Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Yes, she's blonde. So what?

"Late one cold November night, in the suburbs of New York, a thirty-one-year-old blonde was sobbing on her bathroom floor." 

That's the first sentence of Ariel Levy's New Yorker review of Committed, the new memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. At the time of the sobbing incident Levy describes, Gilbert was the author of a book of short stories, Pilgrims, and a novel, Stern Men. But she's not introduced as a "thirty-one-year-old writer." She is introduced as a thirty-one-year-old blonde.

I might refer to Gilbert as "a blonde" when chatting with my sister because Gilbert is indeed very blonde. But Levy is not chatting with her sister.  A staff writer at the New Yorker, Levy has written a thought-provoking book called Female Chauvinist Pigs, and this memorable 2005 profile of a 57-year-old redhead. If I were writing in the New Yorker about Levy I would not describe her in the opening lines of my piece as "a 35-year-old brunette." To do so would be patronizing, irrelevant, and sexist. Has anyone ever described Dave Eggers as a 39-year-old brunet? 

But there's another, more mundane reason I wouldn't do it. Let's play with Levy's opening sentence:
 
"Late one cold November night, in the suburbs of New York, a thirty-one-year-old brunette was sobbing on her bathroom floor."

Doesn't that sound stupid? David Remnick, a 51-year-old brunet, would never let such a lame lead sentence into his magazine. Why does blonde, however sexist, sort of work, while brunette falls flat? 

We all know the answer to that: Blonde has implications. Levy is signaling something when she refers to Gilbert's hair color. You could argue that her radiant blondness figured in the success of Eat, Pray, Love, which it probably did. Looks help and hurt people every day, in ways large and small, tangible and not. This isn't news. But Levy isn't making this or any other argument; she's just implying something intellectually belittling and not quite nice, and doing it in what strikes me as an underhanded, not quite nice way. I'm sure others read it differently, and others will skip right over it, and others will think I'm making far too much of it. Of course I am! But I'm a 43-year-old brunette and this is the kind of snottiness that gets on our nerves.  

24 comments:

  1. I agree that "blonde" is loaded, but to me it refers to things other than intellect. When I read that first line I pictured a down-on-her-luck golden girl, someone privileged by the color of her hair and what it had won her, someone used to getting her way and having encountered unaccostumed adversity. Granted, I perceived all of that in a flash, not fleshed out as described here.

    I don't think you're wrong at all. It's just interesting to me how different our perceptions are.

    I'm a redhead, btw, which carries it's own variety of baggage. ;)

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  2. Now that you mention it, I can see it that way too. I guess only Ariel Levy knows what she was trying to do!

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  3. I also think of blondes as being looks oriented because, let's face it, hardly any adults are naturally blonde. Most likely, that blonde lady is in the salon spending $100 every 2 months to touch up those roots.

    When I moved from Southern California to Connecticut for college, I was shocked at how few blondes there were. In my dorm of 100, there were only 2 golden blondes in the dead of winter. At my high school, of the white folk, most must have dyed because at least 80% were blonde.

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  4. thanks for linking to this! i had no idea she had a new book, and i'm a huge fan of "Eat, Pray, Love." weirdly enough, i was watching "This Emotional Life" on pbs or some other public network, and she happened to be on discussing her experience with depression. i suppose when it rains, it pours. the conclusion is on tonight, by the way, it's a really great program.

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  5. I'm with you. As a blonde, I do spend tons of money on my hair, but I was actually a naturally very blond small child and teenager. Now my hair has darkened to a very unappealing dark blond but not at all brown.

    "Blonde" carries a ton of baggage and preconceived notions. I think Elizabeth summed up the connotations beautifully.

    For example, I recently met a new guy, and when I am introduced to his friends and family, I am always aware that they are judging me as his younger, blonde girlfriend. In this instance, I think I would be better received by some parties if I had darker hair.

    This is not an issue that affects my life dramatically at all, but it is kind of interesting to watch people react to you.

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  6. I guess that when I read "blonde" in the first sentence of the review I think "vulnerable, pretty, dainty." Some of that comes from the context -- sobbing, bathroom floor -- some of it from the blonde.

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  7. I read the article yesterday and zeroed in on it too. Thank you for bringing it up.

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  8. I am not sure I would have caught that, but I totally agree with what you are saying - no one would have described a man in that way. Try putting redhead in and it sort of works again. Loaded words..

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  9. Excellent catch and post Tipsy! And look at the varied and thoughtful comments it provoked. Very good.

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  10. Interesting post. This kind of thing bugs me too. A similar thing that gets on my nerves is when the female subject of a news article is referred to as "mother" or "grandmother" when it has nothing to do with the rest of the article. In the same situation a man would not be referred to as "father" or "grandfather."

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  11. Do you read Jessa Crispin at Blog of a Bookslut? She had a similar thing to say,

    http://www.bookslut.com/blog/archives/2010_01.php#015573

    and was on the same page as you about the Safran Foer book.

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  12. Our society just cannot graduate from Gentelmen Prefer Blondes and/or "Blondeshave more fun" - the Marilyn Monroe complex...
    and women buy into it just as much as men. I am horrified by how many of my friends have become blondes as they started covering up the gray - when they were not even blonde at all! I want to ask them: what are you doing??? but i don't....
    I agree - the "blonde" is totally irritating. BUT Gilbert obviously want to be perceived as blonde and glamorous. Look at that pose! and that hair!
    I guess a man cannot even be a "blonde"? can he?

