“Why Doesn’t She?” : A Review of Joanna Pitman’s On Blondes – by Michael Sones
If you are interested in the history of beauty, hair color, and hairstyles within the social context of culture then I think you will find Joanna Pitman’s On Blondes a book with all of the compelling fascination of a ‘blonde’ itself. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and concluding with the holy female trinity of Madonna, Princess Diana, and Margaret Thatcher it is an intriguing and knowledgeable study of the history and place of the ‘power of the blonde’ within the ‘symbolic code’ of different Western cultures. It is not ‘scholarly’ or ‘academic’ in that there does not seem to be a systematic theoretical perspective used by Pitman to organise the material she presents but it is well written and entertaining. There is much in it for the academic reader interested in beauty in culture. The topics it covers are so relevant to the overall focus of ‘Beauty Worlds: The Culture of Beauty” that I am going to present the book and its material in some detail and would certainly encourage you to purchase it as a reference work.
Pitman begins by telling the story of how, when she was working in northern Kenya many years ago, she was mistaken for a ‘saint’ because of the colour of her hair which had been bleached thoroughly blonde by the African sun. A warrior had run into the camp in something of a state and wanted “the blonde” to come and attend to his brother who had been bitten by a snake. It was as if he thought her blondeness gave her some sort of mystical healing power. She attended the brother and helped him to a doctor who managed to save him.
Blonde is much more than just another hair color or an alternative to brunette or black. A rich cultural symbolism with both positive and negative connotations has accrued around “blondeness.” It can signal irresistible sexual allure as with Marilyn Monroe, the innocence of childhood as with Shirley Temple, or the controlled femininity of Doris Day and yet ‘blondeness’ also became a symbol of Aryan racist superiority and death in its incarnation as the ideal of the Nazi storm trooper.
About five percent of the northern European population is naturally blonde yet roughly one third of women dye their hair one shade of it or another. Pitman describes how in different epochs, before the various blonde shades of Clairol and L’Oreal lined the shelves, that women went to extraordinary lengths to dye their hair blonde using substances ranging from pigeon dung to horse urine.
Pitman, following the evolutionary psychologists, thinks that one of the key reasons blondeness is attractive is that it is associated with youth. Babies are paler and have lighter, more delicate hair than their parents. However, most children lose their blondeness around puberty. But this means that, on average, pale hair and pale skin help a person to look younger. Pitman thinks that “Blonde hair, although not intrinsically more beautiful than dark, became associated, through these long evolved mechanisms in the male brain, with youthful fertility. It was a kind of visual certificate of reproductive success.” Over thousands of years of human evolutionary history it has gradually become associated with youthful femininity, fertility and beauty.
Her social history begins with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, described by Homer as “golden.” The average Greek man practically worshipped blonde hair and while Greek women were naturally dark-haired those who wanted to be blonde oiled their hair and put saffron dyes, yellow mud, and other coloured powders into it. The blondeness of Aphrodite was copied by both the more common prostitutes and by the heterai who were the cultured and often affluent Greek courtesans. The Greeks also had blonde wigs. However, there were others, such as the comic playwright Menander, who seemed to consider blondes to be home wrecking hussies, “causing the overthrow of houses, the ruin of nuptials, and accusations on the part of children.” Yet others such as Sappho, the lesbian poet, associated golden hair as being free from pollution, ageing and death. Pitman suggests that blondeness has taken on some of some of these associations because of its similarity with the colors of gold and the sun.
As the influence of Greece decreased and that of Rome increased the Romans adopted and adapted many elements of Greek culture, philosophy, science and religion. Aphrodite became known as Venus, the Roman Goddess of love. Pitman points out that cultured Roman men of letters wrote erotic, if not sometimes obscene, poems to their beautiful blonde mistresses who had quite deliberately modeled themselves upon Venus. Judging by some of the excerpts that Pitman quotes the dyes, rinses and unguents that Roman women used to color their hair exacted a fairly high cost as their hair would fall out. However, like the Greeks, the Romans had blonde wigs and theirs were made from the hair of thousands of blonde German men and women taken as slaves by the Romans during their conquest of northern Europe. In the first century after the birth of Jesus Christ teams of professional hairdressers were employed by wealthy Romans to attend to the hair of beauties. After dyeing the hair with mud, powders, and slimes it was piled up on wire frames on top of their heads. Recipes the Romans used for bleaching their hair included mixtures of beech wood ashes, goat’s fat, vinegar, pigeon dung, and saffron.
