described Aphrodite as "golden." Strangely enough, among the ancient Greeks, among whom brunettes were much, much more common than blondes, the love goddess was a blonde. When the ancient Romans (who were also predominantly brunettes) came to identify Venus (originally a goddess of grace and the beauty of nature as ordered by man, as in gardens) with Aphrodite, she too became a blonde.

Curiously, in ancient Rome, blonde hair was identified with prostitutes. This seems to have changed once Rome came in contact with the Germanic peoples. Noticing the fair hair of Germanic women, Roman noblewomen started dyeing their hair with such things as quicklime and dyes made from saffron flowers. With the coming of Christianity, blonde hair became somewhat frowned upon, at the very least dyeing one's hair did. Both 2nd century CE theologians Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian condemned the practice of dyeing one's hair blonde and even wearing blonde wigs. Venus, by then firmly established as being blonde, was now seen as a symbol of temptation, promiscuity, and impurity.

The idea of blonde hair as a symbol of temptation, promiscuity, and wanton lust persisted well into the Middle Ages. Eve, who according to the Torah tempted Adam with fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was increasingly depicted as a blonde in 14th and 15th century paintings. Mary Magdalene, conceived of as having been a prostitute or, at the very least, a woman of very low morals, was also often depicted as a blonde. Curiously, in the Middle Ages, there does seem to have been a bit of conflict in views about blonde hair. While Venus, Eve, and Mary Magdalene were all seen as blondes, so too was the Virgin Mary! Of course, the Virign Mary was seen as being entirely "pure" and entirely lacking any sort of sexual desire. If it seems odd that the Virgin Mary should be seen as blonde at a time when the hair colour was identified with "sin," it must be considered that this conception originated with a woman who may well have been blonde herself. The 14th century, Swedish nun Bridget (later to become St. Bridget) constantly praised Mary's blonde hair in the hymns she composed. Ironically, it is highly unlikely that either Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary were blonde. Like most Jewish women of their time, they were probably brunettes! At any rate, the various Arthurian romances of the era are filled with blondes, where they are considered the feminine ideal of beauty rather than vile temptresses.

It is perhaps because of the view of the Virgin Mary as being blonde that the image of blonde hair was somewhat redeemed during the Renaissance. The number of blondes appearing in Renaissance paintings is extremely large. This is even the case with paintings coming from Italy, Spain, and other parts of the Mediterranean, where brunettes are much more common. Both Boticelli and Titian painted more than their fair share of blondes. For the next several centuries blonde hair would go in and out of fashion. And it was during this time that the images of blondes began to vary considerably. The Medieval idea of blondes as corrupt temptresses persisted, but other images emerged as well. In fairy tales the heroines were often depicted as blonde. This is most obviously the case with Goldilocks, but even Cinderella and Rapunzel were often depicted as blonde as well. In Victorian England, among other things blonde hair came to sybmolise innocence and often youth. Lewis Carroll's model for Alice in his books Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell, was a brunette, but when Lewis created his Alice, he portrayed her as a blonde. At the same time that blondes could be seen as innocent, however, they could also be seen as evil, conniving, and seductive. Many of the romances written for young women in the 19th century featured a virtuous brunette who faced an evil conniving blonde.

Society's fascination with blondes continued into the 20th century. Silent screen stars Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson were both blondes. In the early Thirties the sex symbol of the day was Jean Harlow, often dubbed "the Platinum Blonde (although I don't think it was her natural hair colour....)." As beautiful as Harlow was considered by many, I always preferred Thelma Todd myself. Dubbed the "Ice Cream Blonde," she was a comedic actress who appeared with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Harry Langdon. She even had her own series of comedy shorts which paried her with comedy legend Zazu Pitts. I've always thought she was easily one of the most beautiful actresses of the Thirties. Sadly, she was murdered in 1935 (her murder has never been solved). The characters Todd played on screen were intelligent, witty, and vivacious.

In the movies of the Thirties and Forties there were a wide variety of blondes. The Medieval view of the blonde as a seductive temptress persisted and could still be found in many movies of the day, particularly in the crime dramas and film noir of the day. The intelligent, wise cracking, and witty blonde was a staple of many screwball comedies. And, of course, there were the romantic, blonde leading ladies, such as Ingrid Bergman. Indeed, it is to be noted that many of the most famous actresses of the day were blonde. Mae West portrayed characters who were both intelligent and a bit shady. Marlene Dietrich was the seductress, although not always wicked. Doris Day portrayed characters who were intelligent and independent, yet very wholesome. Betty Grable's characters tended to be squeaky clean.

