- I'm No Angel: The Blonde in Fiction and Film
One of thousands of blonde jokes goes: What is a blonde doing when she holds her hands tightly over her ears? Answer: Trying to hold in a thought. But why, asks Ellen Tremper in her I'm No Angel: The Blonde in Fiction and Film, do we laugh at blonde jokes? Are blonde women somehow less intelligent than redheads or brunettes? Indeed, why women?
Tremper is attempting to explain the blonde iconography from nineteenth-century literature to twentieth-century film. While one might immediately [End Page 366] blame the Hollywood film industry for creating the image of the dumb blonde, Tremper points instead to a series of 1847 publications, including William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. All three presented blonde characters who were not the goody blondes of fairy tales but characters who plotted, schemed, and manipulated others for their own desires. They served, Tremper argues, as bellwethers for the aggressive, funny, sexually active blondes in literature and film who followed. Indeed, it was George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) that presented the first character who represented the stereotypical "dumb blonde." The character, Mrs. Tulliver, was "healthy, fair, plump, and dull-witted" (63). By the end of the nineteenth century Bram Stoker's widely popular novel Dracula (1897) projected the blonde as a dangerous, sexually aggressive creature.
In the twentieth century it was Hollywood's turn to promote the stereotype of the blonde. In the 1930s, though, blondes were not dumb. "The blonde of the cinema of the 1930s, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, and Jean Arthur would change the American landscape and women's place in it" (115), claims the author. Each brought intelligence, wit, and sexuality to the screen. West, in She Done Him Wrong (1932), could sing about her enjoyment of a guy who takes his time, and Harlow could joke about her life as a prostitute in Red Dust (1933). Lombard fought fascism in To Be or Not to Be (1942), and Jean Arthur taught a rather slow and naive Jimmy Stewart how to be a senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1941). These women were not dumb blondes—they were the equal of any man and as often as not were smarter and stronger than their male counterparts. The women in the audience loved these sexy, smart, aggressive, intelligent women.
While World War II opened up a vast array of employment for women, in the movies the war changed women from tough, smart, and independent women into support staff—the nurses, girlfriends, wives, and workers who sent their men off to fight the war. There were exceptions: Barbara Stanwyck, for example, plots to murder her husband in Double Indemnity (1944). She played the femme fatale with chilling effectiveness. David O. Selznick's Since You Went Away (1944) presented a host of strong and intelligent women. On the whole, however, Tremper views the war years as a step backward in the move toward gender equality on the screen.
Ironically, it was a blonde sex star of the 1950s who would most move women forward. Ignoring Jayne Mansfield and other blonde bimbos, Tremper views Marilyn Monroe as "much, much more than a twentieth-century fox" (195). Monroe, she writes, was a comic genius who played the classic dumb blonde but with such energy that she "reconnected women's sexuality and intelligence" (182). Tremper disagrees with Marjorie Rosen and Joanna Pitman and others who dismiss Monroe as just another sexpot. Monroe was sexy, but she could be warm and funny, she could act and [End Page 367] sing, and, most of all, she dominated her movies. She could be difficult and childish, but audiences flocked to her films.
Refreshingly written with a keen sense of humor and clarity of style, I'm No Angel is a pleasure to read. Not every reader will agree with many of Tremper's interpretations, but...