Beauty does not seem to have been truth and goodness as far as some of the Roman blondes were concerned. Messalina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, used to wear a blonde wig to a brothel where she would work as a prostitute. She was also literally murderous towards her rivals or any man who would not give in to her demands. Another notorious and murderous blonde was Poppaea who was a consort of the mad emperor Nero who wore gold dust and powders in his hair. She persuaded Nero to murder first his mother and then his young wife. He wrote poems about her beauty and her amber hair. When she died, after allegedly being kicked in the stomach by Nero when she was pregnant , he had her body stuffed with Arabian spices.
Other emperors, such as Caligula, Commodus and Hadrian, also thought that life was better as a blonde and wore blonde wigs and false gold beards. Pitman suggests that part of the rising appeal of blondeness was probably due to the increasing numbers of Germans who were becoming assimilated by the Roman Empire not only as slaves but sometime rising to positions of considerable eminence as soldiers and aristocrats. More ordinary Roman women also dyed themselves blonde and wore blonde wigs in order to compete with the blonde slave girls their husbands seemed to find so attractive.
As Christianity and its moral code became more influential some of the early Christian Church leaders, such as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, condemned aspects of Roman life as dissolute and morally disreputable. They had other things to say about women dyeing their hair blonde and wearing blonde wigs: “it is a most sacrilegious thing for spurious hair to shade the head covering the skull with dead locks.Unawares, the poor wretches destroy their own beauty by the introduction of what is spurious.So they dishonour the Creator of men, as if the beauty given by Him were nothing worth.” Venus became “the ultimate demon” to these early Christians and her blondeness became a symbol of impurity, promiscuity, corruption, and damnation.
In the Middle Ages clerics had a great fear of women and female sexuality which was particularly symbolised by flowing blonde hair. The sight of golden locks could arouse desire and so veils and head coverings were to be worn by decent married women. Across Europe it was common for women to be denounced in churches as seductresses who would tempt men. Pitman summarizes the Medieval view of women: “Her scandalous love of evil fashions and cosmetics, her habit of looking in the mirror, her use of dyes to blonde her hair and the habit of wearing blonde wigs made of false hair-all these were thrown up as evidence of women’s deceptive wiles and her carnal provocation of good men.” This view of women as potentially corrupting seductresses who might lead man along the path to damnation originated in the identification of woman with Eve. In the medieval view of the Bible she was seen as responsible for tempting Adam. Eve seemed to become the medieval version of Aphrodite and Venus but no longer admired. She was not extolled as a role model to be followed but condemned as one of the sources of evil. All of the seductive qualities were epitomized in her long blonde hair and in many 14th and 15th century painting Eve has blonde hair.
Blonde, according to Pitman, became a symbol signifying both the beautifully desired and the dangerous. Mary Magdalene, the famous prostitute of the New Testament who repented and became a follower of Jesus Christ, was also depicted as a dangerous blonde both in paintings and sermons during this period. She was both attractive and frightening to men: “the literary images of Luxury, Lust and Lechery were all inevitably personified as blonde women.” This propaganda against women seems to have done very little to persuade them not to dye their hair and may even have encouraged them by pointing out how weak men were in this particular area. It is not news that the sexual desire of men for women gives women a certain power over men.
However, the point that blonde hair was a symbol of temptingly dangerous unbridled sexuality and eternal damnation had its medieval counterpoint. This counterpoint was the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary who became a symbol of “blonde virtue.” This Mary was pure and had no sexual desire. Jesus had not been conceived through sexual intercourse but was born of a Virgin Mother. This alternate view of blondeness as a symbol of purity was largely the result of the visions of the Swedish nun Bridget, later Saint Bridget, who composed hymns to the Virgin Mary eulogizing her long blonde hair. These visions had a considerable impact upon the depictions of the Virgin Mary in later medieval and Renaissance art. The allegedly blonde hair of Hildegard of Bingen was renowned for its mystical medical properties and could cure the sick.