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  13. We have an expression around my house for sentences like Levy's...twatty. Forgive my French, but twatty has a certain panache that bitchy and snarky lack. I couldn't stand Gilbert's EPL even though the other adults in my house loved the book. And frankly I can't remember a thing about Gilbert's book or Levy's current piece about Gilbert other than that opening line of Levy's, which I'm sure David Remnick stetted to stir the pot. But I digress. What I really wanted to respond to was something Mary said... about her friends becoming blondes as they cover up their gray. Because up until she said that I don't think I'd realized other than obliquely that my brunette mother, brunette sister, brunette aunt, and brunette cousins have been in evolving shades of blondness for years. And that both of my brunette grandmothers died blonds. Which reminds me of another word my mother and her mother (and likely Ariel Levy's mother and grandmother) use(d)... shiksa. Which always makes me think of Suzanne Somers in Three's Company, and how much cuter/spicier Joyce Dewitt was. Don't get me wrong...I have a great fondness for Somers' Chistmas Snow. But a late-period QVC-blouse-hocking pneumatic Somers scares/saddens me almost as much as Michael Jackson did. Are there really folks out there who think all these taut faces look fetching. Am afraid to google if Joyce Dewitt's gone blonde. Have no clue what I'm even saying anymore. Thank goodness TB does.

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  14. That's a really good catch - we would never refer to George Clooney as "a fifty-something salt-and-pepper brunette." But it's so expected that women are just whittled down to a variety of physical attributes (rather, than, say a personalities, or their accomplishments).

    Excellent post - and a great example of why I love your blog!

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  15. Grrr. As a dark meh blonde I say that unless her blonde hair plays a causative role in her toilet sobbing, it had better not be used as a descriptor.

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  16. wow! did tipsy hit a nerve here, or what. imagine the next time you see the phrase "busty blonde" or how about "bottle blonde"? "icy blonde"
    to be fair here, aren't there an awful lot of "bottle brunettes" out there too?

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  17. Like Tipsy, I'm a 43-year-old brunette.. does that inflect the way I sob next to a toilet? I can't stand Elizabeth Gilbert, and usually love Ariel Levy, but I agree that opening sentence grates. Also: I don't know who the first Anonymous commenter is (the one with the comment on "twattiness" and Somers vs. DeWitt) but I want to be her best friend. Hilarious.

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  18. The Three's Company writers, after setting blondes back about 50 years with Chrissy and Cindy Snow as the counterparts to Janet, saved the show by bringing in Terri, who was blonde in hair color only and was just as smart as Janet -- that was my favorite era of the show.

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  19. Ok, as a bottle brunette I feel the need to comment on this one. As your lovely chestnut locks become progressively more gray--white really--it becomes more difficult to color your hair. You need to do it more often because even a quarter inch of white/gray roots is very visible because of the contrast. If you choose a lighter color you have less contrast to deal with and you don't need to be in the salon or standing next to the catbox in bathroom with your hair flipped over your head for hours every 2 weeks dying your hair. Blonde is less maintenience. Red is the most.

    I love choosing my haircolor and part of it is playing with people's perceptions. But the one haircolor I NEVER go with is, you guessed it my (now) natural mostly salt and some pepper.

    What George Clooney sports with approval would turn me practically invisible.

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  20. I must agree, that was a nice catch. I live in southeast Alabama, and you can't toss a turnip without hitting a blonde ponytail. I'm naturally blonde myself and used to see it as such a burden, because I'm often perceived as "someone privileged by the color of her hair and what it had won her, someone used to getting her way..." (I'm not calling Elizabeth out, I just think that she perfectly summed it up). When I was much younger I fantasized about dying my hair so that it was blackest black, almost blue, because of the social stigma that accompanies being blonde.

    Eventually I realized exactly how much power I held because of my haircolor. There's nothing more satisfying than defying stereotypes - watching my peers' faces when I got accepted to Harvard was awesome, even though I couldn't afford to go.

    So think twice before you judge a busty blonde. Some of us are down-to-earth and didn't choose to be towheaded.

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  21. Thank you ;-) take a look that emo boy hair over this blog:
    http://emo--boys.blogspot.com

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  22. I have any problem with blondes, In fact I simply love all of them. Thanks a lot for sharing and let me share too, I think your site is very nice!

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  23. Excellent article, I really appreciate the novel genre, specially if we are talking about Elizabeth, her book is a thorough examination of the institution of marriage from a multitude of historical and modern perspectives, particularly women, reluctant to marry. In the book, Gilbert also includes perspectives on same-sex marriage.
    23jj

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  24. Visiting your website for the first time.
    Have you read Tina Fey's book Bossypants? There is a very funny chapter where Tina calls blonde hair yellow because she is pretty sure that people describe her hair as brown instead of brunette.
    I've had a few negative life experiences around blondes.
    It is an issue because people continue to think of blondes as special.
    I'm a 48 year old with white streaks in my dark brown hair and I don't plan on coloring. Tip: don't wear black, wear color.

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