Have you ever found yourself questioning why a character is blonde? Why Eve Marie Saint, immersed in an Italian community, in On the Waterfront, was blonde? Since the conception of Hollywood, writers, studio heads, and producers have looked for ways to make their motions pictures the most appealing. The men in charge discovered two things: sex sells and nothing is sexier than a blonde, bombshell or not. While the trope of the Hollywood blonde limited some, many women have challenged the trope and fought for respect in the male dominated industry of film.
Almost one hundred years after the silver screen became the primary vehicle for stardom and entertainment, blonde sex symbols are still seen regularly in films, but where did it all begin? Jean Harlow was the first Hollywood Blonde and set the mold for all blonde women who dared to follow. Her comedy, her body, and her hair skyrocketed her to fame and her look reflected the recent flapper movement: carefree, sexy, and playful. Jean Harlow’s ascendance can be attributed to one man: Howard Hughes. Howard Hughes was a famed business man and plane enthusiast; Hughes chose Ms. Harlow to star in his first picture, Hell’s Angels, the story of two brothers, a love triangle, and, of course, planes. Ms. Harlow was chosen for this film because of her beauty and “nobody [really] thought she could act” (Longworth). A casting director once described Harlow’s curvy body as “a dust pan” (Longworth). Hell’s Angels was Harlow’s first big break and Hughes could not wait to introduce her to the world. Hughes hired Lincoln Corberg to create a publicity campaign centered around Ms. Harlow and after much consideration, the platinum blonde was born (Longworth). By naming Jene Harlow the platinum blonde, Howard Hughes cemented a demeaning stereotype that would be maintained for decades.
Ms. Harlow had little opportunity for complex and serious roles because she was sexualized from the beginning. She could not have received roles with depth because they were incredibly hard to find and would have probably been told she was not serious enough for a role. In Red Dust, moderately regaled film, Ms. Harlow fails to create a deep connection with her one-dimensional character. Over the course of the film, Clark Gable, the rugged, male lead, choses a worldly, brunette over Harlow’s character, who is nothing more than a seductress. The favoring of a serious brunette over a dumb blonde occurs over and over in films and perpetuates a negative stigma towards blondes and Harlow’s character becomes the punch line of an age-old joke. In Red Dust, she is not a character, but a version of herself. The next film that epitomizes Harlow is Platinum Blonde. In this film, Harlow does not play the lead, but she does play the title role. However, her role lacked serious depth and she was once again cast for her sex appeal. Her director even believed “[Jean’s] character was a pig” (Longworth). This film serves as a disappointing reminder of how others utilized Harlow’s fame for their benefit. Harlow’s roles only existed within strict parameters; her roles could only be comedy gags and sex symbols. She could be famous and ogled by thousands, but never allowed to be taken seriously. After Gene Harlow, other blondes shuffled in and out of her roles, until the most iconic blonde of all time entered the industry.
Marylin Monroe is THE blonde bombshell. While Jean Harlow may have originated the term, Ms. Monroe is the definition of the term. Marylin burned brighter and faster than other stars and shot to fame quite suddenly. Discovered while working at a manufacturing plant, Ms. Monroe was the reflection of the American standard. I believe that Marilyn characters reflected a man’s desire to put women back into their place after the war because she was portraying desperate women who could often not survive without a man. While her ascendance can be accredited to men like Joe Skank, David Conover, and Darryl Zanuck, Marilyn believed she was responsible for her sex symbol status. Marilyn said “men expect so much of [her] because of the image they have made of [her] and that [she had] made of [herself], as a sex symbol.” Using her sex symbol status, Marilyn persona became larger than life and her roles struggled to keep up.
Ms. Monroe had many roles that serviced the sex-pot blonde stereotype mold. For example, Lorelai Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an alluring woman who is driven by material wealth. She condemns her best friend, played by Jane Russell, another Howard Hughes creation, for pursing love instead of wealth. Her performance ails to grasp depth, but manages to be a successful satire. Personally, this is my favorite Marilyn movie because it is so delightful and comedic. Marilyn truly owns her bombshell status and utilizes the stereotype to her advantage. The movie exists within her brand, but it is more interesting than Marilyn other films. While seemingly one-dimensional roles launchedMarilyn to fame, Marilyn was not willing to let her career exist strictly within a stereotype. Marilyn craved what she couldn’t accomplish with her previous roles, to be legitimized as an actor and as a member of the motion picture industry. “She was serious…about wanting to be seen as something other than a sex pot” (Longworth). Her status as a sex symbol was burdensome, especially when Monroe decided it was time to get serious. Marilyn perfect fulfillment of the blonde bombshell limited her opportunities in film, until she decided to fight for more.