An interesting psychological split seems to develop here. On the one hand, blonde is expressive of innocent, pure, uncorrupted beauty. Blonde, associated with gold, became linked with heavenly light and the angels, regularly painted with blonde hair, expressed an innocence without the carnal taint of sensuality. On the other hand, blonde is expressive of dangerous, impure and seductive beauty. Blonde was the hair color of Aphrodite, Venus, Eve and Mary Magdalene. It could bewitch and blind men leading them to eternal damnation.
But nonetheless a more positive view of women and blonde hair was also expressed during the Age of Chivalry by the romantic tales of knights on errands. The romantic Arthurian tales of Chretien de Troyes are full of passages in which the knights swoon madly over the locks of blonde hair of their beloved. As Pitman notes: “Blonde hair became part of a standardised code for earthly feminine beauty and romance in literature.”
Pitman’s fascinating analysis of the symbolic meaning of ‘blonde’ then moves on to the powerful empire of fifteenth and sixteenth century Venice and the notorious Borgia family. Like the Greeks and Romans before them, even though most Italian women were naturally dark, both Italian Renaissance poets and painters were in love with ‘the blonde.’ Just take a look at Botticelli’s paintings in which Venus figured, with winding and sensual hair, they are some of the highpoints of Renaissance art. Titian, one of the undisputed great painters of all time, was “obsessed with the colour, texture and aura of golden hair.”
It was a cultural expectation that married women concealed their hair in order not to stimulate the sexual desires of men. Uncovered hair “cast a potent spell for Italians.” While Titian painted many blondes, particularly Venus, he painted the Virgin Mary with brown hair so as not to stimulate erotic desire for her. Generally in this time period, paintings and other images were recognized to have an erotic significance.
Towards the end of the 15th century the word courtesan became popular. Similar to the Greek heterai, courtesans were usually cultured and educated women familiar with literature and music who “captivated powerful men with their intelligence and their beauty.” The pleasures of their company were sought by wealthy men.
During the Italian Renaissance this cultural paean towards blonde hair on a woman seems to have gone to such lengths that women did all manner of extreme things to end up with a blonde result. Many beauty manuals were written during the Renaissance and hair dyeing recipes included such substances as vine ashes, barley shafts, lime, and chopped liquorice. Olive oil, white wine, and horse urine were also recommended. Pitman says a modern chemist has concluded that many of these mixtures would have resulted in strong bleaches containing hydrogen peroxide.
On Blondes then journeys to 16th century England and the reign of Elisabeth I. After describing the elaborate and magnificent preparations for a service at St. Paul’s in thanksgiving for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Pitman describes Elisabeth on the basis of referring to three versions of the painting known as the ‘Armada Portrait.’ Though Elizabeth was naturally auburn when young and by the time of the defeat of the Armada in 1588 was, at the age of fifty-five, grey, her hair in the Armada portrait was-you guessed it-blonde. She was wearing a blonde wig.
As we move into the 17th century blondeness begins to go out of vogue, partly because of the influence of the French classicist painters such as Poussin. In their paintings of the French court many of the most beautiful women are now dark haired. As Pitman puts it “the French were setting the fashion and the rest of Europe followed.” Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Vermeer were all painting dark haired beauties.
During the Restoration, after the Civil War in England, dark hair seems to have come to represent the epitome of female beauty. Blonde hair was generally associated with women of dubious moral virtue or outright prostitution. Across Europe for many decades expensive and elaborate wigs became the rage among the wealthy. These elaborate displays, worn by the wealthy to ostentatiously demonstrate how wealthy they were, were actually health hazards. Due to the materials used in their preparation they often stank and were infested with lice and other insects-harbingers of some of the ‘urban myths’ which later were associated with the bouffants and beehives of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, by the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries ‘the blonde’, never one to take things just lying down, was making a comeback. In fairy tales Goldilocks, Rapunzel, Cinderella and others were all depicted as blondes and in Victorian England blonde hair became an absolute male obsession “as a thrilling symbol of money and of sex.” Different hairstyles and colours became associated with different representations of women. Dark, neatly combed hair was that of the modest and industrious wife. Tangled and disorderly hair represented a sexually and emotionally volatile woman. Curled hair could represent innocence but bigger, fluffed hair seemed to be associated with sexuality. As in Medieval times, when blondeness was used to represent the purity of Virgin Mary or the temptation of the sexual lust of Eve, so in Victorian times blondeness came to represent either innocence or a deadly sexual lure to entrap men. Both Charles Dickens and George Eliot used blonde-haired characters to great effect in their novels. In Victorian England blonde hair was regularly used as a symbol in poetry or painting to represent something enticing but also terrifying with an almost supernatural power to ensnare or bewitch a man’s mind and lead him to damnation and dissolution.