The one thing that was relatively rare in the movies of the Thirties and the Forties was the image of the "dumb blonde" so common today. Indeed, I am not absolutely sure where or when this image emerged, but it seems to have been relatively rare before the 1950s. I suppose some might lay the blame for the popularity of the "dumb blonde" at the feet of the most famous blonde of them all, Marilyn Monroe. I am not sure that this is entirely the case. It seems to me that many of the characters Marilyn played (such as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot) were dingy and almost always vulnerable, but they were very rarely outright stupid. I think the blame may instead be placed with the plethora of Marilyn Monroe imitators that arose in her wake, in particular Jane Mansfield. The characters she most often played could quite appropriately, if undiplomatically, be called stupid. Of course, the upshot of all this is that Marilyn Monroe's natural hair colour was not blonde, but light brown. I don't beleive Jane Mansfield was a real blonde either.

At any rate, perhaps due to the success of Marilyn Monroe and later Bridget Bardot, blonde hair became very popular in the Fifties and the Sixties. Of course, part of this may be due to the advertising savvy of Shirley Polykoff, an ad woman who coined the classic slogan "Is it true blondes have more fun?" for Clairol. Supposedly this ad campaign caused a 413% jump in the number of women who dyed their hair blonde. Here I should point out that I have never cared for artifically created blonde hair. I have always thought that, with a few exceptions, people look best with their natural hair colour. Too often dyed blonde hair looks exactly like that--dyed blonde hair. Even worse, many women do not insure that their eyebrows match their hair colour; I've always thought the sight of women with bleach blonde hair and coal black eyebrows to be a bit creepy. Indeed, while this gentleman prefers blondes, I would like to speak up in defence of brunettes everywhere and say that dark hair is often very beautiful. Why dye black or brown hair if it is already quite lovely?

Anyhow, despite the fact that throughout the ages society seems to have been obsessed with blondes and despite the title of Anita Loos' 1925 novel and the classic Howard Hawks film based on it, I am not quite sure that gentlemen do always prefer blondes. It seems to me that many of my friends do prefer brunettes. I even know a few who prefer redheads. Indeed, in the Eighties Samuel Juni and Michelle M. Roth conducted a study on the influence of hair colour in getting help from strangers (later published in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality volume 13). Two women and two men each elicited help from various passersby. Half the time they appeared as blondes, the other half they appeared as brunettes. While women seemed to help everyone equally and men were more prone to help women than men, at no point did hair colour seem to make a difference! I am pondering if the idea that blondes are intrinsically more desirable than brunettes or redheads is simply a misconception passed down through the ages. Indeed, while there are many famous blonde actresses, there are also many famous brunette actresses too (indeed, Ava Gardner is often counted as the most beautiful movie star of all time).

As to my own preference for blondes, I have no idea how it got started. I think it may have been due to the television shows I watched as a child. Elizabeth Montgomery (Samantha on Bewitched), Barbara Eden (not a natural blonde, athough she was blonde on I Dream of Jeannie), Donna Douglas (Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies), and Doris Day (both in her movies and on her TV show) were all blonde. Never mind that two of my biggest childhood crushes, Diana Rigg (the exquisite Mrs. Peel on The Avengers) and Dawn Wells (Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island) were brunettes, there were enough blondes on TV in the Sixties to skew my preferences in hair colour.

Regardless of my own preferences and regardless of what the majority of men might actually prefer, it seems to me that society has been fascinated by blondes for literally centuries. I don't know if this will necessarily change in the future or not, although I am pretty sure that there will always be gentlemen who prefer blondes (and, of course, as Anita Loos said, blondes who prefer gentlemen...).


Dominga Nance said...

You right really well. To just sit up here and right a whole essay on blondes is...interesting. But I liked it nonetheless. Even though I am black, I kind of got the facination that comes with a blonde. Weird huh?!


PS--Can you please tell me how you got the google ads on your site because I just cannot seem to get them on mine. I just know that I am doing something wrong, but I don't know what.

Mercurie said...

Thanks for the comments. When I really think about it, given the diversity of hair and skin colours, it is kind of strange that blonde hair should be so valued, even in Northern Europe and its colonies, where it's not uncommon. (-:

As to the Google Ads, on a Blogger account (I don't know about other web sites), you have to put it in the head of the template (the area between the < head > and < /head > tags.)

DrPat said...

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As a non-blond, I have to admit I'm also puzzled by the cachet given to blondes over the centuries. Thanks for helping us all understand!