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The Reeler Blog

The Smart and Dumb of It

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey has a thing for blondes. But it's not what you think.

"They've had a really interesting literary, artistic and movie tradition," Rickey told me in a recent interview, discussing the roots (no pun intended) of tonight's Dumb Blonde, Smart Blonde program in New York. "It always interested me that when the creator of the dumb blonde, Anita Loos, wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she really conceived it as a satire of smart men who could be blinded by these golden-haired golddiggers. But really, in the 1930s, when the dumb blonde became a Hollywood stereotype -- except for Mae West, who was a smart blonde -- the dumb blonde became, instead of a satire of how silly men could be, a satire of how dumb women were."


"No one's diminishing her; she's making her own choices": Mae West, one of the subjects of Carrie Rickey's discussion Dumb Blonde, Smart Blonde

Hosted by New York Women in Film and TV, the evening will feature film clips and discussion, highlighted (seriously, no pun intended) by Rickey's closer look at the evolving dynamics, stereotypes and hypocrisies affecting blond actresses and their respective characters. The Reeler got an advance preview from Rickey during our chat last week:

THE REELER: So has there been a kind of revisionism of the dumb blonde and smart blonde over the years?

CARRIE RICKEY: The smart and the dumb blonde coexisted. Mae West said, "I'm blond, but I'm smart. I own my own sexuality; I buy my own diamonds." The blonde in the Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight terms was shrill, materialistic and traded sex for diamonds. You see that with Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. These were really negative stereotypes. But when you get women like Mae West writing, she's in power. No one's diminishing her; she's making her own choices.

R: How did Judy Holliday's Oscar win for Born Yesterday reinforce the longevity of that stereotype?

CR: It really typecast her. Judy Holliday was a brilliant revue comedian with Adolph Green and Betty Comden in the '40s. Really smart, really political. After Born Yesterday she was always pleading with Harry Cohn: "For once, I'd like to be able to play someone in my own voice, in my own hair and as intelligent as I am." But she really didn't get that opportunity because people really enjoyed the dumb blonde. I just think that Holliday and even Marilyn Monroe -- as much as I love them -- invite a certain kind of male condescension. You laugh at them rather than with them.

Philadelphia Enquirer critic Carrie Rickey

But when increasing numbers of women write screenplays and get behind the camera, we get the rehabilitation of the blonde; we get this "bridge blonde" who goes from dumb to smart during the course of the movie. Whether it's Judy Benjamin in Private Benjamin, which Nancy Meyers co-wrote, or Cher in Clueless, which Amy Heckerling wrote and directed -- that's the middle stage.

R: Who are some other contemporary models we can look to?

CR: Look at Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon. She's running the show: a mother, a producer, a businesswoman all at once. Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail. She's running a business and really believes in helping people. It's very idealistic and kind of wonderful. She loses her business, but no one's calling her a dumb blonde. What you usually see is when you want someone smart, you go for a brunette; when Charlize Theron wants to be serious, she darkens her hair. When Julia Roberts wants to be ditzy in Charlie Wilson's War, she wears a blond wig.

R: Then there's Paris Hilton. When we got on the phone you mentioned you were reviewing The Hottie and the Nottie.

CR: She's in another category beyond smart and dumb. There's kind of a periodic chart of blondes. She's a brand blonde -- making movies to extend her brand, it seems to me. I just think this movie was commissioned to give a softer, sweeter side to Paris Hilton. It backfired in that her relationship with her friend June is that she's going to rescue this ugly mutt from the pound -- "Look at how great I am." It's very strange. The only line she delivers with any conviction is, "Pay the bar tab, bitch!"

R: You're a blonde, right? How personal is this to you?

CR: Well, I was blond until I was 18, and then most people aren't really natural blondes after that age. I would now call myself a "tarnished elective blonde." I'm with Dolly Parton: I'm not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I'm not dumb and I'm certainly not blond. But I always felt for these women; I could feel the misogyny accrue to the stereotype. I felt guilty laughing at these women. But it's not personal. If it had happened to brunettes or redheads I would have felt the same way.

Posted at February 12, 2008 12:15 PM

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