Over*Flow: “Blonde is a Kind of Person”: A Cultural History of the Dumb Blonde
Kelly coyne / Northwestern University
TikTok banned Tressie McMillan Cottom, an opinion writer for The New York Times, over the holidays after one of her videos went viral. “Blonde is a kind of person,” she states in the video. What elicited the vitriol was her question to her followers: “What kind of person?”
We have a few prominent examples of “this kind of person,” blondes whose stories our culture keeps turning to over and over again. In January, Pamela, a Love Story, a documentary about Pamela Anderson, came out. In the fall, Blonde—a biopic about Marilyn Monroe so controversially sadistic that even SNL knew to satirize it—appeared on Netflix; a few months earlier, “Marilyn,” Andy Warhol’s portrait, broke the auction record for an American artist. In May, a new documentary about Monroe premiered (The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes), and Kim Kardashian dressed as Monroe for the Met Gala. Our attachment to this archetype also surfaces in the summer obsession with the Depp/Heard trial, which was described as “O.J. on cocaine” and, like Blonde, was spoofed on SNL. Finally, the historical power of blond femininity explains why we keep returning to the redemption stories of Britney Spears and Elle Woods.
Just as our mediascape has trouble defining “what kind of person” a blonde is, our culture also has trouble figuring out how to treat them. From Monroe’s time until today, blondes—from Marilyn Monroe, to Elle Woods, to Britney Spears—channel contradictions. Both sexualized and infantilized, they are threatening and useless, powerful in some environments and debased in others. The origins of the archetype provide some clues as to why this may be. Though an association between blond women and stupidity was recorded as early as the 18th century, the trope of the “dumb blonde” emerged forcefully in postwar America, Monroe’s time, to neutralize the threat posed by white women with sex appeal.
The dumb blonde could maintain the bombshell’s sex appeal while diluting her power. During World War II, the bikini, named after the testing site for the nuclear bomb, emerged from fabric rations, and women who entertained troops were referred to as “bombshells.” (Like other femme fatales, Amber Heard perfectly embodies the dangers that white women with a particular kind of sexuality can pose to men they become involved with, their families, and to the social order writ large.) It was this combination of titillation and anxiety, tempered by a performance of the dumb blonde, that gave Marilyn Monroe her star power.
As Cottom points out, using the term “blonde” to describe someone works as “a signifier of a type of white person.” Blond hair and blue eyes are arguably the most prized physical characteristics in the West. This was especially clear after World War II, when there was so much anxiety about “Aryans” versus everyone else. Blond hair has historically indicated the “purest” form of whiteness. For this reason, naturally blond women are often used, in a romantic context, for status by white men. An added bonus: a blond haired, blue eyed wife might very well pass those traits onto her biological children; in addition to having a hot wife, your children’s looks confer status for the family, as do the opportunities that will be available to them because of their appearance. But, as Julie Burchell asks, “What does it say about racial purity that the best blondes have all been brunettes (Harlow, Monroe, Bardot)? I think it says that we are not as white as we think.” It makes sense that blond hair dye is so popular.
Though there was a cultural investment in sexualizing natural blondes in postwar America, the new access to contraception made bombshells even more threatening. (One mistake with a fun blonde, and she’ll blow up your life!) That is, contraception allowed high-status women to have power over sex in a way they hadn’t before. And because men left their jobs to fight, WWII was also a time when many middle- and upper-class white women worked outside of the home. When men came back, the idea of the dumb blonde could push high-class women back into the home while containing the anxiety their sexuality posed to the outside world. All of this came about during a moment of racial integration, when a white woman calling “rape” could bring her male protectors to murder a Black man. In a world of sexualized and helpless dumb blondes, white husbands and fathers need to protect their white women.
It is because of the assumption that the blonde is managed by white husbands and father figures that she derives power, in some contexts, and derision, in others. At the beginning of Legally Blonde, Elle is shopping for a dress for the evening of her supposed engagement—which would mark the transition from one father figure to the next—when a sales associate tries to hoodwink her into buying last season’s dress for higher than its asking price. She is cloying toward Elle, treating her as a welcomed guest, but the second Elle turns her back, she smirks: “There’s nothing I love more than a dumb blonde with Daddy’s credit card.” Elle is both valued and derided in the store because of the assumption that she is financially tied to a wealthy man and is, therefore, naive. When she goes to Harvard, we see her try to move out of this lane. What made Elle both welcome and a joke in the store, though, just makes her a joke at Harvard—not only for her creepy professor, but also the waspy women and feminist activists who populate campus.
