"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.