In Europe, the Americas and parts of the Middle East, all countries with at least some blonde population, blondes are universally seen as the most beautiful and desirable of all women. It is easy to demonstrate this.

Yet at the same time “dumb blondes” are the subject of many hundreds of jokes about their alleged stupidity. In Hungary, a country with more than its fair share of beautiful women, the jokes have led to angry protests by Hungarian blondes who claim that they are discriminated against in the labour market. In November 2004, blonde women held an angry protest outside the Parliament building in Budapest, claiming they were being unfairly treated in the workplace and when applying for jobs. Blondes, both real and bleached, stood outside the ministries holding up banners that read: “We’re blonde not stupid” and “Love us for our minds”. The demonstrators who belonged to Hungary’s “Blonde Women’s Movement” also went and threw eggs and cake at a bar called “Blondy” to deface it and called upon the blonde barmaids working there to come out on strike.

The very real beauty and the merely alleged stupidity of the blondes are closely related phenomena. But how can I be so sure that their beauty is real and that they are stupid only in jokes?

The proof of the attractiveness of blonde hair is the sheer extent to which women, who are not naturally blonde, bleach or dye their hair blonde and pretend that this is its real colour. Why else would they do it unless it is to make themselves look more beautiful? By contrast it is unlikely that many blonde women dye their hair red or brown or black. In Britain a third of adult women aged between eighteen and fifty boast light-coloured hair but for very few of them is their hair colour natural, even though they may well have been truly blonde when young children. In Europe and North America as a whole only about five per cent of adult women have naturally fair hair as adults, yet there are blondes everywhere.

The clinching evidence comes from Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of Freakonomics, who showed statistically that women looking for male partners or dates through personal advertisements on the internet often claim to be real blondes when they are not. They do so for the same reason that they also claim to be much slimmer than they really are. Blondness and slenderness are linked in our minds to the physical attractiveness of youth for women tend to get darker as well as fatter as they get older. When women become grey, a normal aspect of ageing, many choose to turn blonde rather than reverting to dark hair, whereas greying men use black or Reagan-reddish-brownish hair colours. Going blonde has a pay-off for the women who claim, truthfully or not, to be blonde for they get more email replies to their advertisements than the others while those who say they have “pepper and salt” hair get the fewest. Blondes are beautiful because they look younger.

Even in countries where dark hair predominates men seek out blondes. As Ovid tells us, the ancient Romans would cut off the blonde hair of German slave girls captured in war to make false hair for their own womenfolk, many of whom had ruined their own hair with fierce bleaching. The Romans, as we know from Caesar, did not have the same high regard for the ginger-haired Belgae who gave their name to Belgium. At the turn of the seventh century St Gregory, Pope Gregory the Great, saw some beautiful blonde slaves for sale and asked who they were. They are Angles from the far away pagan land of England, Angle-land, he was told. According to tradition, Gregory looked at their fair skins and hair that glowed in the sunlight and said: “Non Angli sed angeli” – “Not Angles but angels” and resolved to convert these barbarians of angelic hue to Christianity. Blondes are creatures of the light.

Arab and Turkish slave-traders were always keen to buy blonde women from Poland or the Baltic states to be the sex-slaves of the lascivious Arab or the lustful Turk, men not limited by Christian monogamy. One curious consequence of this is that the members of the Turkish elite are often the descendants of these sexual partners of the harem preferred for their beauty and much lighter in colour than those below them in the social order. Saddam Hussein became so obsessed by the daughter of a Greek engineer, whom he called Shaqraa, meaning the blonde, that he had her husband murdered, forced her to convert to Islam and kept her in captivity. Saddam’s Arab wife dyed her hair blonde in order to compete with his gorgeous Greek slave. Even today the procurers, pimps and panders of the wealthy Arab countries are keen to import and exploit blonde hookers from Ukraine. Thus the love of the blonde woman and her light skin long preceded the rise of European predominance and is quite unrelated to it. It is close to being a universal preference.

Why then should women who are so much admired be the subject of so many jokes?

The earliest humour about blondes concerned the women who rendered themselves blonde artificially, going back as far as Ovid. In the early days it was done with slimy pigeon dung or the urine of horses, later with that strong, oxidant bleach hydrogen peroxide and today with a range of desirable blonde tints brought to us by the sophisticated chemical industries of capitalism. Colouring one’s hair blonde has been called the poor woman’s plastic surgery. It is an enhancer. But like the wigs worn by bald men, synthetic blondeness involves deception and deception leads to humour at the expense of the would-be deceiver.

In his 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray the witty Irishman, Oscar Wilde wrote of a society hostess:

Her capacity for family affection is extraordinary. When her third husband died, her hair turned quite gold from grief.

It is a play on the phrase “silver-haired” which might well be accurately used of someone whose hair in voluntarily turns grey due to stress, shock or grief; it suddenly disfigures their appearance with an accelerated ageing induced by sadness. No one’s hair turns gold with either age or fright. Oscar Wilde’s merry widow chooses gold in order to attract a new suitor. Gold is a most valuable and indestructible metal and it is the way blondes with their golden tresses like Goldilocks are described in traditional fairy tales for children. Only platinum blondes rank as high. I once teased a blonde five year old by telling her how sorry I felt for those who had yellow hair. She thought for a moment, preened herself and replied “I’ve got golden hair”. I had lost my attempt at banter to a clever moppet. But our very choice of “gold” to describe blondes rather than the more accurate but denigrating “yellow” is indicative of how much they are esteemed.

