Discussion: Being Blonde in YA

Discussion

I first thought of writing this post after reading Radiant ShadowsWhy Do Blondes Get to Have All the Fun? which, obviously, focused on the fact that brunette (female) characters in YA tend to be portrayed as nerdy, socially-awkward, and plain while blondes are normally the popular, “pretty” girls. I really do feel bad for brunette readers – it does seem like so many YA books suggest that brown-eyed, brown-haired girls are the ugly stepsisters, or at least the ugly duckling, to the beautiful princess.

Well, neither stepsister has brown hair, but I can’t help but notice that Cinderella has blonde hair while neither of the stepsisters do…

This post isn’t about the unfair treatment of brunettes, though. Instead, I’m looking at how blondes are treated in books, because things aren’t always great for them either.

Think about some of the most popular female characters in YA right now. The very first that came to mind was Hermione Granger. Well, Harry Potter goes beyond YA, but I’m including it anyway. Some others that came to mind quickly were Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan (there are plenty of others, but these are some of the most popular among books and movies, which means it’s easier to know what hair color they have). Do you notice a pattern among these three strong (well, I think the first two are strong) and beloved  YA characters?

Yep, they’re all brunettes. Sure, Bella spends all her time talking about how plain she is (well, that’s what I’ve heard/read – I never actually read the Twilight books, other than the first half or so of the first book) and Hermione is often praised for her intelligence and good nature but rarely her looks (which is not a bad thing – in fact, it’s nice when female characters are recognized for their skills rather than their appearance), but in the end they’re the heroines of the books. They’re the smart, brave, loved girls who fight against the odds to survive or to find love, which could be seen as a battle of its own when the YA world seems to think that brunettes should be ignored in favour of the blondes.

But that’s not the point of this post.

Instead, I want to point out that blonde characters, though normally portrayed as the pretty, popular, confident girls, are also the mean girls, the “sluts” (not condoning calling them that, just pointing out that it pops up a lot), the vapid, low-IQ girls who care much more about their nails than the world around them. Oftentimes these characters can fit these descriptions, but it’s not because they’re blonde – it’s because the authors chose to give them these characteristics and to make them blonde.

Like I said, I’ve never read the Twilight books, but from what I’ve read online (if you dislike Twilight or like the series but enjoy reading snarky commentary about the books anyway, you should check out Blogging Twilight or Mark Reads Twilight; if you don’t like people mocking or pointing out problems in Twilight, then I advise you stay far, far away from these sites), Stephanie Meyer is not a fan of blondes, from a mean girl that hates Bella for no reason to mean girl vampire sister Rosalie who hates Bella for no reason (or does she hate for being human? Clueless non-Twilight reader right here).

Since I’m far from being a fan of Twilight, though, this reason doesn’t matter as much to me. So, I was kind of sad when an author I like mentioned blondes in a less than positive light:

“And no more blond hair.”

“I want people to take me seriously.”

– Gayle Forman’s “Just One Day,” page 163

It’s not a direct put-down of blondes or anything, but it’s just one more reminder that blond, smart women are often viewed as the exception, while brunettes have the much nicer, alliterative trope of “Brainy Brunette.”

It can feel like I have to dig my way out of a destroyed bathroom just to find smart blondes, let alone smart blondes who don’t get called out for being rare, strange creatures among the sea of dumb blondes.

Why yes, I did use that metaphor specifically, why do you ask?

Here are some books I’ve read lately that have “smart,” or at least not “dumb,” blondes:

LightningThief IdTellYouILoveYouButThenIdHavetoKillYou FridaySociety Diviners Unearthly The Summoning

It took a while to find just these six (I went through my entire collection of covers saved to my WordPress) and not all necessarily qualify: The Friday Society‘s Cora is the blonde/redhead, can’t remember for sure, and she’s the one who loves sparkles and costumes and magic, but she was my favorite character and she genuinely had a good heart and I think she was just as smart and brave as the other two girls; and The Diviner‘s Evie is the party girl flapper who’s a bit too selfish at time, but she is also quite smart, albeit more in the street smarts category. And at least half of these books are quick to point out that these girls seem to be overcoming the inherent dumbness or at least not-genius of their hair color.

It seems like blondes only have two choices in YA: to be the mean girls who are easy and obsessed with makeup or the random smart girl who is a blonde anomaly. Brunettes may frequently be told that they’re the plain, boring ones, but blondes are shown to be dumb and silly. Really, the problem doesn’t seem to be the hair color of the girls – girls in YA in general are too often told that they’re less simply because they’re girls, and the stereotypes of hair color seem to just feed into that further.

