I could be making too much out of it, but when I saw RuPaul (on MTV) sashay through her dance hit “Supermodel,” then shop at some mall in New Jersey while just-adolescent boys stared up at her in admiration (lust? confusion?), I felt the progressive potential of the postmodern. RuPaul is everything that a blond goddess is supposed to be — beautiful, sexy, and candy for the camera. Everything, except for the fact that RuPaul is a black drag queen. That era of certainty, when “the blond” was always a woman and the woman was always white, seems to have come to an end. Once a privileged sign of white femininity, “blondness” is now simply a sign of the freedom of choice.
Like every other choice we have in the supposedly “color-blind” United States, the choice to be blond should be made so as to prove that one can make it, to prove that one is American. Today’s more effective hair coloring, and the continued mainstreaming of wigs, enable blondness to be achieved by those with even the most resistant hair. Yet the democratization of blondness is not simply the story of perfected cosmetic technology. Blondness is where our changing notions of race and gender come together.
There are blonds and there are blonds. Some babies and kids and J. Crew models are blond. Their blondness, once termed “natural,” is rather incidental, or better, accidental. There is something almost un-American about accidental blonds, suggesting as they do an exclusive Mayflower stock or Aryan genetic purity. Accidental blonds contradict the idea of the equal-opportunity melting pot. Their blondness is an embodiment of ancestry, indicating European origin (history) and not American self-realization (endless present). Truly American blonds are bleached blonds, and bleached blonds are 1950s blonds: Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Dorothy Malone, Doris Day, Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors, Mamie Van Doren.
The blondness that attracts media attention today is a blondness that blatantly conjures up images of the 1950s. Madonna and Linda Evangelista, the Kikit and Guess models, are/were all one-tone bleached blonds, their attraction lying precisely in their display of the obviously artificial. This is the key: bottle blonds are not simply women with fair hair. Bleached blonds are a complete and excessively visible package of a femininity considered “conventional” since the height of its expression on the movie screens of the 1950s: dramatic makeup, usually with dark lashes and red lips; large or prominently displayed breasts; highly coded fetish-sexy attire; and, just as taken for granted but ostensibly lying outside of the realm of constructed characteristics, white skin.
The feminine woman was once opposed to the sexual woman, sexuality in this context rendered too savage, too animal-like, the realm of those nonwhite races that had yet to assimilate Christian cultural values. In the ’50s, however, fascination with female sexual behavior — driven by the popularization of Freudian psychoanalysis, the Kinsey report, and the secularization of society — allowed a conflation of femininity with sexuality. For an increasingly image-organized culture, femininity was defined in terms of what was visible, and visibly sexual. Blonds were assured their prominence in this visual reinvention of femininity in 1953, when Marilyn Monroe graced the pages of the first issue of Playboy.
Femininity, which consists of marks of civilization that distinguish ladies from biological women, still retained associations of purity via the necessary cosmetic manipulation of womanly bodies. Shaved, made-up, and especially bleached, women were sexualized, not sexual. They were products of desire, and not its producers. The flamboyant artificiality of this visible femininity continued to announce the separation between civilization and savagery so necessary to the political demands of the 1950s. In a racially segregated U.S. suffering the first organized resistances of what would become the civil rights movement, femininity was an unambiguously white-skinned woman whose white or yellow hair was a sign of her racial purity and, consequently, her worth. Just as in the 19th century, safeguarding white femininity was the primary reason for the maintenance of racial segregation.
The ’90s are not the ’50s, but when an image from another time is reinvested with importance, or at least currency, it’s not simply a question of the supposed free play of signs in postmodern culture. Why this image, and why now? Does RuPaul prove that, although still a sign of femininity, blondness has ceased to imply the powerful connection between whiteness and political value? Is it really progressive for a black man to be able to become a blond woman? Or is it indicative of the supreme power of the image, which assures us that, even if we haven’t actually achieved the racial equality promised by the American Dream, we can at least look the part?
When I bleached my hair, I did not intend to become a symbol of white supremacy. I also did not desire to become the ultimate image of female sexuality. I was more than aware of the irony of my position as a bleached blond, never bothering, even to try to make my hair look “natural.” But something happens when a woman goes blond, regardless of how theatrical or theoretical she believes her new image to be. Blondness exists as a concept apart from the various individuals who embody it, and it makes those bodies over in its own image. I found myself wearing lipstick, eyeliner, the whole bit, still insisting that it was all done within quotations, that it wasn’t “really” me.
The increased attention I received was proof, I thought, only of the addiction of everyone else to old, fixed meanings of blondness. I was called “blondie” on the street at least a dozen times a day, my hair color having provided a more specific term of address than the traditional catcall, “hey you.” And of course straight men wanted me and straight women thought I was a bimbo — at least those women who were nonblond. We bottle blonds would gather for hair talks, swapping tips about toners and bleach. I’ve had female bonding experiences as a blond that I could only dream about in all my years as an alienated brunette. Women would band together in empathic sisterhood to help me combat my bouts of yellowing, or to reconfirm that it didn’t matter how my hair felt, as long as it looked good.
With queer friends I was a cut-rate Madonna, a role I enjoyed immensely for a while, as it suggested a certain freedom from the overly serious pursuit of fitting one’s wardrobe to one’s political positions and sexual preferences. It was only belatedly that I came to understand that for white women, bleached blondness has the same function in both straight and queer iconography. Just think of Sheila McLaughlin’s film She Must Be Seeing Things, in which the “real” lesbian, a dark-haired woman of color, imagines her white-skinned blond lover in scenes of unfaithful bisexuality. Or Basic Instinct, where Sharon Stone’s character is shown to be capable of killing her male lover because she also likes to sleep with girls. Whether bimbo or bisexual, the bleached blond woman is still first and foremost a sexual woman, but now an uncontainable sexuality makes her immediately suspect.
After a second and third wave of feminism, white women’s sexual bodies are no longer that which must be protected from criminal acts. They are that which is criminal. This new function of bleached blond whiteness suggests a more sinister aspect of RuPaul’s media success. Given the complexity of contemporary battles in the image culture for the equal rights of all races, genders, and sexes, have white women’s bodies simply ceased to be necessary in the realm of representation? ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 27, 2019