Towards the very end of the 19th century John William Waterhouse epitomized this very ambivalent attitude to women in his painting inspired by John Keats’ famous poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci.’
Throughout the book Pitman tries to situate ‘the blonde’ within the social context of the particular era she is writing about. The Victoria era was a time of incredibly rapid social and industrial change. Great advances were being made in some areas such as science, industry and technology yet simultaneously millions lived in disease and poverty. For the middle class male, home was, to borrow from the title of a book by the 20th century social critic Christopher Lasch, a haven in a heartless world. It its ideal the middle-class home was the domain of an industrious wife and was untainted by the impurities, gin, and prostitution of the sprawling Victorian slums. There was a sharp cleavage in the Victorian man’s mind between the ideal qualities of a wife, mother and home keeper and what he felt tempted by. According to Pitman there was also, among many Victorian men, an attraction to young girls ranging from ‘innocent’ to what today would probably be considered frankly paedophilic.
Lewis Carroll, the mathematician better known as the author of Alice in Wonderland, befriended many young children among who was Alice Liddell. Alice Liddell had short dark hair but she became the model of Alice in Wonderland. Liddell drew a picture of her with long, wavy blonde hair similar to a painting of the blonde Helen of Troy that had been done by the hair-obsessed Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Whatever mythical evil in the minds of medieval men may have lurked in the temptations of blonde hair, the real evils of racism and white supremacy became associated with blonde hair in the 19th century. After describing the peculiarities of Victorian males On Blondes moves on to late 19th and early 20th century Germany. I think this is where this book begins to get really interesting as it sets the scene for the symbolic role of ‘blondeness’ within the social context of the great upheavals of the 20th century brought about by the two world wars, Nazism, communism, and the Great Depression.
In mid-nineteenth century Britain, Germany was a cultural fashion leader and Germanic traditions and ideas were imported, including the idea of the Christmas tree and the traditional hymn ‘Silent Night’. There was a vogue for German philosophy, literature, art and music. However, racism was prevalent and there was a tendency to see the British as originating from the same Teutonic stock as the Germans. There was a belief in the racial superiority of the blond-haired and blue-eyed northern European. Darwinism and eugenics were appropriated and corrupted by Aryan supremacists and anti-Semitism began to spread.
This was the era of Richard Wagner and the anti-Semitism of his Bayreuth school. Of course, the general idiocy of this type of classification was overlooked by its adherents. Pitman notes that the German Anthropological Society carried out a survey of 75,000 Jewish school children in 1871 and found that 11% were blonde, 42% black haired, and 47% mixed. However, facts have never done anything to stop the psychotic racial stereotyping of white supremacists and this was no exception. A British white supremacist, Houston Chamberlain, published a book called Foundations of the Nineteenth Century which praised the Aryan race and saw the Jews as a threat. He depicted Jesus as having been a blue-eyed blonde. Adolf Hitler later incorporated some of his ideas into his Mein Kampf.
During the First World War, in which blonde haired English and German youths fought each other and died. The blonde haired innocent youth became a kind of sacred symbol of sacrifice and war’s futility. Poets such as Wilfrid Owen, Seigfried Sassoon, and the blond-haired Rupert Brooke composed highly influential poems about death and war.
In the 1920s there was a strong association of blondeness in women with promiscuity and the first blonde nude calendar girl was based on a painting by Paul Chabas. However, despite, or perhaps because of the association of blondeness with sexuality blondeness for women became more popular.
