Saturday 27 May 2017

What's up, blondie?

Mariella Frostrup claims that blondes are still suffering '50s-style sexism. Wrong, says Jojo Moyes, it's what you do with your hue that counts

Jojo Moyes

How do you make a blonde incredulous? Tell her that whatever her achievements or professional status, she has actually been disadvantaged all along because of her hair colour.

This was my reaction to broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, who was quoted this week as saying that lifting the "veil of prejudice" against blonde women "continues to be a struggle".

"If I'd known then what my shade of choice suggested to the world I might have thought twice," said Frostrup, who first dyed her hair at 16.

"Few women may be born blonde but that hasn't stopped it becoming a noun. In Blonde World, whether you're a brain surgeon, a lap dancer or an oligarch's wife, it's all the same."

Publicising a new radio series, Blonde on Blonde, in which Frostrup examines the lives of three of Hollywood's most famous blondes: Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors and Doris Day, she says that female stereotyping has changed little in the past seven decades.

"In retelling their stories, there are echoes of the challenges still faced by women who wind up feeling their highlights have overshadowed their lives."

Now, I'm a big fan of Frostrup, especially her sagacious advice columns. And we'll leave aside the ironies of a woman who presents one of the few literary programmes on radio, who has rarely been off TV screens in 20 years, and let's not forget, a woman who dated George Clooney, complaining about being hampered by a hair colour she herself has chosen.

I have some sympathy for her view. I remember meeting a man in a bar who jokingly ticked off "blonde hair" as if he was ticking off a list of attributes he might want in a car (we didn't make it to a second date). And in a brief, ill-advised period of being platinum blonde (Annie Lennox has a lot to answer for) I found I did generate an awful lot of attention -- and some opinions -- that I didn't want.

I could see that going blonde is a statement in itself: it demands to be seen, and it is hence hard for onlookers to see beyond it. It was a relief to return to a more natural hue.

But her argument doesn't stack up. For a start it is impossible to lump all "blondes" together. Can we really say Goldie Hawn gets the same reception as Margaret Thatcher?

Being blonde in itself does not cause people to assume you are ditsy, or diminish your intellectual stature, even in the world of entertainment. It is what you do with it that counts.

Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors played up to a hypersexualised stereotype -- and were ultimately pigeonholed by it. They were victims not of their blondeness but of an age and industry that prescribed more rigidly what women were supposed to be.

It wasn't just blonde women who were treated badly in the '50s (as anyone who watches Mad Men knows) -- it was all women.

Frostrup goes on to cite Dolly Parton, Hillary Clinton and Lady Gaga, among others, as examples of women who combine blondeness with brains. But I don't see any of them feeling particularly disadvantaged by hair colour. Parton -- a woman who for years was defined by the size of her chest -- has always known that the joke was on those who chose not to look beyond the stereotype.

Critically acclaimed, as rich as Croesus, a woman with her own theme park for goodness' sake, she's far too wise to whine that she isn't taken seriously. In fact, she makes jokes about it.

There is a glowing list of movie stars who have not exactly had to struggle against the dictates of their hair colour: Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly to name a few. I'd quite enjoy the spectacle of watching someone trying to tell Dame Helen Mirren that she was seen as lightweight. And I would venture that Meryl Streep's blondeness has been an irrelevance to her stellar career. She is celebrated for what she is: a smart, talented, actress who has made wise choices.

If Lady Gaga complains she is not taken seriously as a songwriter I would suggest that it is as much to do with her habit of wearing teeny weeny leather bikinis in her music videos as much as any follicular colouring. If I saw Elton John donning a pair of little sequinned pants I might struggle to remember his songwriting abilities, too.

Studies show more women are choosing to dye their hair blonde, which raises the question: are women sleepwalking into some kind of social discrimination?

Are they actively willing themselves to look dumb?

Or are they lightening their hair because they trust that in a modern society they will be judged on what they do as much as how they look? And simply, as in my own case, because blonde looks an awful lot nicer next to a pale complexion than mousy brown? (Also because the one time my hairdresser let me try on a dark wig I looked like the subject matter in Waking the Dead).

No, in the great scheme of life, the downsides of being blonde qualify, as a relative used to say to me, as a Luxury Problem. And in 20 years of working life, I can honestly say it's been the least of my professional concerns.

There have been times when growing six inches in height, or even knitting myself a pair of testicles might have helped, yes, but darkening my hair? No.

In fact, there are times when blondes can glean positive enjoyment from subverting people's expectations. The hit film and musical Legally Blonde is testament to that.

Watch the AA man's face as you question whether there is damp in the distributor cap. Or the financial adviser's, as you tell him how many books you've written. Quote Proust at the bar, or discuss the elements of your chemistry PhD and listen to the audible clicks as brains around you have to recalibrate their expectations.

In a world where women's freedoms are being eroded, I will continue to revel in the joys of Light Ash Blonde and Natural Honey, not least because I'm conscious that before you know it, those locks will all be grey -- or if you're really unlucky, gone completely. I hope those who know me find my hair colour the least interesting thing about me.

And for those who really do believe they are being disadvantaged by the tint of their hair, there is a simple answer, and it resides in a box of Clairol.

As even a blonde would say, duh.

Irish Independent

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