The Return of the Dumb Blonde

America loves Jessica, Paris, Britney. But why does ditzy turn us on?

Jessica Simpson is on a shopping spree. And as television’s reigning queen of dumb blonde-itude, it’s a pretty good bet she’s about to do something not quite sensible. But on a recent episode of Newlyweds, the MTV reality TV show co-starring the 23-year-old pop singer and her husband of one year, ex-NSync member Nick Lachey, the ditzy blonde du jour ends up wielding her ineptness with surprising humor and skill.

Despite scene after scene of Jessica and her mom scooping up billowy handfuls of designer duds and racy lingerie—and racking up thousands on her credit card in the process—the only purchase her famously frugal husband is seen flipping out about when she returns home is a set of Egyptian cotton sheets. Price tag: $1,400. “They last a really long time,” says Jessica in her defense. Talk about bait and switch.

Then she attempts to launder her new purchase. “Nick, is the washing machine broken?” she calls out from the laundry room in her kittenish Southern drawl. “See, even the machine doesn’t approve of $1,400 sheets,” he cleverly responds. But he begrudgingly shows her how to turn on the machine, a rather simple approach she would have viewers believe never even occurred to her. Who’s the real dummy in this picture?

The curvaceous blond bombshell who rocketed to stardom after wondering aloud whether Chicken of the Sea was actually chicken probably is not as brainless as she seems on Newlyweds. Then again, how bright can she be? Trying to guess is half of her appeal. Howard Stern put it more bluntly, saying of Simpson, “I don’t care if she’s dumb. That only makes her hotter.”

Whether they are playing for laughs or really are dumb as wood, pop culture seems to be dominated by blonde young women whose concerns, at least onscreen, are amazingly shallow. Witness the popularity of Paris Hilton and TV-mate Nicole Richie, Anna Nicole Smith and Reese Witherspoon in the Legally Blonde series. And let’s not forget the still incurably bimbo-ish Pam Anderson and anti-newlywed Britney Spears, who inexplicably married a high school classmate in Las Vegas in January, then filed for an annulment. Dumb blondes are back, and consumers seem only too happy to see them.

In an age of international terrorist threats and global warming, the giggly “dumb blonde” stereotype is the cultural equivalent of comfort food: a frothy, empty-calorie pleasure that harks back to an earlier, less intimidating era. “Likely types become popular in periods of conservatism,” says Aurora Wallace, an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University. “And we are living in an incredibly conservative time.”

Plus, it’s a relatively innocuous stereotype. After all, it’s not as though there aren’t plenty of intelligent and powerful roles for women, including blondes like Diane Sawyer, Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart. “It may be that we don’t care anymore,” adds Wallace.

Now that men are so often painted as fools, it’s also less insulting to show women in the same poor light. “The sexes got a little equal over the last few years—there were a lot of really dumb men,” notes Richard Laermer, president of Richard Laermer Public Relations and author of the book Full Frontal PR. Think Matt LeBlanc’s Joey character on Friends, the Dumb and Dumber series and every movie the Farrelly brothers have ever been involved with. “Suddenly it was OK for women to play dumb again.”

At the same time that pop culture is ready to welcome back the dumb blonde, it makes more marketing sense than ever to project that kind of image. “Making a fool of yourself doesn’t seem to stick to you in our culture these days—in fact, it’s a great way to build brand recognition,” says Wallace. Adds Laermer: “Look what happened when Britney Spears dyed her hair brown. Nobody cared, and she had to quickly go back to being blonde.”

Being dumb and blonde may just be a smart way of getting noticed in a world where we’re constantly barraged with pop-culture images. When it takes nothing short of Janet Jackson baring her boob at the Super Bowl to get buzz, a touch of political incorrectness is an easy way to grab the nation’s collective psyche. And the dumb-blonde stereotype is probably about as un-PC as pop culture is willing to get—at least in some contexts.

“I’ve always felt that places like MTV and The WB have never really been politically incorrect in how they presented their women characters,” says Laermer. “MTV never really had a character like Jessica Simpson before Newlyweds. You have to know your audience and know what they’re going to expect—and then do something different.” He refers to this strategy as “the image of the gimmick.”

It suddenly appears to pay well, too. When 22-year-old hotel heiress Paris Hilton catapulted to notoriety last fall by showing up in a porn video circulated on the Internet, it was hotly debated whether her instant fame would translate into something lasting or fade quicker than a tan. Since then she has signed a lucrative contract to appear in another season of The Simple Life, the Fox reality show that first exposed her to an unknowing public. She is also reportedly in talks to star in commercials for the Hilton hotel chain. As for Simpson, she is working on parlaying her confusion over what comes in a can of Chicken of the Sea by engaging in serious talks to appear in TV commercials for, you got it, Chicken of the Sea.