The film Platinum Blonde opened in Depression ridden America in 1931. It starred the blonde actress Jean Harlow and the film was a big success. Jean Harlow played the rather callous socialite Anne Schuyler, Robert Williams as the street-wise reporter and Loretta Young was William’s street-wise pal who he eventually realised he was in love with. The film was an instant success with its modern morality tale of the vacuity of wealth compared with the nobility of the ordinary Joe. The Harlow look became an iconic image for thousands of American women who emulated her glamorous platinum blonde look almost overnight.
During this period blondeness also came to symbolise ‘innocence’ and racial purity with varying degrees of antagonism to Jews and other lesser races in America, Russia and Germany. All three countries had blonde movie stars: Betty Grable in the US, Lyubov Orlova in Russia and Kristina Soderbaum in Nazi Germany.
In Nazi Germany there was an obsession with the ideal of the Aryan superman. This would be a race of blonde-haired blue-eyed men in a world in which racial inferiors had been enslaved or exterminated. However, there were many Jews who were blonde and this fact helped some of them escape from the death camps. In fact, according to some of the Nazi own theorists, the ‘pure Nordic type’ only made up 6-8% of the German population with the rest being a mixture. This ‘contamination’ made the Nazis determined to pursue the ideal of racial purity through such practices as an ‘Aryan breeding programme’ and the abduction of blonde babies and children from conquered countries.
The Nazi extended their warped ideology into all spheres of life. The period following on from World War I had been one of great artistic expression and relative social freedom during the Weimar Republic- especially in Berlin. After their ascent to power certain artists and styles were condemned by the Nazis as degenerate in the Nazi attempt to create racial ideological purity. An exhibition called Degenerate Art was the most popular exhibition during the Third Reich. It included works by such renowned artists as Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. These ‘degenerate’ Jewish and homosexual influences were all condemned under the Nazis and the blonde Aryan ideal was extolled. Pitman writes: “Nazi Germany had fashioned an image of itself which was almost entirely fantasy.”
In the Soviet Union, which was much more ethnically diverse than Germany, there was also planned attempt to universalise a Russian ideal with the promotion of Russian history and Russian language across the ethnic patchwork quilt that was the U.S.S.R. A significant degree of ‘ethnic cleansing’ characterised this dark and disturbing period of the history of the U.S.S.R. Visual imagery in the form of films, posters and paintings were encouraged by the central government and these emphasised the clean cut, youthful Russian look of pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. As Pitman notes: “Stalin’s ideal citizen was definitely an Aryan..Stalin’s new blonde Soviet gods were attractive and enthusiastic workers.” Many of the elements of this ideal were adapted from American cinema as Russia went through amerikanomaniya. In both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany local “blonde bombshells” starred in films, variously extolling the heroines of the Nazis or Russians.
In Depression-era America, Mae West and Jean Harlow were ‘blonde bombshells’ until Hollywood began to clean up its act under censorship. Harlow died at the age of twenty six from, it was rumoured, toxic poisoning due to the concoction she used to peroxide her hair. Under the influence of censorship ‘blondeness’ began to change from a symbol of sexuality and licentiousness to a symbol of innocent childhood purity as exemplified by that darling of the screen, Shirley Temple, who received $10,000 a week to cheer up depression-affected Depression America.
Hitler thought of Marlene Dietrich as his “personal screen goddess” and, even though she had left Nazi Germany to make films in Hollywood, tried to lure her back to Germany. To her everlasting credit she refused all offers made to her and told Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, that she would only accept if she could get close enough to Hitler to shoot him.
However, the most wholesome and, in some sense important, blonde of the era was undoubtedly Betty Grable. She became a symbol of blonde virtue and willingness to contribute to the war effort. She was a pin-up girl with legs insured for a $1,000,000 and 20,000 copies of her pin-up were sold every week to GIs. A single pair of her nylons raised $40,000 in 1943 for donations to the war effort. Despite the fact that America was at war with Germany there was little hostility to well assimilated ‘Nordic types’. Pitman interestingly situates the idealisation of blondes in America during this period within the context of racial tension. The antipathy towards blacks was a “home-grown” issue but there was also considerable prejudice against Jews and Italians. This racial aggression turned towards the Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and more than 100,000 were rounded up and sent inland without civil rights.