The “peri-blonde” who used peroxide was the subject of many quips in 1940s Britain. Likewise in America jokes about fake-blonde actresses occurred.

Actress to fair-haired competitor: “Another wisecrack like that and I’ll tear your beautiful blonde hair out by its ugly dark roots.”

The idea of the dumb blonde gets going in the 1920s when women first gained a degree of equal opportunities with men in education and as employees and voters. As I write I am drinking coffee from a British mug emphasising the importance of secrecy in war-time. It reads “Keep mum, she’s not so dumb” beneath a picture (originally a poster) showing a beautiful blonde on a sofa being fawned on by an army, a naval and an air-force officer. Servicemen are being admonished not to speak of secret matters in public and the familiar image of the dumb blonde is used to get the message across. But it gets across to the fact that women are now active agents in society.

The woman who really publicised the image was the gifted American writer Anita Loos who perceived in the 1920s, when women were achieving success in their own right, that the dumb blonde was a comic misfit and anachronism; she could only succeed by using her physical attractiveness to manipulate men. In 1925 Loos invented the classic dumb blonde Lorelei Lee, for her humorous novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, later made into a celebrated film. The central character, the beautiful blonde Lorelei Lee, has been acquitted of a murder, of which she really was the perpetrator, by an all-male Arkansas jury. It is a fact that juries do favour attractive defendants and what could be more attractive than a young blonde. She is seriously stupid, a siren as dense as the rock after which she is named. She wins out in life by the sheer irrational force of her sexual attraction. She is not only dumb but a cause of dumb behaviour in her male admirers. In the twenty-first century when the dumb blonde image is well established, it has been shown by French psychologists that it really does induce stupidity in men. The men were asked to perform a task that required intelligence. If they were shown pictures of blonde women beforehand, many of them performed worse on the task. Showing the men pictures of beautiful dark haired women had no such effect on their performance. They had become stupid by association – not because of bemusement but from knowing the jokes linking blondeness and stupidity.

As Elliott Oring has shown, the great wave of blonde jokes began in America at the end of the 1980s, when women were moving rapidly into higher level jobs that required the exercise of intelligence and responsibility. Beauty was getting in the way and blonde women represented beauty. This antithesis between a physical characteristic and a mental one is common in jokes. There are many jokes about stupid athletes and sports-players who tend to be men with powerful bodies just like the blondes albeit a different kind of power.

But it is time to look at some of the jokes:

If you drop a blonde and a brunette from 100 feet up, which one hits the ground first?
The brunette, because the blonde has to ask directions on the way down.

What’s the difference between a blonde and a shopping cart? The shopping cart has a mind of its own.

A blonde was sitting for a science exam. One of the examiners asked her: “If you are in a vacuum and someone shouts out your name, can you hear it?”

She thought fourteen minutes and then asked, “Is it on or off?”

A blonde female traffic cop stops a blonde driver and asks for identification. The blonde driver says she has left her license at home.
“Well, do you have any other kind of identification on you?” asks the police officer.
The blonde takes a mirror out of her handbag and says, “Well, I do have this picture of me.”
“Let me see it”, says the traffic cop. She holds up the mirror and looks in it. “Oh”, she says, “My apologies. If I had known you were a fellow police officer, I wouldn’t have stopped you.”

A blonde goes to her doctor and says she has pains all over. “When I tap my leg with my finger it hurts. When I tap my arm it hurts, when I tap my back it hurts, when I tap my nose it hurts.”
The doctor examines her and says: “I’m afraid you have broken your finger.”

The jokes soon spread to Europe including Hungary and became popular. Some were imports but many were local and often contain references to events and institutions specific to the European country where they are told or depend on wordplay that only makes sense in the local language.

A friend is taking a blonde to the cinema. Above the entrance there is an illuminated advertisement which proclaims:
“Two hours of excitement! Two hours of thrill! Two hours of relaxation! Two hours of real entertainment!”
The blonde says: “Are you crazy? Why have you brought me here? Do you think that I am going to sit for eight hours in the cinema?” [Sent to the author by a dark-haired female professor of paremiology in Hungary by email in 2008.]

Or from Poland:

A brunette meets a blonde girl and asks her: “Have you heard of this rail disaster at Skierniewice?”
“No, what happened?”
“A train was derailed and 100 people are injured.”
“One hundred? One hundred? … That’s a million before redenomination.” [After there had been much inflation in Poland the currency was redenominated by a factor of ten thousand. The joke has to be of Polish origin because unless you know the background it does not make sense.]

It is difficult to believe that anyone takes these jokes seriously. Jokes are a product of social circumstances. They do not feed back into society and they do not have consequences. The Hungarian blonde women’s protest was triggered by their difficult economic circumstances, which had nothing to do with their hair. People consistently make the error of over-estimating the power of casual words and calling for censorship when the real problem lies elsewhere. In any case why didn’t they simply dye their hair black to look intelligent or in most cases just allow their fake-blonde hair revert to its natural colour? Their solution lies in a bottle and I do not mean Pálinka.

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