Who are you calling dumb?
Something very exciting happened earlier this summer: the dumb blonde stereotype was shattered. A team of Stanford University scientists published a study, “A molecular basis for classic blond hair color in Europeans,” in Nature Genetics. According to a Forbes.com summary, the study revealed that “a single letter of the genetic code is responsible for lighter hair.” Blondeness is caused when adenine (a nucleobase, the building blocks of DNA and RNA) changes to guanine (another nucleobase) on a region of human chromosome 12. This change affects only the hair follicle, meaning that blondeness and brain cells are not connected in any way.
It might not matter to some people but, being a natural blonde, I’m pretty excited.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I suffered greatly up until this point because of my hair color. Sure, I’ve been called everything in the book — blondie, goldielocks, Barbie — but I shrug it off.
Growing up, I really identified with Elle Woods, the main character in “Legally Blonde.” In fact, I still do. After her boyfriend breaks up with her because she’s too much of a “Marilyn” (Monroe) and not enough of a “Jackie O.,” she studies for and is accepted to Harvard Law, where he’s a student, too. Everyone is awful to the bubbly, pink-loving Elle, but she proves them all wrong when she wins a murder case for a high-profile client. She gave me hope that people wouldn’t judge me, a straight-A, pink-loving girl, for being blonde.
On occasion, though, strangers have treated me like I’m more naïve and perhaps less intelligent than I would have liked, especially while I’m on the job. That is, until I open my mouth and reveal that’s not the case. Suddenly, people are shocked into realizing that I am literate and college-educated, have opinions, and spend time thinking about things other than my nails.
I’m not personally offended by “dumb blonde” jokes; some of them are funny. I do think, though, that the jokes could be about any “dumb” person and that, as this study proves, there’s no need to insert hair color into the equation. There’s tons of literature on this subject, and even studies that prove that blondes (especially blonde women) are negatively affected by the stereotype. In one experiment, blondes who read belittling jokes before taking standardized tests, for example, worked more slowly and carefully to avoid the embarrassment of making mistakes. Not cool.
The fact of the matter is there are just as many dumb brunettes and redheads as there are dumb blondes. So where did the stereotype come from, exactly?
The idea can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who admired their fair-haired Nordic neighbors (and, later, invaders) so much that they dyed their hair in order to be blonde as well. To do this, they used a variety of unsavory things: goat’s fat, beech wood ashes, saffron, or vinegar concoctions. Inhaling the fumes from these crude dyes was said to have a negative effect on the brain and, thus, blondeness became associated with a lack of intelligence. And, according to Slate.com, one Roman poet, Propertius, said that vanity (i.e. dying one’s hair) was a dumb move. Of course, he was a bit more eloquent. Nevertheless, the Romans’ desire to be fair-haired didn’t translate throughout history so well.
In later centuries, peasants, who were rarely educated, became light haired after working in the fields in the sun. Thus, the rich, educated nobles often had darker hair and brunettes were thought to be smarter.
Several particular women throughout history have also been labeled “dumb blondes,” starting in the 1700s with a Parisian courtesan named Rosalie Duthé, whose vapid mannerisms were written into the play “Les Curiosités de la Foire.” And, of course, Marilyn Monroe’s performance in the 1953 film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is credited as the modern-day catalyst for the stereotype. Jessica Simpson asking if chicken was tuna or fish on live television probably didn’t help much, either.
Despite the negative connotations, blonde is still an extremely popular hair color. Less than 20 percent of American women are born blonde, but salons never lack for clients who are looking to go the lighter route. And men still seem to like blondes, though whether they prefer them to brunettes is tough to measure. While women are still underrepresented in positions of power, blondes are not singled out.
I think that, deep down, society and pop culture recognize that basing smarts on looks does not make sense. I mean, look at “Legally Blonde” (one of my personal favorites)! Still, the idea that blondes are pretty but stupid is ingrained in our movies and music, just like the idea that redheads have a temper. Up until this point, no one has scientifically proven that the dumb blonde story isn’t true. So, thank you, scientists at Stanford, for finally validating what I’ve known all along: blondes can have more fun, be preferred by gentlemen, and excel in terms of intelligence.