Betty Grable and other pin-up girls representing the dream of the all-American woman to the war weary GIs had to be squeaky clean. ‘Whiteness’ and ‘lightness’ came to signify some kind of moral purity. Rita Hayworth, who became one of the archetypal symbols of white American womanhood and a box office success, was actually a Spanish-American. Her father came from Sevilla in Spain and her mother was Irish-American. Her husband was a former used car salesman and he packaged and sold her to the American movie-going public by getting her to dye her hair strawberry blonde and having elocution lessons to eliminate all traces of her original Spanish accent.
Marilyn Monroe, probably the most famous blonde of all time, dominated 1950s American popular culture. She was transformed by the Hollywood star-making machinery from mousy haired Norma Jean Mortenson into the dynamic, if dumb, Marilyn Monroe with her ‘Dirty Pillow Slip’ blonde hair. Pitman describes her thus, “She was the wiggling embodiment of every adolescent male fantasy. All glossy blonde curls, ripe hips, cartoonishly ballooning bosoms and that moistly receptive deep red mouth, she was a fabulous bodily projection which invited the slavering gaze and became the ultimate object of illicit sexual desire.”
According to Pitman, 1950s American popular culture almost equated sex with depravity and Marilyn became a “devastating angel of sex.” It is unlikely that anyone would have called the obviously formidably intelligent, wise-cracking Mae West a ‘dumb blonde’. The stereotype of the “dumb blonde” that took shape in America during the 1950s was ‘a creation of men and for men.’ Pitman describes the creation of the ‘dumb blonde’ as an unconscious response by American males, returning home after the war effort to find women more confident and independent than before, to marginalize women in economic life. During the war millions of American women had contributed to the war effort by working in jobs which had previously been the preserve of men. They had functioned independently and competently. More than 2/3 of women at the end of the war did not want to give up their jobs and felt discriminated against because of social and other pressures to do so.
After the war with millions of unemployed demobbed soldiers presented a threat to the social order. They felt threatened by women at work as “they saw the props of a crucial social support system being kicked away. At stake was the myth that women are made only for marriage and motherhood.” Marilyn Monroe was part of a dumb blonde ‘backlash’ against the competent and confident role women had played in the war effort. Women’s confidence in their capacity to perform competently in the economic sphere needed to be undermined. Marilyn, as a dumb blonde role model, certainly did this. Blonde was the color par excellence of the Hollywood sex goddess. Another sex goddess of the 1950’s in the same mould was Anita Ekberg who starred in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Other famous blondes were Diana Dors in Britain and Brigette Bardot in France.
The renowned film director Alfred Hitchcock had a different ‘take’ on blondes. effect. He would psychologically terrorize them or have them terrorized on screen Pitman notes, “He considered his women captivating but dangerous, their blondeness a beautiful but false colour that hid something dark and threatening. It was as if the camouflage of the hair expressed the camouflage inherent in the character..the effect of Hitchcock’s films was to present beautiful blonde women as ruling goddesses whose triumphs eventually turn them into victims to be tortured and violated.”
Created by the male cinema moguls of Hollywood, a new wholesome blonde image of innocence and freshness was emerging from the ashes of Monroe and Hitchcock. Sandra Dee, Doris Day, and Debbie Reynolds became blonde icons of the late 1950s and 1960s. They were bland, sweet and innocent-America’s Sweethearts. Pitman describes them as “monstrous pink dollies professionally bursting with girlish exuberance..they perfectly reflected the docile role that most men preferred women to play in postwar American society.” Of Doris Day it was said that ‘not even Moses could have parted her knees.’
Pitman notes that most women were not blondes and did not dye their hair. They did not necessarily have the same admiration for blondeness as pubescent adolescent males did but great social pressures were at work. To be blonde was to be eminently desirable by American males and that meant to be socially included into the American Dream. If you did not have a northern European background you could still ‘pass’ enough to become assimilated through the use of hair dyes.
Pitman refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s 1999 article in The New Yorker ‘True Colors: Hair Dye and the hidden history of postwar America’ which is an interesting read in its own right and is to be highly recommended.
