Thursday, April 19, 2012

Blonde brunettes

What do many brunettes considered to be great beauties have in common? They're naturally blond, or have gone from light brown to near-black. Consider Olivia WildeLeigh Lezark. Rooney Mara. Jennifer Lawrence. What does it all mean?

-Because it's expected that women will go for hair shades lighter than whatever nature gave them, in order to look conventionally prettier/sexier, a woman who goes darker is making a statement: 'I'm alternative,' perhaps, or 'I don't care what people/men think of me,' or 'I'm something of an intellectual, and don't sleep with just anyone.' Or: 'I'm so pretty, nothing I do can detract from this, sorry guys.' It's the opposite of what a woman who bleaches/highlights her naturally dark hair is indicating. It's the opposite of a miniskirt or pushup bra.

-Conventional beauty standards are - and I realize I'm the first to remark on this - racially biased. Women who come from the blonder countries, or whose features have something in common with those common to those countries (see: Halle Berry), are considered more attractive, at least by the powers-that-be. Hair color itself is only a part of what 'blonde' is about. It's also blue eyes, a tiny nose, etc. (Not that no blondes ever have giant schnozzes, no brunettes blue eyes, etc.) Yet the brunette 'type' - its myriad significations - remains a draw for some, remains a quality of some fictional characters. A blonde with dark hair is a brunette without those inconvenient traits: 'ethnic' facial features, a curvy build. Thus the casting agent looking for a 'brunette' is inclined to cast a blonde.

-The ubiquity of the blonde brunette poses a problem for women with naturally dark hair, when we look for style/beauty inspiration from the usual sources. It's also a bit dispiriting, in a Photoshop kind of way, that the celebrities we're meant to view as our representatives look not only better than we do, as we'd expect, but also different. A Greek, Sicilian, or Armenian woman simply does not look like a Swedish woman who's gone goth- or librarian-chic.

-None of this, of course, is intended as a condemnation of blond women who dye their hair darker. From what I understand, having blond hair basically amplifies the often creepy reaction women, esp. young ones, get from strangers. That, and I'm enthusiastically in favor of self-expression-through-self-presentation, especially of the non-permanent, non-surgical varieties. No one should, as an individual, have to justify choices to go blonder or darker, curlier or straighter, etc. My point is merely that a societal expectation that a pretty brunette is a blonde with dyed-brown hair a) exists, and b) isn't so great for we the naturally dark.


Britta said...

um, not to rain on anyone's parade, but *none* of those women were naturally blonde! They were pretty much all, "women who bleached their hair (with often obvious dark roots showing) and then later dyed it a shade darker than their natural color." I'm for self expression, but if blonde means "anything that's not black," then what is it really doing as a descriptor? This is actually super pervasive with hair color. Like, 99.99% of adult blonde women dye their hair. Nothin' wrong with that (I mean, besides the beauty ideals which make women feel like they have to), but it's like wearing 4 inch heels and claiming you're 'naturally' 5'10", or, seeing a woman in giant heels and being jealous of how tall she is. With a bottle of dye, anyone would be as 'naturally' blonde as any of those women.

Where I think you're right is...there is a certain coloring (not too dark, not too light), that can go lighter or darker with relative ease, and it corresponds pretty well with 'generic white girl' look. Natural blondes (like, actual natural blondes) can't go as dark as those women, just like women from Mediterranean areas generally don't look great with really light hair, so either is more limiting than the middle.

Anonymous said...

Rachel McAdams? Carey Mulligan? Cameron Diaz? to name a few

Phoebe said...


I'm not sure what your objection is here. That their natural hair color wouldn't meet your definition of blond? It's not that 'we' should define as blond all but black-colored hair, but that 'blond' is a definition that's incredibly subjective - kids at my mostly-Asian-and-Jewish high school were blond who wouldn't have been, I suspect, in Minnesota; from passing through the Helsinki airport, I suspect a good many upper Midwestern blonds would be brunettes in Finland. By the same token, in blonder parts of the world, my hair is black, and in less blond ones, it's brown. The very same hair color. Anyway, let's say Olivia Wilde was platinum for a while, with roots - it would be hard to say what her natural color might be (given that anything darker would produce contrast and look brown), and easiest to take her own word for it.

I guess I disagree with you re: a category of "generic white girl." Everyone tends to look best with their natural color, so the closest one stays to it, the least risk. But when it comes to movie stars and the like, it's absolutely possible to take a natural blonde (including one you'd 100% consider to count as such, so don't get too hung up on the specific names that came to my mind), fuss around with not only the hair but also the eyebrows, makeup, etc., and end up with someone whose hair is very dark, but whose features are as non-'ethnic' as can be. I still think this is something casting folk seek out, whether consciously or not.


Not sure your point re: that set of actresses' hair.

Britta said...