Blame it all on Barbie. The doll, that is. Created in the U.S. in 1958 but styled after a German sex toy, the slim, big-busted gal with flowing yellow locks and an astonishing array of outfits has put overwhelming pressure on generations of American girls. Never mind that she symbolizes a supposed societal ideal that doesn’t exactly encourage young women to go to law school or get a doctorate.

But the dumb-blonde icon can be traced back much earlier, to Anita Loos’ 1925 novel, Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Its lead character, Lorelei Lee, lived by the half-serious motto, “A girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.” Jean Harlow originated the dumb-blonde role in movies like Hell’s Angels and Platinum Blonde in the early 1930s. Then, in the ’50s, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield clued audiences into the fact that they were in on the joke and reinvented the image for a post-World War II America, which was ready for a little buxom bubbleheadedness. Goldie Hawn made dumb blondes groovy for the hippie era.

These days, being a dumb blonde is downright legitimate. “It seems to be the thing that actresses do to draw attention to themselves,” observes NYU’s Wallace. Or as one feminist puts it, “Every generation reconfigures the stereotype for themselves. The attitude is, ‘I’ll be a bimbo if I want to be.’ ” So says “Kathe Kollwitz” of the Guerrilla Girls, the irreverent group of anonymous feminists who name themselves after dead female artists; their latest book is called Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers.

Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer of The Kaplan Thaler Group in New York, says flipping the stereotype has created what she calls the brilliant bimbo. She cites her shop’s use of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in ads for Clairol’s Nice ‘n Easy hair color a few years back as one early (brunette) example. The old stereotype, she says, now allows women to see themselves with a sense of humor. “Traditionally, comedy was not used in commercials directed toward women,” says Thaler, whose agency handles Herbal Essences hair products for women. “Women were not allowed to make fun of themselves.”

Among male fans, the dumb blonde clearly does not always bring out their best. But it may be a perfectly innocent reaction. Tom O’Keefe, executive creative director at Young & Rubicam in Chicago, says dumb blondes are funny and self-deprecating, and therefore approachable. “Guys feel like they can talk to these women,” he says. “They seem to be nice.” O’Keefe cites the TV commercial for Pizza Hut in which Jessica Simpson replaces Miss Piggy as the object of Kermit the Frog’s affections—the gal must be a real charmer to so benignly upstage a beloved Muppet.

Some marketing experts reduce the dumb blonde’s appeal to an even more elemental fact. About 70 percent of the American population is brunette, making blondes an automatic standout. And these days—when it’s OK to look like an obvious fake, and it has even become popular among dark-skinned minorities to dye their hair blonde—anyone can join in the fantasy, and interpret it any way they like.

Of course, not all high-profile blondes are absolute ninnies. Madonna, who has often appeared as a blonde, is seen as a strong, sensible businesswoman, though it took a while for that image to take hold. Come to think of it, it didn’t really happen until the pop diva hit her 40s and consequently had eclipsed the age at which men generally objectify the fairer sex. And let’s not forget that Gloria Steinem, perhaps the world’s best-known card-carrying feminist, campaigned through the activist 1970s with flowing blond tresses. Today, Gwen Stefani, lead singer of the multimillion-selling pop group No Doubt, is one strong, sexy icon who has no use for the dumb image.

And perhaps it’s all just an image. Richard Laermer goes so far as saying that today’s authentic dumb blondes must be “very, very smart.” He puts Jessica Simpson in this category because he believes her reputation is her meal ticket. For the same reason, he doesn’t count the pneumatic Anna Nicole Smith, another reality-TV star, as part of the dumb-blonde trend. “She is less of a dumb blonde and more of a walking catastrophe,” he says.

The best example of how dramatically dumb blondes have risen in the world is Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods in the 2001 movie Legally Blonde and its 2003 sequel. Elle is the stereotypical blonde—a sorority sister, a Hawaiian Tropic girl and Miss June on her campus calendar. When her boyfriend packs up for Harvard Law School, his blue-blood Eastern family decides Elle is, well, too blonde for their boy. She decides to prove them wrong by getting into Harvard Law herself to woo him. Of course, she discovers, in the end, that she doesn’t really need him after all.

A more careful reading of the dumb-blonde pantheon suggests that these gals were always better off than they seemed. Even in her day, Marilyn Monroe was seen more as knowingly playing the breathless airhead than someone who really lived in an uninformed daze. All of which suggests that the key to being a successful dumb blonde is to be dumb as a fox. “When you play a role, you can decide what fits and what doesn’t,” says O’Keefe. “But you have to have smarts to embrace it.”