Media Monday: Blonde Stereotypes Bad For Brunettes
Blonde Stereotypes are bad for brunettes. Nowhere is this more clear than in the media and specifically in children’s movies. Disney movies are perhaps the biggest culprit. Although children’s movies might easily be overlooked or disregarded as irrelevant to how adults view blondes, all adults were once children socialized through various sources including the media as to the norms and values of their culture.
Media representations in children’s movies portray blondes as some combination of naive, innocent, confused, idealistic, or dumb. Consider recent Disney movies with characters like Rapunzel in the movie Tangled (2010) who never leaves her tower and often sings of how little she knows about the world or Tinkerbell (2008) whose confusion and naivete, which causes her to ruin a season’s worth of community labor, is the plotline of the movie. Consider older Disney movie characters as well like Cinderella (1950) who daydreams about nightingales and soap bubbles while the cat reeks havoc on her newly hand-washed floors or the blonde mother in Mary Poppins (1964) who is presented as essentially a court jestor whose idiocy is prized entertainment. Consider this interchange:
Mrs. Banks: I’m sorry, dear, but when I chose Katie Nana, I thought she would be firm with the children. She looked so solemn and cross.
George Banks: My dear, never confuse efficiency with a liver complaint.
In this under two minute trailer of the Tinkerbell movie, Tinkerbell, despite being the main character, is shown shrugging when all the attention is placed upon her- as if she is so naive she doesn’t know why she deserves attention. The entire plot of the movie is that she is lost and eventually comes to find out who she is.
A corporation like Disney uses these representations of blondes intentionally in order to make the plot of a movie easier for children to follow and digest. Children gain the association that white/light represents being virtuous and good and this is extended to include innocent, idealistic, and naive. Children know who the hero or protagonist is in a movie easily not only by the words or actions in the plot but also from something as simply as color association. Blonde = good.
In contrast to associations of blondes as good, brunettes, in their least harmful representations, are depicted as intelligent but negatively so. This intelligence is often played out as weirdness. Mary Poppins, for example, falls into the category of a weird intelligent brunette. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Need I say more? Another example is Belle from Beauty and the Beast who reads a lot and is considered weird as a result. She is so weird, in fact, that she falls in love with a beast!
More often, though, corporations like Disney juxtapose the representation of the good blonde with the representation of the brunette who is a villain or antagonist. These versions of brunettes are harsher and portray brunettes as manipulative and evil. Cinderella’s dark-haired step-sisters and step-mother take every opportunity to destroy Cinderella physically and mentally to the point of ripping her dress off of her and, in another scene, locking her in a room, so that she is prevented from being a challenge to their efforts to marry a prince. Similarly, Tinkerbell’s nemesis is an example of this as demonstrated through her attempt kill Tinkerbell and, when that fails, have her ostracized from her community. Guess which one is Tinkerbell’s nemesis of the fairy characters in this image.
For the purposes of writing for a children’s audience, it makes sense to simplify because doing so makes digesting the plot easier for the audience comprised mostly of children, who predominantly use basic categorization as a means of grasping meaning. For the purposes of a corporation trying to sell and market something to an audience, it also makes sense to simplify because it enables the product immediately and easily understood and as a result, hopefully, more palatable.
Consider this song from Tangled that juxtaposes the naivete and innocence of the blonde Rapunzel with the wisdom and experience of her brunette “mother” who sings to convince her daughter to never leave the castle let the “mother” not have access to Rapunzel’s magical powers used to keep “mother” young.
The “mother” is perhaps one of the most evil Disney characters of all time. She kidnapped Rapunzel as an infant and has kept her captive in a tower her entire life with no contact with the outside world. (At least Cinderella could walk about freely on her step-mother’s property and had several different types of animals as friends. Rapunzel has one friend, a gecko named Pascal.) It is because of this type of stark contrast between the innocence of Rapunzel and the evil of her “mother” that the movie’s message expressed through this song is easily understood, gets and keeps your attention, and is rather catchy. You might find yourself singing it in the shower later.
Where these juxtapositions in the media do not make sense is in terms of the role they play in perpetuating the stereotype, through communication, that blondes are dumb and because of the juxtaposition of two characters- one with blonde hair and one with brunette hair- that brunettes are aggressive, manipulative, and bitchy.
But this is the media, it doesn’t matter in real life, right? Wrong.
In everyday conversation we may not invoke this stereotype of brunettes, but we imply it. This is because the two terms are viewed as binary, that is these are the only two terms in the set. Sacks (1986) refers to this as the economy rule in which “a single category from any membership categorization device can be referentially adequate” (p. 333). By referring to one term in a binary category set (e.g., blondes), the other term is implied (e.g., brunettes). Moreover, the characteristics attributed to the one group are considered polar opposites of those attributed to the other group. So, a person needn’t say blondes are dumb and brunettes are aggressive, manipulative, or bitchy. The latter is implied when the former is stated. In this way anytime you say blonde stereotypes in a conversation, you imply the brunette stereotypes. Thus, making blonde stereotypes bad for brunettes.
The juxtaposition of blonde and brunette stereotypes, unlike in Disney and other children’s movies, is subtle. The blonde stereotypes are the ones we hear about often with one and a half million hits in Google. But the brunette stereotypes are there as well with about half as many Google hits (and check out this handy hair color stereotype quiz I found).
The impact of blonde stereotypes on society are obvious in some ways with even T-shirts announcing the extent to which a person identifies with blonde-ness. But what impact does the more subtle stereotype have on society? Well, its effects are equally subtle as their use in conversation. I will provide only one example to demonstrate just how subtle these can be.
When my husband and I got married, I wanted a wedding cake topper that represented who we were to stand atop our wedding cake. This desire is not unusual. For example, same-sex couple wedding cake toppers exist to represent the couple getting married. This makes sense because the couple getting married should be represented on the cake if the cake is going to have some object that looks like brides/grooms. Except I came across a problem in my pursuit. I couldn’t find a cake topper that represented my husband and me anywhere. Believe me, I looked. The representative thing thing I was looking for in a cake topper was, I thought, not particularly unusual. I wanted a wedding cake topper with a blond groom and brunette bride.
So insidious is the stereotype of brunettes as aggressive that cake topper manufacturers cannot bring themselves to place a brunette bride in a white wedding dress. As you may know, a white wedding dress is symbolic of innocence. If you don’t believe that cake toppers present this subtle stereotype, take a good look at the website I linked to in the previous paragraph. This is a website that is so aware of the importance of cake toppers representing brides/grooms well that they sell same-sex couple cake toppers of all varieties. But try to find the brunette female cake topper with a blond partner? The best you get on the website is a single brunette female. And you have to see it to believe it.
Sacks, H. (1986). On the Analyzability of Stories by Children. In Gumperz and Hymes (Eds.). Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. NY: Basil Blackwell Inc.