If in the US, blonde means "not very dark brown or black hair," then it would include a large plurality of American women and I'm not sure what would make it so special according to the standard (oppressive) beauty norms. But my specific objection with that slide show was, if these actresses naturally have a hair color that we ought to want, why didn't they show a single actress with her natural hair color? Every single one of the before pictures were women with bleached hair. We don't even know what natural hair color these women have, because we didn't see it on a single woman. Maybe it's very dark blonde, maybe it's brown, maybe it's dark brown. (I sincerely doubt Olivia Wilde is naturally blonde, since she looks terrible with bleached hair.)

For adult women with blonde hair I would consider blonde, dying hair and eyebrows darker looks pretty terrible. Most blondes have blonde eyelashes, which can't be dyed and looks really weird with darker hair. Second, natural blondes have a coloring that is really easily overpowered by darker hair, and unless the look is "goth," a natural blonde can't successfully go darker any more than Donnatella Versace looks great as a blonde. I'm not sure how makeup could help without looking really artificial, like someone wearing fake tanner or foundation that's several shades too dark. My guess is the only reason Americans don't realize this is, again, women with medium or light brown hair who normally go lighter can sometimes go darker successfully, and then they claim they were originally "blonde."

Again...if people want to bleach their hair and call themselves blonde, it's no skin off my back, just like if women want to wear platform shoes and call themselves tall, I don't really care either. But I guess I find it ridiculous to then imply that we should envy women in platform shoes because they're 'naturally' tall, when anyone could be that tall with platform shoes on.

Phoebe said...


Slideshow? Did I link to one and not notice? Anyway, the links I chose were to actresses and the like who themselves mention, or whose profiles mention, a blondness that had to be compensated for, for a movie role or, in the case of Leigh Lezark, a persona. One possibility we haven't considered is that these actresses were blond as children, have been dyeing their hair since forever, and would, if they went natural, be brunettes. But again, hair color names are subjective. Think not only of how dark blond/light brown hair (with accompanying light brown/dark blond eyelashes, eyebrows) is seen in an Asian/African context. Think also of the many celebrity 'brunettes' whose hair-color identity was fixed from some earlier era, or is based on their overall coloring, or who knows, but whose hair is sufficiently highlighted as to constitute blond hair, if it were on the head of someone we were prepared to call a blonde. (For example.)

I guess one way to reconcile this is to say that a naturally very-blond woman isn't going to look better with dyed-dark-brown hair and accompanying mascara or whatever than she would with her natural color. But she will in many cases look more mainstream-beautiful than would a woman with naturally dark-brown hair, because such women tend to have accompanying prominent noses, etc., and this is not a sought-after trait on a billboard or what have you.

Britta said...

Ah. The first link you had included a slideshow of "all these actresses used to be blonde" but then showed a bunch of women with obviously bleached hair and roots of varying shades of dark showing.

I agree that blonde hair gets used as an emblem of a look which doesn't actually have to include being blonde, but just general Northern European features, and that an Armenian woman who bleaches her hair isn't going to be considered 'blonde' in the way a fair skinned, small nosed women with brown hair is.

But if we're talking solely about hair color though (and not the other features associated with blondness), envying blonde women in contemporary US culture is a bit like envying women with straight teeth. It's something that's so pervasively fake and easy to achieve (far cheaper than braces) that there's no reason why anyone who wanted to have blonde hair wouldn't be able to, and pretty much every woman with blonde hair who is envied gets it out of a bottle (you could envy someone for having an expensive stylist, I suppose, but that's a slightly different issue).

Phoebe said...

OK, I see the slideshow. I'm not sure what could be concluded from it, other than that there are too many variables ('blond' styles that include dyed-darker roots, artificially-darkened eyebrows and lashes, different definitions of 'blond', poorly-selected 'before' photos that don't convey a 'natural' color) to say quite what's going on with any of these actresses' hair.

I'm not sure where envy of blond hair enters into it. Indeed, any hair color imaginable can be achieved for under $30 at home. The issue is envy of - or more accurately, insecurity when confronted with magazines bearing images of - certain features, more commonly found on women of more blond-country ancestries, but that are near-universal on the women Hollywood and the like are selling us as 'brunettes.' We-the-naturally-dark-haired are asked to identify with the 'brunette' actresses, and yet we do not, as a rule, resemble them in anything but hair color.

PG said...

Although one rap on Jennifer Lawrence as a plausible Katniss was that she was *too* curvy for someone who was food insecure, to use the current terminology. OTOH, I wouldn't want the moviemakers to have told her or anyone else to starve down in order to look more plausibly hungry, so I think the NYT movie reviewer was not entirely thinking through that particular critique.

Anonymous said...

Could you not equally say that directors seek out bottle blondes to play blonde roles in movies, because their features tend to be more defined than naturally blonde women? Marilyn Monroe, Charlize Theron, Amber Heard ... I could go on. There are very few natural blondes in Hollywood - and they are no less beautiful for being naturally brunette. Equally, there is no shortage of natural brunettes in Hollywood - so I'm not quite sure what you're trying to prove. It is certainly true that ethnic women are not represented enough in Hollywood, but no-one is trying to pass off Eva Green as a black or Latina's simply that they aren't creating the roles. I really don't think hair colour is the issue here.