I am not dumb. Let me just get that out there, right off the bat. Most likely, neither is the girl down the dining hall table from you eating her cereal. For that matter, the chick you always sit three seats away from isn’t dumb. And believe it or not Jessica Simpson probably isn’t either.
I don’t necessarily assume that you consider us dumb—but there’s a good chance you do. Not because we are unintelligent—but because we’re blonde.
Sure, laugh it up. Blonde discrimination—what a joke. But really it’s not all that funny. Especially when you’re on the receiving end.
Yeah, I realize there are plenty of other problems society has to deal with—racism, elitism, sexism—and the thought of adding “blondism” to the list seems annoying and superfluous. I’m sure the most progressive of Social Studies concentrators feels he or she has better world issues to talk about in tutorial.
But blonde discrimination is real—even, and especially, at a place like Harvard.
Quick experiment. Think of five blondes everybody knows. First five that come to mind for me are Marilyn Monroe, Britney Spears, Hillary Clinton, Lisa Kudrow and Barbie. Four out of five of these women are famous for playing dumb.
Perhaps you’re not convinced that blonde discrimination is a big deal. Here’s some things to think about. According to the Budapest Sun, blonde jokes are set to be banned after close to 100,000 people in Hungary signed a petition calling for an end to blonde discrimination in the workforce and all walks of life. On thefacebook.com, the “Women against Blonde Discrimination” group counts 84 members. The “dumb blonde” stereotype has hit the academe. Tel Aviv’s public library held a symposium on dumb blondes two years ago. This past summer, an Australian grad student won a grant—$17,000 a year for three years—to get to the root of the dumb-blonde myth. You can even purchase apparel from a line of clothes called “A smart blonde” (which, I know, is meant to be empowering, but really, do we need the qualifier?). Carol Channing made a career out of playing a dumb blonde. “I didn’t have to be bright,” she said in an interview in Ladies Home Journal in 1955. “All I had to do was be blonde.”
Supposedly, blondes are dumb, annoying, superficial, sexually easy and fake. Most of these stereotypes are geared towards women. I remember learning in Science B-29 that we tend to admire people who look like us. If you grew up watching Cher sigh confusedly in “Clueless” and Jessica Simpson make daily blunders to canned laughter on “Newlyweds,” are you maybe then left thinking that the best way to get attention is to pretend like you only care about your nails? Or do you go out of your way not to act silly at all?
“Blondes at Harvard are under a lot of pressure to be always smart,” says Caroline Cecot ’06. “I sometimes feel as if I cannot be goofy in front of people I do not know well for fear that they will interpret my goofiness as dumbness in all areas of life, including academics.”
According to asmartblonde.com, nine percent of women are natural blondes. Far more sport blonde hair, however—maybe that’s why people think of blondes as fake. If they’re faking their hair color, maybe they’re also faking that happy face to see you smile? (Dolly Parton once quipped that she’s not offended by “all the dumb-blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. I’m also not blond.”) But even for those artificial blondes, should hair really be a reason to judge?
It’s interesting that being “blonde” is even part of my identity at all, but it has affected my time at Harvard. Blonde Harvard students are regarded as intellectually inferior and unconcerned with the world around them, only interested in socializing and sexual promiscuity. Blondes are regarded as cheerful and nice—people seem surprised to meet a blonde that is forceful or demanding. Our peers unconciouscly associate blondeness with affluence and privilege, and thus regard blondes’ opinions as naïve and ill-informed. People assume that I’m downright silly because of my hair color—and I wonder if I cater my behavior to their expectations.
Nowhere have I noticed this more than in the classroom. One fellow blonde (who asked not to be named) said that a friend once asked her if she tried to speak a lot in section to compensate for her “big boobs and blonde hair.” You can go ahead and say that this is all in my head, but I feel that my ideas—whether it be on Marx or Shakespeare—are taken less seriously because of my appearance. Even in conversations with friends, my opinions are sometimes cast aside.
“I’ve definitely had experiences where people seem surprised at my ability somehow, as if they didn’t expect me to be good at something because of the way that I look—particularly when it comes to driving, directions, etc.,” says Annie S. Day ’06.
Probably every Harvard blonde has experienced the inevitable Elle Woods comparison. “The most common thing I hear when I tell someone I go to Harvard is something like, ‘Oh my god you’re like that girl in Legally Blonde!’” says Elizabeth A. Ullyot ’08.
Poor Reese Witherspoon, who, if you’ve ever seen Election, you know is one of the more gifted actresses of our age, will be forever tied to the pink-clad sorority girl who finds herself (eyes wide and blinking) at Harvard Law School. Besides making a killing at the box office, the movie inspired CBS to create a TV special on blonde attorneys who went to Harvard.
According to every random half-stranger who finds out I go to Harvard, Elle is the prototype for successful blonde women everywhere. Seeing as she wins a court case because of her extensive knowledge of hair care products, it’s a little disturbing that Elle’s story has been taken as proof that “blondes can be smart, too.”
However, Elle’s experience at Harvard, cartoonish though it is, could be considered typical. She’s ridiculed by her classmates, who assume she’s materialistic and dim-witted, dismissed by teachers as air-headed, and chosen for a prestigious job because her future employer assumes she’s easy.
Being written off as stupid and purely sexual? Yeah, Elle, I feel you.
She wins because she’s underestimated. Which is one of the assets of being blonde, really—no one thinks you’ve got what it takes to get anywhere.
You’re not threatening.
My freshman year an editor at the Harvard Crimson told me I should go into investigative journalism. “Really?” I said, thinking he’d really liked my piece on visiting politicians at the IOP.
“Yeah, totally,” he replied. “You look silly, young, and innocent. You could totally play dumb and people you interview would assume they could tell you anything, ’cause you’d never remember anyway.”
It’s not so much an insult as an observation. That summer, I worked at a local newspaper, and my editor told me to go into police reporting because I looked “harmless” and “distracted.”
Okay, so kinda cool, people underestimate me, and I can take advantage of that. I could twirl my hair around my finger and chew my pen and say, “Oh really, ma’am, like, whoa, so who do you think, like, killed him?” and get my story.
But I really wish that weren’t the case.
It shouldn’t be surprised that a blonde has brains under her flaxen tresses. Smart blonde isn’t an oxymoron, nor should there be need for a qualifier at all. I realize that the dumb blonde bimbo stereotype has been present for decades in America, but it really shouldn’t be present at a place that likes to call itself liberal, intellectual and progressive, like Harvard.
Alright, I’m done now. You can call me hypersensitive, you can call me reactionary. Just don’t call me dumb.
Kristi L. Jobson is a Social Studies concentrator in Lowell House. She once highlighted her hair.