I am very precious about my hair and I’m not ashamed of it. I had bright blonde hair as a toddler which eventually dulled to a dirty blonde, until Year 8 when I asked the hairdresser to give me summer blonde highlights and cut a bob for me. Since then, my hair has become my signature accessory to every outfit with it only getting blonder and blonder. I’ve enjoyed being able to ground my identity in a specific hairstyle, one that instantly gives people an identifier to recall me by. But I think my deep-rooted attachment to my hair stems from another obsession: my one with the pop culture icon, Marilyn Monroe.
My adoption of the blonde bob coincided with a fixation on Marilyn Monroe. I had posters and postcards on my walls and biographies lining my bookshelves – I was completely in awe of this movie star. I don’t know what it was that drew me to the blonde bombshell exactly, but I can pinpoint a fascination with how underestimated she was and the distance between the public persona and the person underneath. She was the dumb blonde archetype and the sex symbol objectified by millions. She was also fiercely smart, funny, socially progressive, and powerful. The sexy, dumb blonde was a projection that Marilyn manipulated to her advantage and which provided complex articulations of power and her blonde hair became a symbol of that power to me. Norma Jeane Dougherty was a brunette dreaming of a different life but all of her hard work and tenacity changed her into Marilyn Monroe: a transition that a younger me could see simplistically embodied in a bleach blonde hair cut.
One of my favourite Marilyn Monroe movies is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a musical comedy starring the actress (as Lorelei Lee) alongside Jane Russell (playing Dorothy Shaw) where the two women stun as showgirls and search for love amongst tongue-wagging suitors. It’s an incredibly charming and cheeky film that showcases immense comic chops. It’s also a seminal articulation of the dumb blonde stereotype.
The feminist film historian Annette Kuhn identifies the dumb blonde as a “combination of overt, ‘natural’ sexuality with a profound ignorance and innocence manifest in an inability to understand even the most elementary facts of everyday life”. Marilyn’s character, Lorelei Lee, captures this initially, possessing an “animal magnetism” that has men falling at her feet while she seemingly can’t grasp standard conversation etiquette. When asked if an engagement ring is big enough for her, she assures her fiancé that the diamond is a suitable size: he then corrects her that he was actually asking if it fit her finger. It all plays to cheap gags of the blonde bimbo whose eyes grow bigger than her brain when something sparkly is in sight.
The dumb blonde is a familiar character, first appearing in a French play called ‘Les Curiosités de la Foire’ (1775), inspired by Rosalie Duthé, a French courtesan believed to be beautiful yet empty-headed. It’s a trope that has persisted into cinema: from Amanda Seyfried in Mean Girls to Jean Harlow in Platinum Blonde and Bombshell. If a girl has blonde hair, it’s usually a tell-tale sign that she’s naïve and stupid. Often though, these films do not make engaging observations about sexual objectification and white middle-class identity. The blonde is frequently cast as the mean girl who abuses her power, her hair functioning as shorthand for wealthy whiteness with few BIPOC characters portrayed as blonde. The blonde tends to use her power to perpetuate hierarchies of classicism, racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, and ableism that keep the privileged white woman at the top. However, instead of making social commentary on privilege, films frequently use the blonde to reveal a deep misogynistic contempt for young women.
I don’t view the dumb blonde as a victim to these cinematic moulds though. Modern articulations have subverted expectations and shown these women wielding immense power for good in response to being severely underestimated. Cher isn’t just a ditz with daddy’s credit card in Clueless, if you look at her report card and her character development, she is incredibly intelligent and supportive. And who can forget Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, not a bimbo with a baby voice but someone who got into Harvard Law School and uplifted those around her. What, like it’s hard?
