Answer Man

Answer Man: Stereotype about brainless blondes has long history

Q. Why are blond women stereotyped as silly and brainless?

— O.S., of Fairview Heights

A. Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of pure jealousy from all the spurned redheads and brunettes over the years.

Perhaps, ironically, it’s because they are often too intelligent.

Or perhaps you can blame it all on Rosalie Duthé.

You’ve likely never heard of this popular French courtesan, but some say that, like the first patient who spreads a new disease, Duthé may have become Dumb Blonde Zero way back in the late 1700s.

She certainly didn’t set out to be the archetype that has haunted blondes ever since. In fact, she spent many of her early years training as a nun. But after leaving the convent, Duthé became the mistress of English financier George Wyndham, “whom she is said to have ruined,” according to records in the British Museum. Then she became a dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet — and the lively companion to various French noblemen.

In a particularly noteworthy tryst about 1788, Louis Philippe II, the Duke of Orleans, reportedly presented Duthé (about 38 at the time) to his 15-year-old son and future king, Philippe, to “learn some facts of life,” according to a book by Alain Guédé. When she was seen riding in Philippe’s royal carriage, jealous young aristocrats reportedly began singing a tune that can be loosely translated as “La Duthé must have suckled royally.”

During this time, Duthé had developed an idiosyncratic behavior of pausing for long periods before speaking. Thus, she appeared dumb both in a figurative and literal sense, leading to a one-act satire in 1775 entitled “Les Curiosités de la Foire,” which reportedly “kept Paris laughing for weeks.” As a result, historian Joanna Pitman in her 2004 book “On Blondes” wrote, “Rosalie Duthé acquired the dubious honor of becoming the first officially recorded dumb blonde.”

Now, her portraits — including many partial and full nudes — can be found in both museum and private collections around the world, which has led to the theory that because of beauty and brains, fair-haired lasses often are perceived as ditzes. Yes, it sounds strange, but here’s the thinking: Even in primitive times, gentlecavemen preferred blondes, experts theorize. Back then, male hunter-gatherers kept getting trampled by the woolly mammoths and eaten by saber-toothed tigers as they tried to provide for their families, so there was a surplus of women. Since light-haired women stood out, they became favored in the mate-selection process.

Over the centuries, this attraction to blondes continued. This means, according to the theory, that blondes would be more likely to wind up with stronger and more intelligent males. When they mated, they would pass all these desirable genes to their kids. As a result, the ensuing generations of blond girls not only retained their beauty but also wound up with increasingly better brains.

But, the theory continues, this turned into a double-edged sword. Because blond women often are considered more attractive, many think they get by on looks alone. They marry rich, they are promoted because of their beauty or, worse, of course, they may be perceived as sleeping their way to the top. Innate intelligence goes undeveloped — if they had any, the detractors would say. So it isn’t too surprising why blonde jokes became popular — and perhaps even fueled by cast-off darker-haired women.

Unfortunately, study after study bears out this stereotype. In one, people were shown pictures of the same woman wearing wigs of different colors; the platinum blonde was rated least intelligent. In another, men shown pictures of blondes performed worse on an intelligence test as they dumbed themselves down to the blonde’s level. In a 1996 study, bosses were given various snapshots of supposed job applicants; blondes were seen as less competent even though all of the resumes were identical. And, in 2006, blondes were found to be underrepresented in a survey of 500 CEOs in the United Kingdom.

It doesn’t help that the media has perpetuated the stereotype with such noteworthy examples as Goldie Hawn, who started out as the ultimate airhead on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” The classic Clairol teaser “Is it true blondes have more fun?” may imply a desire for good times over intelligence. Even Alfred Hitchcock reportedly favored blondes because audiences wouldn’t suspect them.

There has been pushback. In “Legally Blonde,” for example, the protagonist turns out to be highly intelligent. Cartoonist Chic Young started with Dumb Dora in the 1920s but is best known for his classy Blondie Bumstead. (OK, there is Paris Hilton, but there are exceptions to most every rule.)

As for me, I’ll still take Veronica over Betty and Mary Jane Watson over Gwen Stacy.

Today’s trivia

What not-so-uplifting historical event is said to have led to the Nike slogan “Just do it”?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Only three towns in England have been granted permission to use “Royal” in their names. The first occurred in 1838, when Queen Victoria allowed Leamington Spa to use the prefix. Well-known in Roman times for its spas, the town, named for the River Leam took off in the late 1700s, when doctors bragged about the water’s medicinal property. Queen Victoria visited the town in 1831 and obviously enjoyed the place. Then, in 1909, King Edward VII granted Tunbridge Wells the right to use Royal as a title because of the town’s popularity with the royal family over the years. (The town has been mentioned in books and films ranging from “Lawrence of Arabia” to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”) Then, just four years ago, Wootton Bassett was granted royal patronage when the royal family learned residents were going out of their way to honor those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as their bodies were driven through the town of 12,000.

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