Marilyn Monroe found immense success from her films released in the early 1950s and used them as a launch pad for her attempt as a serious career. Monroe began studying at the Actor’s Studio. After her time, there, Monroe transformed her acting style. With a more serious outlook on her career, Marilyn fought to create her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. She co-created her production company with photographer Milton Greene in 1954 and quickly began work on her first production, Bus Stop. The New York Times declared that “Marilyn Monroe [had] finally proved herself an actress in Bus Stop.” This film was a testament to the success that Marilyn could have accomplished and quite possibly would have. The second film her produced under her company was The Prince and the Showgirl. To gain more respecting in the acting world, Marilyn hired Sir Laurence Oliver (Longworth). This attempt was very unsuccessful and his harsh opinions of her broke Marilyn’s confidence on set, which led to a very unsuccessful film. Sadly, Marilyn’s aspirations were stopped short by her untimely death, but she managed to achieve more than many other women trapped by stereotypes. Despite other’s opinions of her work, Marilyn desires paved the way for many women to come. Marilyn was truly a progressive woman and ahead of her time.
With the fall of the studio system came the rise of strong female characters. Faye Dunaway inhabited the film community most prominently during the seventies and she entered the film industry as an established actor. Although Dunaway was not a bombshell or type casted as a dumb blonde, her roles prove that during this time there were opportunities for blonde women to find serious roles. Her incredibly nuanced and professional style of acting gained her mainstream recognition for her first film role in Bonnie and Clyde. Dunaway experience the height of her stardom in a time right after the rise of the counterculture movement of the sixties, which embraced the empowerment of women. Her role Bonnie, from Bonnie and Clyde, seems to be tailored to this new wave of feminism. The first scene of the film features a naked Faye, which serves to imply that her sexuality is her own. This strays from the conventional context of a sexy blonde because her nudity is not in a sexual context, it simply serves the story. Dunaway, which seems to stray from the conventional sexual context nudity. This scene services Dunaway’s role and contributes to the audience’s understanding of the character. Another highly regarded film of Dunaway’s, Chinatown, features one of Dunaway’s strongest performances as a woman caught up in devastating family affairs. Her role, as a victim, stays true to the blonde stereotype, which assumes all attractive blondes are the follies of rich men. Where her role departs from tradition is her performance, she truly gives Chinatown her all and presents a troubled woman who has been totally broken. Dunaway’s deviated path led her to create a respectable name for herself in the acting world and prevented her from being labelled, in the media, as a blonde bombshell.
When people think of the most famous movie title with the word “blonde” in it, depending on when they are born, you will either hear Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or Legally Blonde. Like Lorelai Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Reese Witherspoon’s iconic role as Elle Woods was a satire. It was a satire on the outdated and degrading opinions society has peddled about blondes. This role is inspirational and playful, but is held up by Witherspoon’s mastery of comedic timing and energy. While this film had the opportunity to be offensive and debasing, it was lighthearted, but carried an honest message: all women and blonde women are more than their looks. Witherspoon’s other roles have continued to go against the grain and to challenge the industry’s expectations. Her role in Election featured a teenage character who was involved in an illicit affair with her teacher, but was the most achieved student in her school. More recently with Big Little Lies, Ms. Witherspoon took on the role of a housewife. While many depictions of housewives tend to lean towards satires, Witherspoon approached her role with intensity and pure genius. Over the course of the limited series, Witherspoon’s character is uncovered. What at first the audience sees as an uptight, pretty, and evil woman blossoms into a heroine who is selfish, but also intelligence and strong willed. Witherspoon was also an executive producer on the project. Big Little Lies proved to be one of her most interesting roles. Ms. Witherspoon is also paralleling Marylin’s career path in more ways than one. She recently started a production company titled Hello Sunshine, which promotes “female-driven stories” (Variety). This production company and a handful of others like it are creating these female-driven companies to share real stories, not a stereotyped and fragmented version of our realities. Reese Witherspoon has worked to ensure that women have roles available to them with depth as well as finding roles for herself that have unlimited potential.
In conclusion, so much has changed since Jean Harlow graced the silver screen. All this change has had a positive impact on the industry, but women are still stereotyped every day. Women like Reese Witherspoon are fighting to share our real stories and to give women a platform. The trope of the Hollywood blonde limited some, but many women have risen to the challenge and fought for serious roles that did not stereotype them because of their hair color. There is still great progress to be made and many stronger female actresses to lead the way. The future is full of opportunity and men no longer control all the decisions in Hollywood. Women are the future of film and stereotypes have no place in that future.
Hughes, Sarah. “Reese Witherspoon: how she became Hollywood’s most powerful woman.” Tha Gaurdian,www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/12/reese-witherspoon-hollywood-powerful-female-star-big-little-lies-sky-atlantic.
Longworth, Karina. “Jean Harlow Flashback (Dead Blondes Part 3).” You Must Remember This, episode 95.
Longworth, Karina. “Marylin Monroe: The Persona (Dead Blondes Part 7).” You Must Remember This, episode 99.
O’Malley, Sheila. Weblog post. Joan’s Digest, www.joansdigest.com/issue-1/monroe.