This isn’t exclusively modern, many earlier blondes began the resistance against sexist stereotypes including Lorelei Lee. When her brunette friend Dorothy also teasingly misunderstands certain social cues, it’s interpreted as wordplay and charming wit. When Lorelei seemingly misunderstands, it’s naivety for someone who is too dumb to be in on the joke. It evidences the classic blonde/brunette dichotomy that has persisted in Gossip Girl and Riverdale and the classic Marilyn versus Jackie question that reads as beauty versus brains competition, constricting femininity and pitting women against one another. However, Lorelei says herself “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it” – in other words, it’s not that she doesn’t have the brains, it’s that men feel threatened that she does. She might as well then manipulate the stereotype to her advantage. The fact that Lorelei and Dorothy are best friends who support one another defies the blonde/brunette dichotomy and Marilyn’s stellar comic performance (I still cackle at her laryngitis joke) shows how the dumb blonde as a derogatory stereotype doesn’t stack up, over forty years before Elle Woods submitted her video essay to Harvard.
The stand-out moment in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is Marilyn’s rendition of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ which remains prolific in pop culture. In numerous versions from Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ and Glee mash-ups, to Burlesque and Birds of Prey, they all pay tribute to Marilyn’s original performance, especially the sexual power that Marilyn exudes. Everyone is enchanted by her in the film and it leads to her securing the millionaire suitor. However, the power that the blonde bombshell oozes is not limited to the sexuality that she exhibits. While the song’s surface-level appeal and legacy may be the image of the blonde gold-digger elegantly dripping with jewels, a closer inspection of the lyrics produces a narrative that speaks to gender discrimination in economic terms. When the film was released, a woman couldn’t open a bank account without her husband’s signature and economic prospects for women to climb the social ladder were few. Lorelei sings, “There may come a time when a hard-boiled employer/ Thinks you’re awful nice/ But get that ice or else no dice/ He’s your guy when stocks are high/ But beware when they start to descend/ It’s then that those louses go back to their spouses/ Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!”. As the pretty blonde of the film, Lorelei is aware that men’s sexual attraction to her is untrustworthy, promising her false dreams of love that tease her with secure economic stability. Considering that she cannot have economic freedom like men (Lorelei is in trouble when a credit letter given to her by her fiancé is rendered useless), jewels are not merely sparkly things, but physical possessions that she can exchange for economic power when men abandon her. Lorelei’s constant fixation on finding a man with money plays on the dumb blonde gold-digger stereotype but reveals a woman that is deeply aware of the economic significance of marriage at the time.
This can seem like a cold view of marriage but it is one that speaks a truth. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) saw everyone fall in love with Florence Pugh’s Amy character (a fellow blonde and comical character of the same strain as Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei). In particular, many applauded her monologue in response to Laurie’s short-sighted view on marriage: “as a woman, there is no way for me to make money, not enough to earn a living or to support my family. And if I did have money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married […] So don’t sit there and try and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.” It’s a very rousing part of the film, but it’s not unique. Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes similarly responds to critique on marriage as an economic proposition, saying that if a woman is too busy worrying about money, “how will she have any time for being in love?”. In fact, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ repeats the same sentiments, singing, “A kiss may be grand but it won’t pay the rental/ On your humble flat, or help you at the automat/ Men grow cold as girls grow old/ And we all lose our charms in the end/ But square-cut or pear-shaped/ These rocks don’t lose their shape/ Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!” Love is a nice idea, but money complicates it. Lorelei desperately claims some power by utilising her sexuality and leaning into the dumb blonde gold-digger stereotype to secure economic comfort when men no longer find her attractive. After all, the ‘A Little Girl from Little Rock’ song that starts and ends the film clarifies that Lorelei is from “the wrong side of the tracks” and is hoping to one day achieve her dream of escaping these origins for financial security found in marriage.
As Emmet Richmond, the love interest in Legally Blonde 2, tells Elle: “Being blonde is actually a pretty powerful thing, you hold more cards than you think you do”. Marilyn Monroe represents that for me, and I hope that I can represent that as well. My hair is my crowning glory that reminds me that I can be pretty powerful, even if people may think that I’m just a dumb blonde.
-Charlotte ‘Fozz’ Forrester
Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd