Blonds and Blood

Does it seem to anyone else there’s a disproportionate number of blond white women playing victims and corpses in TV crime shows? This may be partly due to TV’s disproportionate representation of white people in general, but white lead actresses frequently have hair colors other than blond.

While I acknowledge I’m not going to sit down with stacks and stacks of DVDs and catalog all the victims and their coloring, I have been watching DVDs of Criminal Minds lately. Even accounting for the reality that white men who prey on women of their own race are the majority of known serial offenders, I’m seeing an awful lot of long blond hair on corpses and victims. In addition, they’re all (hardly surprisingly) slim, Hollywood-pretty and young or youngish. I recently watched two episodes in a row (Season 2’s “Open Season” and “Legacy”) in which the serial killers were hunting people of every description. But who were our main victims in these two episodes? Two Hollywood blond women, slim, white and young.

I remember forming the same impression with other cop shows, including the well-above-average Davinci’s Inquest, which centered a couple of seasons on the serial killing of mostly First Nations prostitutes, but chose a pretty, healthy-looking young white blondish girl for the prostitute we actually got to know (Sue).

Is this just because blond is the beauty standard for actresses? Does this argument even make sense, given how many popular lead actresses have hair of other colors? Or is it that someone thinks blonds look more vulnerable somehow? Or that it’s a more tragic waste when the victim is blond? What’s the thinking here?

Comments

  1. The Other Patrick says

    Sorry, but I didn’t know how else to submit a link to you: Women buy more movie tickets than men. So any day now, films will be target primarily at women, and only dumb actioners will be made for men. Right? right?

    Or the studio executives will see that and think: “See, we’re doing it right. Women go to the movies even when we don’t make films for them, so why should we start.” Because either way, women do it wrong.

  2. Anemone says

    One possible reason might be that blood shows up better on blonde hair. (And on virgin-white clothing, too.)

    But yeah, I think there’s a blonde = more innocent thing going on. Naturally blonde hair is more common among children than adults. Also, lighter colouring (hair, skin, eyes) seems to be less intimidating-looking, except when it’s icy-pale. So a blonde woman is more approachable-looking, more friendly in appearance. Makes for sympathy. Being very small and delicate looking would also work, if that’s what they’re going for. Or you could just use women with nice faces.

    I think in general, though, there are more women with dark hair on TV/in films than there used to be, which is a good thing.

  3. says

    Blonde is considered the most feminine hair color. And our cultural definition of femininity includes weakness, vulnerability, being (theoretically) protected, and being a target of sexualized violence. So yes, blonde female victims are cast to pull most effectively on a whole tangle of viewer emotions.

  4. ACW says

    Hmm. All the writing workshops/websites/books I’ve seen tell us to create a protagonist that the reader (in this case, viewer) will (1) identify with, and (2) feel sympathetic toward. I can’t find the reference, but somewhere it has been proposed that we identify with characters who are either like us or *who we’d like to be*. This is just Hollywood taking a shortcut and assuming that we all want to be fair and svelte, instead of taking the time to develop deeper characters we will actually care about.

  5. Anemone says

    But the demographics of Vancouver don’t lend for a lot of color!

    It’s true. We’re only 50% non-white. The other one I hear is that Asians can’t act, for some reason. Probably because they don’t act like North Americans of European descent? That’s it. They’re not loud enough. Can’t act worth a darn.

  6. sbg says

    Is this just because blond is the beauty standard for actresses? Does this argument even make sense, given how many popular lead actresses have hair of other colors?

    It makes about as much sense as the argument I heard about a show filmed in Vancouver which was so, so white (except for villains): But the demographics of Vancouver don’t lend for a lot of color!

    B to the S.

    Criminal Minds seems to be fairly well researched, so I’m more inclined to think the casting is deliberate because of the data set they use. But I should acknowledge that viewpoint is probably skewed because I’m a fan of the show.

  7. says

    Oh, cool comment thread! I can only nod thoughtfully along with the various theories about why victims are so often blond – they all make sense, but in a way that makes the whole situation even more curiouser!

    Vancouver’s overwhelmingly white? That’s a LOL if it weren’t so infuriating. Wow, the Stargate franchise must’ve spent so much money importing all those people of color who worked as extras in the background. ;)

    Asians can’t act? I’ve never heard that stereotype, and I would’ve been perfectly happy never to hear it.

  8. napthia9 says

    Since a lot of these crime shows base story lines off of what is in the headlines, perhaps this reflects bias for missing-pretty-white-girl stories in the news?

