It is time someone spoke out against the vicious discrimination casually meted out to blonde women in all areas of life. Attractive blonde women are especially liable to be subject to open and unapologetic abuse in the most ordinary of circumstances. Somehow, in this dark corner where the exposing floodlight of feminism has yet to shine, it is still acceptable to make sexist ‘jokes’ and it is still acceptable to state that a person’s appearance makes them unsuitable for the job.
Blonde humour is the last bastion of the Bernard Manning (may he rest in peace) –style sexism that women have fought against for so long. Anyone so much as dimly aware of the work of Sigmund Freud knows that there is no such thing as ‘just a joke’. Humour is often a barely disguised way of making one’s views known without having to own them. And, in the case of gender- and race-based hatred, the humour is liable to be a plain insult with a mirthless laugh to follow.
Q. How do you confuse a blonde?
A. You don’t, they’re born like that. One only has to substitute the word blonde for ‘woman’, ‘Arab’, ‘Jew’, ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’ to realise the grotesque attack that is now indisputably intended. The fact, however, that such a substitution needs to be made before the full force of the joke’s underlying hatred can be felt is testament to the uncomfortable truth that women in this category are still acceptable targets.
Depressingly, women collude in the open hatred of their own gender, perhaps in the hope of being more acceptable to male friends and colleagues or, perhaps, in the misguided belief that other women are competitors who must be vanquished in order to win the prize of a man.
Every blonde woman I have spoken to can immediately cite a whole host of examples of direct sexist abuse. One eminent journalist remembers the beginning of her career when news was routinely categorised at her organisation as ‘hard’, important and to be covered by men, and ‘soft’, frivolous and to be covered by women. She was frequently told to ‘go and work on a women’s magazine’ — clearly the most ignominious thing that could happen to a serious journalist — to write for women. Her boss more than once called her ‘a pricktease’ in front of her colleagues. On an in-house leadership course she was told that blonde females had little authority and would not be obeyed.
She, like most blonde women, tempers her reasonable outrage by saying, ‘Well, maybe the men really were better war correspondents and deserved the extra pay!’ and ‘If I say any of this on the record, people are just going to laugh and say, “Her!? She’s not attractive!”’ So, not only do these women suffer unfettered discrimination, but they are ready to feel that it was perhaps justified.
According to Louise Bagshawe, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Corby and East Northants and novelist, ‘An employer told me my age and attractiveness were a problem in the office. I replied I could not do much about either. Didn’t seem to sway him.’
In the London offices of Al Jazeera International recently, I met an extremely friendly, bright and capable woman who had to go back to her desk to pick up some money for the coffee machine. ‘Everyone says I’m blonde in everything but hair colour!’ she laughed, assuming I would share the hilarity.
This struck me as an amazing and insulting comment, though in this case I do not believe the remark was intended as anything but self-deprecating. Astonishingly, people had used anti-blonde prejudice to tell this beautiful woman, out of sexist spite, that she was stupid and worthless even though she was not, in fact, blonde. And, keen to please, she had accepted the rule that everyone will hate you unless you apologise for yourself — make jokes about your own intelligence, dress down and don’t mention Oxford. She had willingly absorbed their comments and went around saying she was ‘just a stupid blonde’, despite being, in actuality, a brunette.
Of course, the very epithets blonde, brunette and redhead denote coquettishness, availability and certainly not intelligence. They are not used about men. Oddly, however, only ‘blonde’ remains an insult.
I then went into an impromptu meeting about an idea with a producer who said, ‘If you were an Arab man, we might think about it. We’re hardly going to be hiring a pretty blonde for it, though.’ She even laughed. When I described the meeting to two Arab men who both work at the channel, wondering at the source of this obvious hostility, they both replied with the same words: ‘Well. Look at her.’
I looked at her power. Clearly, though, I was supposed to understand that it was entirely reasonable for a woman whom two men perceived as being less attractive than myself to state openly that my looks put me beneath consideration.
Detractors will naturally scrabble to think of all the eminent blonde women in the world (can you really come up with more than two or three?) and will insist that we are a group with every possible advantage, advantages milked dry by the driving force of blonde ambition. But isn’t the truth rather that we, like other women, simply make the best of a bad lot? If the newspaper jobs we are offered involve writing about our relationships, then aren’t most of us going to take the money and run rather than kill ourselves fighting for the other jobs? If ‘women’s fiction’ has a breath of frivolity, a lack of gravitas, a ‘read it on the beach but don’t be seen reading it’ feel about it, where male writers are encouraged to think they’re changing the world, are we going to disappear up our own backsides in an indignant huff? If part of selling the book is ‘looking saleable’, then we’ll smile saleably. (In non-fiction the publishing rule for women is: put yourself in it.)
But with the advantage of saleability (within the strict confines of a non-serious arena) goes the disturbing, yet unspoken, rule that you must put up with the abuse that will be levelled at you. You will laugh when someone says they are ‘having a blonde moment’. You will accept that people might feel you are bringing down the tone of their serious television show and, what is more, you will also accept that they will tell you this to your face.
Educated liberal people who would not dream of voicing their hate-based views in any other arena will still feel entirely at liberty to insult you on grounds of appearance as though you were Barbara Windsor in a sequinned love-heart bikini.
Few would admit that it was acceptable to hate or denigrate women, but most would be happy to use the phrase ‘dumb blonde’ in front you. If you think it sounds harmless enough, apply the word-substitution suggested above.
Neat Vodka by Anna Blundy is out now (Sphere, £6.99).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 25, 2007