A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing(?): On Being a Not So Dumb Blonde

Since returning northwards, and knowing that it would only be temporary, I’ve made the decision to try and get out into the Northumberland countryside as much as possible. It’s not going well, largely owing to my reluctance to leave my desk having begun to believe (erroneously of course) that no one will ever employ me if I take a day off. Anyway, after it was pointed out that I hadn’t left the house in several days and there was the possibility of furnishing my new flat with some charity shop antiques I set off on a jaunt to Wooler and Powburn with my Ma. Wooler, for those not in the know, is the real life setting for Postman Pat. Close to my heart! We chose to go by the twisty-windy countryside roads and so I had ample time to listen to Saturday Live on Radio 4. One of the items was about Georgina Blackwell, a beautician who successfully took on a development company in the High Court to stop them building over her mother’s home. Throughout the item Sian Williams (who I adore) focused very heavily on the disparity between the well-trained middle class professional lawyers working for the development company and that fact that Georgina was ‘only’ a beautician with the clear implication that she was out of her depth intellectually, professionally and socially. But the thing that really stuck out to me was the attention paid to Georgina’s physical appearance, namely the fact that she is blonde. Constant repetition was made of the fact that she was ‘a blonde beautician’ or ‘a young blonde woman’.

Now I’m well aware that all shapes and forms of women can suffer from stereotyping and that there’s nothing new in aligning being blonde with being an airhead. But I had rather thought (hoped?) that this link had gone out of fashion in recent years. After all in our WAG/celebrity/reality star culture it doesn’t seem that being blonde makes you any more desirable than being brunette. But apparently being blonde still connotes being dumb. In light of this I began musing on my on blondeness and the extent to which I play to the stereotype…

I’ve been blonde for years – fake but I had very blonde hair as a child so I assert a pseudo-naturalness to it. Some things I notice as a blonde – compared to having brown/red/black hair:

  • People (and by this I mean predominantly men) stare at me more often and for longer in the street
  • More cat-calling in the street
  • People think I’m vulnerable and weak – physically and emotionally
  • I’m spoken to more slowly than to my brunette (or male) companions
  • People are surprised (but not shocked) when they discover I’m a postgraduate student. Even more so when they find out I’m at (or was at) Cambridge
  • People think I’m really young
  • Men think I’m completely sexually available

When I say ‘people’ or ‘men’ I’m aware I’m making a massive generalization. These observations are based on my perception of my experiences and occur in probably around 70% of passing interactions as well as some work relationships and a tiny bit in academia. And not all of them happen all at once. Now, admittedly, not all of this is because I’m blonde. I’m also quite slender which probably goes to being seen as physically weak and I do look kind of young. But not that young. Sadly.

Recently, lacking the necessary readies to keep regular appointments with the goddess that dyes my hair I’ve been resorting to home colouring with the resulting problem of not quite getting the perfect shade. Consequently I’ve been contemplating going brunette. But something has stopped me…

Upon thinking things through I find that I’m rather sentimentally attached to being blonde – and I’m going to admit that part of this is the assumption by others that I’m younger than I am and a certain perverse delight in being initially approached as dumb and the ensuing damage to those assumptions that revelation of my academic work brings. Though it’s frustrating to be so frequently engaged with on a level of ‘Bless, she must be quite thick’, sometimes it feels like an advantage. I wrote my Master of Letters dissertation on different kinds of femme fatale in British detective fiction and one such type was what I referred to as the ‘disguised’ woman – a character who looked like the innocent flower but was in fact the serpent under it, to paraphrase Shakespeare. She used her innocent blonde vulnerability, the fact that others (except Poirot, of course) took her to be silly and weak, in order to manipulate the world around her to her own benefit. Whilst I’m not claiming any sort of femme fatale status, not least because they always die, I do sometimes wonder if there’s a certain gain in confounding expectations. More often than not I find that it’s other people, rather than me, that fall into the gap between what is expected of me as a ‘dumb blonde’ and what I actually am. If you’re believed to be less capable and demonstrate yourself to the contrary, it’s not your judgement that is questioned. Despite a preference for not assessing people based on appearances I’m both certain that we all do it, and secure enough in myself that I can weather others thinking me an idiot. That opinion doesn’t ever last beyond my first sentence.

Moreover this has got me thinking about my position as a feminist and any tension between my engagement with – and I suppose some my say my manipulation of – the stereotypes of being blonde. All of these markers of blonde identity link in so clearly with female identity and femininity. Your archetypal blonde, busty airhead is everything we’re taught not to aspire to as young feminists. But then is gaining advantage from taking the piss out of the image not just me buying into a hegemonic norm and reinforcing it? Or am I subverting and manipulating it – beating gender stereotyping at its own game? I really don’t know. All I do know is that when people see me the first thing they see is blonde.

This was originally posted on Sarah Burton’s blog. Sarah is a postgraduate student working across literature, sociology and law. She is also Co-Convenor of the Postgraduate Forum of the British Sociological Association.

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