    RE: blonde-as-innocent… Then there’s the twist, where Blonde Victim is secretly engaged in some sordid business, typically sexual. And also blonde-as-typical, wherein blondness indicates that the victim could be any young woman. Being white female and blonde may also indicate privilege, as blondness taps into the dynamic of the “Golden Girl” (or Boy). And then the perception that white women are particularly vulnerable may encourage scriptwriters to put the bodies of white women at the center of their mini morality plays. Or, conversely, the feeling that crime typically occurs to people who are not white may lead to the assumption that dead whites = more unusual = more dramatic/important.

  9. Mary says

    Maybe that’s because Hollywood likes to cast brunettes as the smart/capable girl and therefor the blonde is the stupid/vulnerable girl.

    It reminds me of how Cordelia on Buffy used to be such a great girl. Shallow, but not stupid, a mere mortal yet perfectly able to take care of herself (most of the time). When Cordelia appeared on Angel the show she was still a great character with lots of development. Yet when she dyed her hair blond she apparently also took stupid pills because she fell for Angel (even though she was right there when his romances with Buffy and Darla turned into desasters), she let a demonic god take over her body, slept with Angels son and eventually died.
    None of this would have happened to the brunette Cordy from Buffy and Angel season 1-2.

  10. Scarlett says

    Cordelia wasn’t that blond on Angel, was she? Some highlights in some hairstyles, but not what I would call *blond*. Though yeah – I much preferred Buffy Cordy to Angel Cordy.

  11. Robin says

    “Is this just because blond is the beauty standard for actresses?”

    I think that is definitely part of it. Crime victims on procedurals are generally played by young, unknown actors, since they’re willing to be hired for parts that are mostly just playing dead. The perception Hollywood was perpetuated is that aspiring actresses are cute blondes, so many young actresses go blond in the hope that it’ll make them more likely to be cast. And then the casting directors have mostly blonde actresses to choose from. Kind of a self-perpetuating cycle.

    Although Anemone’s theory about color contrast probably holds some merit, too. Any large quantity of fake blood will show up as almost black on camera, so having as a light a background as possible will make it more apparent. Not the best excuse, though.

  12. Suzanne says

    Perhaps because of Hollywood’s love of blonds, and its assumption that everyone else loves them above other colourings too, suggests that the death of a blond is some kind of bigger tragedy when it occurs. It’s almost tied into some kind of cultural mythology that links Marilyn Monroe with Hitchcock’s use of blonds. So for a male viewer, it’s suggesting to him that it’s a great tragedy for the world to lose another blond, because they are valued more? Kind of like ‘what a waste’! Not nice but just a thought..

  13. Emily says

    Well, in the western world, the idealised woman tends to fall into one of two categories: Either the pretty blonde Barbie-looking cheerleader (or occasionally porn-starlet) type, or the “exotic” super-sexy ethnic type. Serial offenders overwhelmingly tend to prey on those of their own race, and also tend to objectify or idealize women to the extreme.

    In addition, think of all the high-profile cases of missing or murdered girls and women in the last several years. Even if you accept that white victims get the majority of media coverage, a huge proportion of the victims are still blond – off the top of my head, I can think of high-profile cases concerning one redhead woman, one brunette woman, one girl of color, and at least half a dozen blond girls and women. So, your average television viewer is used to seeing blond girls and women as the victims of such crimes, but I don’t know whether it reflects real statistics (at least among white women, as I know it isn’t accurate across all racial or ethnic groups) or it just reflect’s the media’ obsession with pretty blond girls.

  14. Sally says

    At the risk of stating the obvious, I’d suggest that Hollywood’s preference for blonde ‘victims’ is down to racism, pure and simple.

    [Please don’t imagine that I’m picking on Americans here — my own compatriots can be horribly racist — but we are talking about Hollywood.

    And remember that, although anything that happened more than five minutes ago is ‘ancient history’ for some of us who grew up in the age of the internet, the twentieth century really only began a fraction of a micron of a heartbeat ago.]

    ‘Blonde-ism’ has a long history in European culture from St (later Pope) Gregory’s supposed comment on English slaves, “Non Angli, sed Angeli = Not Angles, but Angels” through Botticelli and the artists who came after him to the ‘Aryanism’ of the Nazis, but it was the *systematic* oppression of the slave trade that turned a preference into the ideology of racism — which as one early US luminary said was “like a snake coiled under the Seat of the Constitution.” The US film (and television) industry — Hollywood — was born, grew and still lives in a society where being a pale-skinned, blond(e), blue-eyed person of Northwestern European descent and a Western Christian (i.e., Catholic or – much more preferably – Protestant) is the ideal.

    [Quick potted history focusing on racism in relation to ‘Hollywood’ — the ‘melting pot’ where, to be an *American*, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” had to give up any pretensions of being anything else; the Jews who started, financed and acted in the movie industry obliged to change names and otherwise conceal themselves; “Birth Of a Nation,” a paean to the KKK, and 20-odd years later “Gone With The Wind” with its ‘dutiful darkies’ protecting the O’Haras and spitting on the carpetbaggers; ‘Jewish-Bolsheviks’ behind the Russian Revolution, aiming to destroy ‘America’; the African-Americans and Hispanic people who ‘settled’ California ‘disappeared’ as surely as the Native Americans who preceded them; anti-Mexican-ism, anti-Asian-ism, anti-‘Russian’-ism (not all of which was political), anti-Italianism, anti-Middle-Eastern-ism and, running like a stream through most of the century, stories about the piecemeal extermination of a ‘race’ of dark haired, copper-skinned ‘savages’ as part of ‘taming’ the country to make it ‘safe’ for blonde, blue-eyed girl-children who would later grow into the blonde, blue-eyed cheerleaders so beloved of ‘Hollywood’.]

    So, yes, blond, blue-eyed people are more ‘valued’ and blonde, blue-eyed victims of crime more ‘sympathetic.’

    Add to this the ‘angelic’ associations mentioned above — with ‘innocent’ sliding into ‘ditzy’ — and you have the perfect victim.

    Not to derail the discussion too much, but what really pisses me off about “Criminal Minds” is that the brainiacs of the investigating team will always pontificate on how the ‘unsubs’ are motivated in their gruesome murders of women by some sort of rage at women having ‘power’ over them. While I have no doubt that this is true, I wonder whether it is not meant to send female viewers the message that “demanding too much arouses the beast in men, so you shouldn’t do it.” Paranoia? Perhaps, but…

  15. says

    Sally,

    That makes a lot of sense there, Sally. Your quick overview of Hollywood racism is great, too, and I would add to that only that I took a history of television class at UCLA, and my professor claimed that the US government has always had a “call up and order” relationship with TV, due partly to the FCC (a federal agency) regulating TV network licenses and having the right to take them off the air anytime. I’ve never found a matching source, but according to him, Washington told TV networks in the 50s that we needed to see women in the home, so the women who’d gotten a taste for working during the war would feel abnormal and leave their jobs to men, and that’s where the family sitcoms of that era came from.

    If he’s right, one has to assume that our very government endorsed the racism, or even required it. Neither would surprise me.

    Re: Criminal Minds’ messages. the “power over them” language comes straight from profiler and psychology books – it’s speaking from the perspective of the criminal, who can feel a woman has power over him for all sorts of illogical reasons, because his emotional perspective is that skewed. Sometimes they don’t make that as clear as they need to, and the message you’re talking about certainly feels like a valid interpretation. I doubt that’s their intent, especially since some of those episodes are written by female writers. I think it’s just they don’t always realize how it could sound. And that’s not an excuse – intent doesn’t matter in the end. But you were talking about intent, so that’s all I’m addressing – a way it could happen without being their intention.

    • Maria says

      @Jenn

      Oh, there’s very true — It’s in one of my books on gender post-WWII. Basically, (white, middle-class) women were not excited about returning to the home after being called to the work force, so Hollywood was supposed to encourage them to come back home and embiggen the middle class.

      I think they talk about this in The Middling Sorts.

  16. Attackfish says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Also, when they have non-gender determined victims and male victims, the “power over them” logic is still talked about. In issues where the victims were picked for class, by chance, by age, whatever, they talk a lot about the twisted motivations of the killer, which frequently involves his or her resentment at some sort of power differential. They also talk about killers who pick out the weakest, least powerful, and are attracted to that helplessness.

    Also, blondism runs in cycles. During most of the Victorian, period, for example, pale skinned dark haired women were seen as the most beautiful and purest expression of fragile white womanhood. Let’s remember, Pope Gregory and his contemporary Mediterranean princes valued blond slaves in large part because of their exoticism. A better argument for the roots of blondism might be the Protestant Reformation and the rise of Northern Europe in power and prestige, something that didn’t immediately start the trend, but certainly enabled it later. During the latter part of the Victorian period, and into the Edwardian era, people in the US and in Northwestern Europe began to fear the waves of Eastern European and Mediterranean immigrants pouring in, just as many people fear Latin@ and Muslim immigrants in the US and Europe, and so the more extremely Northern European looking someone was, the more representative of the America/England/Germany/France etc. that the anti-immigrant faction wanted to protect. Tall, pale skinned blonds were the extreme of that. They then became the beauty standard.

    Even in early Hollywood, however, you will see that many of the queens of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s cinema had dark brown hair and pale skin.

    Also, a lot of blond blue-eyed kids grow up to have much darker hair. This might be part of the innocence idea with blond hair. For many people of Northern European decent, bl0nd hair is most often found in children, and it gets subconscious associations thusly.

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