Clairol brought out a product in 1956 which soon made advertising history with slogans like “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” “Is it true blondes have more fun?” and “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde.” These slogans were the brainchild of the Jewish American woman, Shirley Polykoff. Dyeing of hair had had connotations which were not entirely respectable. The Clairol advertising campaign, using the word tint, and placing prettily and sensibly dressed blonde women in domestic situations cooking dinner or with children made it all more respectable so that in twenty years the number of American women colouring their hair went from 7 to more than 40%. And America got a new blonde plastic icon in the 1960s, the Barbie doll.
However, there was a rising wind of change began to ruffle the hairdos of the time. The lacquered bouffants and beehives, to some extent reflecting the controlled place of women within society, were not able to withstand this breeze which soon became a gale of social change that has not ceased storming yet. The birth control pill, more education for women, the increasing importance and prevalence of television bringing its images of the world into the home space were leading more and more women to become dissatisfied with the limitations of the socially prescribed role of wife and mother. Domestic bliss was not always domestic bliss. The “does she or doesn’t she?” of Clairol which spoke to women seeking assimilation into the American Dream was challenged in the 1970s by the “I’m worth it” slogan of L’Oreal. This was written by an angry young female copywriter, Ilon Sprecht, who got fed up with older male colleagues crossing out the word ‘woman’ and replacing it by ‘girl’. It was a brilliant piece of advertising which spoke to and expressed the growing empowerment and independence of women in the 1970s. As Pitman notes: ‘Hair dye had become a strange symbol of women’s liberation. Young women were dyeing their hair for themselves, unperturbed by what men might think of it.”
But typically men were not going to take this threat to their social power lying down and so there was, of course, another Hollywood inspired backlash with ‘dumb blonde’ jokes proliferating and dumb blonde sex symbols rolling off the Hollywood production lines like so many Barbie dolls. Farrah Fawcett became the blonde icon of this period through her appearance in the TV series ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and her famous poster, in which she is bursting out of a wetsuit, sold over 8 million copies. Pitman comments that, ‘Farrah’s wild and free hair captured the essence of California, its cult of the golden body-beautiful, and its obsession with health, vigour and the sexual appeal of total fitness. Farrah became an icon of her times, the embodiment of the American fantasy of success and beauty.”
Despite American cultural dominance increasing globalisation was leading to a cross-fertilisation of cultures and, yet again, a subversive social movement which began with disaffected working-class English youths began to undermine this clean cut blonde image. Its punk icons were Vivian Westwood and Malcom McClaren. Blonde hair was spiky, angry, and aggressive. It wanted to shock establishment complacency with its Sex Pistol inspired anarchy. Debbie Harry of Blondie became one of the icons of blonde female rebellion in contrast to the domesticity of an almost asexual Doris Day and the blonde animal sexuality of Marilyn Monroe.
The late 1970s was the era of the ‘power blondes’ and epitomized by the transformative evolution of Maggie Thatcher from mousy haired to a ‘combative helmet blonde.’ Pitman describes Thatcher’s transformation “in 1979, when she walked into Downing Street, her hair was styled into “a huge imperial halo, golden and utterly uncompromising, a demonstration of self-assurance, conviction, and power.”
There are now many different kinds of blonde role models for women to choose from. Blonde and dumb, while still easily linked, are no longer inseparably linked. There are now lots of prominent blonde women who no one would consider to be dumb. The particular cut of the hair now seems to convey more than the colour. Hilary Clinton is another ‘not-natural’ blonde politician who became blonde, writes Pitman, for the same reason Thatcher became blonde-the hair color attracts attention, signals status and control. It makes her look younger and her controlled image contrasts with that of the dark-haired Monica Lewinsky. There are still plenty of ‘dumb blondes’ about who feminism and the women’s movement seem to have passed by and Pitman nominates Pamela Anderson, Dolly Patron and Ivan Trump in particular. She describes them as having an ‘alarming resemblance to blow-up dolls’ and adds that they ‘may be bright but their look is one of submission to men.’
Cindy Jackson is another contemporary famous blonde. This woman has had numerous cosmetic surgery operations in a goal, writes Pitman, of trying to look like Barbie the ‘pinnacle of feminine beauty.’ She wanted beauty, glamour, and power.
Pitman then turns her attention to one of the most famous blondes of modern times, Princess Diana, whose hair became increasingly blonde as she acquired power and publicity. The initial addition of blonde highlights to her hair apparently helped her to grow in confidence as did her increasingly evident sex appeal and by the mid-1990s Diana was spending £3,600 a year on dyeing her hair blonde, ‘In her final years, Princess Diana was a devious combination of saint, martyr, avenging Amazon and little girl. For each one of her roles, she needed to be blonde. She wanted to look innocent and portray herself as the wronged wife. She wanted to attract attention to her corner, and she needed to be loved.’
The three most famous blonde icons of the 20th century were Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, and Madonna. When items of their clothing and other personal things have been auctioned they have fetched enormous sums. Pitman uses the word ‘relics’ and ‘soiled piece of celebrity’ to describe these auctioned items as if these women were either saints or contaminated sinners.
The pop star Madonna evidently once confessed, ‘I’ve been provoking since I was a little girl. I’m very interested in being alluring.” Pitman’s use of language is interesting when she describes how Madonna has incorporated elements of other icons into her own image. She has ‘plundered the images’ and is ‘plucking elements’ and ‘ruthlessly pursuing her dreams’ as if she is some kind of Boadicea of the rock world. Pitman situates Madonna’s blondeness within the radical changes which have occurred in Western culture over the past 40 years and notes that while Monroe was submissive Madonna has always considered women dominant. Certainly some of this was due to Madonna becoming a blonde. She appeared on the album cover of ‘True Blue’ as a pure bleached blonde with her ‘head thrown back in erotic abandon.’ This album sold more than 20 million copies. Previous albums, in which Madonna had appeared as a brunette, had only sold around 5 million (which is still fairly respectable). As Madonna told Rolling Stone Magazine, “Being blonde is definitely a state of mind. I can’t really put my finger on it, but the artifice of being blonde has some incredible sort of sexual connotation.”
In these post-modern times ‘blondeness’ is linked with the American dream and fantasies about the American dream which via the technology of cinema, TV and Internet, are prevalent throughout the world. To be blonde is to be part of that fantasy but this is also illustrative of how cinema and television contributes to the constitution of identity in modern cultures. As Pitman perceptively notes, ‘These Western qualities seem to offer everything: success, sexuality and beauty. And millions of women, in Jakarta, in Lima, in Seattle or in Cardiff, in dyeing their hair blonde are buying some small sense of dignity and self-esteem along with the glamour. They are coming a tiny bit closer to the power of the American ideal.’
Black women, such as Beyonce Knowles and black drag queens such as RuPaul have blonde extensions or wear blonde wigs, not, it is insisted as some kind of sell-out to white racist supremacy but because of the contrast of blonde on black which really “pops.” Blondeness does seem to be, in the minds of many, associated with the Western ideal and to adopt it in some countries can be a form of rebellion against traditional values. As a Japanese youth said, ‘It’s a form of rebellion, rejecting my Japaneseness in order to look more Western, to look better, maybe more like a film star.’ Throughout the world, in Japan, China, Brazil, and elsewhere blondes are used to sell products to consumers.
I think On Blondes is an intriguing and knowledgeable book which is full of interesting historical and social facts as well as perceptive comments. It is far more informative than The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture which I found lacking in interest. Pitman ends her book with a series of intriguing questions. She wonders why blondeness still has such an enduring hold on not only the Western psyche but, increasingly, on that of other nationalities and cultures as well. Does it have to do with the obsession with youth? Does it have to do with unconscious racism and an attempt to distinguish oneself from darker groups? Are people blonding themselves in order to feel assimilated into the dominant culture, so that they will ‘pass’? Whatever the truth to these questions, and they may all have some truth, blondeness does not seem to have lost any of its alluring magic and mystery.
After reading Pitman’s book I will never look at women’s hair the same way again. When I see a blonde I now find myself wondering ‘does she or doesn’t she’ and when I see a woman who is not blonde I now find myself wondering ‘why doesn’t she’?