Poster for Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” music video
Insisting that bombshells are dumb is a way of policing women like Elle Woods and Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, a way to manage them and capitalize on them at the same time. The conditions that encourage the dumb blonde to persist as a cultural icon are the same ones that churn profit from Britney Spears singing “I’m a Slave 4 U” while performing against her will under the hands of her father. Some dismissed Spears because she was a bimbo who used her sexuality for money, others because she was a rich, privileged blonde—a daddy’s girl. Taken to its logical conclusion, the dumb blonde is reduced to a dependent: so infantile that she loses the rights granted to adults in this country, so sexualized that she is only qualified to entertain and seduce.
Not all women are qualified to play the dumb blonde, however. Perhaps we can rephrase Cottom’s original question: What kind of person can claim that they are blond? None of these iconic blondes—Pamela Anderson, Reese Witherspoon, Britney Spears, Amber Heard—are natural blondes. But Kardashian hits different. Ever the racial shapeshifter, Kardashian claimed that she lost 16 pounds to fit into Monroe’s dress; even then, she had to wear a coat because the dress didn’t cover her backside. Racquel Gates highlights how snide commentary “about Kim’s ‘fat ass’ or the disconnect between her skin tone and Marilyn’s” elicited by footage of the dress fitting is “undergirded by racial connotations.” After the Met Gala, headlines proclaimed that Kardashian “damaged” and “ruined” the dress: words that point to a kind of racial sullying. The subtext is that Kardashian was not white enough—her curves too great, her skin too dark—to pull off the look. Never missing an advertising opportunity, Kardashian, in the dress-fitting video, asks, “Do I have to put on another pair of Skims?”
Indeed, Kardashian’s performance hints at a knowingness that she shares with Monroe. “I have honestly been working my ass off to see my vision come to life—I will be crushed if this doesn’t pay off,” Kardashian says, before the fitting (italics mine). For the payout, she had to shrink her ass and become whiter. Though the dress didn’t fit, Kardashian was successful: dressing as Monroe, just like dressing as Elle Woods, garnered commentary, clicks, and capital. Even if adoration and disdain are two sides of the same coin, Kardashian understands that it pays to play dumb.
- Cottom’s viral TikTok
- Poster for Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” music video
- Kardashian’s Marilyn Monroe dress fitting
- Kardashian as Elle Woods
- Cottom, Tressie McMillan. 2023. “The Enduring, Invisible Power of Blond.” The New York Times, January 19, 2023, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/19/opinion/the-enduring-invisible-power-of-blond.html. [↩]
- Dowd, Maureen. 2022. “Johnny Depp and Other Pirates.” The New York Times. May 21, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/21/opinion/johnny-depp-george-w-bush.html. [↩]
- Pitman, Joanna. On Blondes. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2008. [↩]
- Le Zotte, Jennifer. 2015. “How the Summer of Atomic Bomb Testing Turned the Bikini Into a Phenomenon.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 21, 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-wake-testing-atomic-bomb-bikini-became-thing-180955346/. [↩]
- Cottom, “The Enduring, Invisible Power of Blond.” [↩]
- hooks, bell. 2014. Black Looks: Race and Representation. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge. [↩]
- Hassan, Adeel. 2021. “Emmett Till’s Enduring Legacy.” The New York Times, December 6, 2021, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/article/who-was-emmett-till.html. [↩]
- Luketic, Robert. Legally Blonde. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 2006. [↩]
- Day, Liz, Samantha Stark, and Joe Coscarelli. 2021. “Britney Spears Quietly Pushed for Years to End Her Conservatorship.” The New York Times, June 22, 2021, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/arts/music/britney-spears-conservatorship.html. [↩]
- Chapin, Angelina. 2021. “The Vindication of #FreeBritney.” The Cut. June 22, 2021. https://www.thecut.com/2021/06/free-britney-spears-speak-court-conservatorship.html. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
-  “Kim Kardashian’s Stylist Shoves Her BUTT Into Marilyn Monroe Dress.” E! News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol4qD7tuCJI. [↩]
- Gates, Racquel. 2022. “Opinion: Kim Kardashian Gives Us a Glimpse of How Hard It Was to Be Marilyn Monroe.” CNN. May 10, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/10/opinions/marilyn-monroe-kim-kardashian-met-gala-dress-gates/index.html. [↩]