(The Hermione Granger GIFs are from here)
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16 thoughts on “Discussion: Being Blonde in YA

  1. I love how you’ve shown the other side! The blonde is very often stereotyped as the bitchy mean girl without substance – which has got to be frustrating for blonde readers! Sometimes I wish authors just didn’t include what color hair the protag had – why does it matter?

    1. That could certainly help – with some books, hair color truly is importan to the character, whether it connects them to one a relative or they dyed it an odd color in response to something else, but for the most part it really isn’t as important as the character’s personality or something similar. Overall, though, I think not relying on any stereotypes, especially ones that put girls down simply for being girls, is the most important thing that needs to change.
      Or maybe all female protagonists should just shave their heads so hair color doesn’t even factor in!

  2. Great post! I actually noticed a huge increase in brunette protagonists in YA, while blondes tend to play the stereotypical part of the mean girl these days. I don’t know how I feel about this new trend. I like that not all MCs are blondes, but for some reason brunette protagonists seem to be portrayed as smart, but pale, boring, clumsy and in desperate need of a (bad) boy/hero. I hate that. Not all brunettes are like that, same as not all blondes are mean.

    1. Exactly – blonde =/= mean and dumb, while brunette =/= awkward and shy. We need a variety of hair colors in our protagonists as well as a variety of personalities that has nothing to do with hair color.

  3. Lazy writing is lazy writing, no matter which hair color is getting dumped on. (Although, as someone who has light brown hair as opposed to brunette hair, I would LOVE to be represented at all.)

    Great post. You can add THRONE OF GLASS by Sarah J. Maas and SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY by Susan Dennard to your list. The first is about a wicked smart and scary-good blonde assassin; the second is about a blonde debutante-turned-zombie hunter. It helps that both authors are blondes themselves, I think. 🙂 (Oh, wouldn’t THAT make a great informal study? I’d love to know how many authors write about MCs with their own hair color as opposed to MCs with a different hair color.)

    1. Yes, relying on stereotypes, whether they involve hair color or not, is pretty lazy writing. I’ve reached the point where I get really excited when the mean girl doesn’t have blond hair; I’ve never thought about different shades of brown, but you never really do have light brown hair, do you? It’s always “boring, plain brown,” which seems to imply that the hair color is standard brown rather than dark or light brown.

      Hmm, I haven’t read either of those books – I might have to check them out to see how those blondes act – it sure sounds like they aren’t stereotypical blondes, which is great! And that’s a good point about the authors – if I ever write a follow-up post, I might try to look up author’s pictures to get a better idea. I’m sure author’s hair color plays a pretty big part.

  4. This is SO TRUE. In the nineties, all the heroines were blonde. It’s just the way it was. And now – like you said – it’s tough finding one NORMAL blonde girl. All the YA heroines out there at the moment are the plain brunettes that nobody notices over the bimbo hot blondes. It irks me to no end. Seriously.
    AND THEN even if the MC was blonde (like Elena from The Vampire Diaries), when they televise the show she is .. wait for it … brunette. SERIOUSLY. You couldn’t have kept her blonde? She had to be dark and broody AND brunette? And, of course, there is Caroline in the TV show, who is the blonde and is kind of bimbo-y.
    It’s like authors write a slightly dark paranormal/fantasy novel and think that a girl with light hair will make it not a dark paranormal/fantasy story because she isn’t dark herself. If that makes sense.
    But yes. Love this post. It’s so true. Hair colour doesn’t determine a person’s personality. So why do YA authors think it does? I think they need to be told that the dumb blonde stereotype has been thoroughly overused and just really needs to stop.

    1. I hadn’t thought about the Vampire Diaries example, mostly since I never read the books, but you’re right! I think it’s much easier to find normal blondes in contemporary books than paranormal, but even there it can be a strain. And forget the other hair colors – that’s for background characters only it feels like. Why do you do this to us, YA authors?

      1. A lot of people have never read the books, haha.
        true. I read a contemporary recently, and the girl had blonde hair and she was SHOCKINGLY normal. Haha.
        Oh, red seems to be making a name for itself in YA at the moment. And then the character complains about being a redhead etc etc etc. Sigh.

      2. Yeah, normal blondes are so unusual and as rare as unicorns – thanks for making that clear, YA.

        And since my mom has red hair, I feel like I get offended at the treatment of redheads just as much. And it seems like redhead protagonists look like carrots while glamorous redheaded friends and sisters always have the pretty kind of red hair. Come on, YA!

      3. I’ve never read City of Bones, but it does seem like the actress has a different hair color than the model on the covers, which really shouldn’t be more accurate than a movie!

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