On being blond: Do they have fun?

March 09, 2003|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

On Blondes, by Joanna Pitman. Bloomsbury. 320 pages. $24.95.

I was the sole blonde in my class at the small Catholic girls' school I attended. Each year when the class photo was taken for the year book I was singled out by the photographer to be the center of the photo -- the student pointing to the map, the blackboard, the art exhibit -- with all of my non-blond classmates as my audience. A sun and her (no doubt resentful) satellites.

Joanna Pitman would be unsurprised by this recounting, nor similar stories I or other blondes might have to tell. We are, as she explains in her smart and savvy social history, On Blondes , a breed apart, as the author herself experienced.

In her introduction, Pitman relates how, while working for a medical aid charity in Kenya, her hair had been bleached by the unrelenting African sun. She was perceived as having special powers due to its lightness. By serendipity she saved the life of a snakebitten man and the act -- which actually involved driving him to the nearest doctor in time to get an antidote for the venom -- was attributed not to her car but to her blondeness.

Pitman, longtime reporter for the London Times, set about investigating. The result is her captivating and incisive take on history's love / hate relationship with blondes, the world's true exotics when it comes to hair.

(One in 20 American women are natural blondes; one in three dyes her hair.) On Blondes begins with Venus, the original blond goddess and arbiter of love and sensuality whose tresses influenced princes, poets, populists and prostitutes. The rarity of blond hair, particularly in Greece and Rome where paeans to Venus proliferated, made it even more coveted, if not worshipped. (The quest to achieve it was grisly; pigeon dung, arsenic and other caustics resulted in the exalted golden tresses).

The love affair with blondeness led to intriguing incorporations. The profane melded with the saintly: Soon the Virgin Mary was a blonde as was her biblical opposite, Mary Magdalene. Eve, too, was branded a blonde. Thus blonde was ambiguous; it could mean sensual danger or pure innocence.

Renaissance painters Botticelli, Tintorento and Titian reveled in it. Queen Elizabeth I of England began life as a redhead but soon became blond as a symbol of her virgin status and her incorruptibility. Victorian England beatified blonde innocence in pre-Raphaelite icons and their little-girl Alice in Wonderland counterparts. Blond men were heralded, particularly the young blonde soldiers of World War I who gave their lives for country, like the poet, Rupert Brooke.

When eugenics reared its ugly head, the creation of the idealized Nordic Aryan signaled the Holocaust and Hitler's Ubermenschen. Hitler worked to rid Europe of non-Aryans, while Stalin attempted to do the same in the U.S.S.R. Blond became so idolized it threatened to annihilate whole populations from Europe to Asia.

Hollywood's obsession with blondes promoted the iconic hair with no less zeal. From Marlene Dietrich to Jean Harlow to the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, blondes inspired desire in men and imitation in women. Baby blonde Shirley Temple helped a Depression-riven America stay cheery while blond pin-up Betty Grable kept the troops happy on the fronts.

Feminism birthed the power blonde -- icy icons of politics and business cut from the same determined cloth as Queen Elizabeth -- Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Princess Diana, Madonna and Martha Stewart. (The last natural blonde among all these was indeed Venus. Do blondes have more fun? queried a 1960s Clairol commercial. A now-blonded woman answered with the exaltation, "If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde!" Despite dumb blonde jokes and smutty remarks, blonde remains the color elite, desired and desirable.

On Blondes is a vast, thorough and highly engaging romp through mythology, religion, history, art, sociology, anthropology and popular culture which culminates in Pitman's determination that blondes certainly get more attention and may indeed have more fun as well as power. But she adds the cautionary Shakespearean caveat -- all that glitters might not be gold -- pondering whether Hitler and his predecessors left a dark and lasting legacy through the millennia: that to be a member of the elite, one must pass as such, making blonde a metaphor and an aspiration rather than mere hair color. On Blondes is heady stuff, a work of wry brilliance.

A natural blonde, Victoria A. Brownworth continues to have more fun, dividing her time between writing for national publications, writing and editing books and teaching writing and film for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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