Blonde vs. Brunette Heroines

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For some undefinable reason, blondes and brunettes have been rivals for well over 500 years. Generally, blondes had the upper hand. Fairness was beautiful, a sign of purity and grace, whereas dark complexions were not favoured and darker toned women often tried re-colouring their hair. 

Blondes dominated society and literature, and soon legend became that all heroines were of honey-coloured hair. We have Cinderella, Rapunzel, Isolde (of Tristan & Isolde), Guinevere, the Valkyries (Norse myth), and other iconic, blonde women. Tradition dictates blondes are the most gorgeous — because, ya know, they’re the only ones we know of. Yes, there are exceptions like Snow White and Jo March (one of my favourite characters of all time), but there is an image in our heads that golden locks are attached to the scalps of the girls who get the princes.

I don’t know about you, but even despite the recent amount of rather insulting blonde jokes, I still automatically picture classical women in literature with flaxen hair. Example: whilst reading Romeo & Juliet, Juliet was most definitely blonde. It was only until I watched 1968’s Romeo & Juliet that it even occurred to me that she could be anything other than fair-haired. Rosalind was brunette in my mind — and Juliet wasn’t. Huh. How brainwashed am I?

When I began the earliest drafts of brainstorming for my manuscript on the margins of grocery lists, I knew right away that my heroine was not going to be blonde. She was going to be brunette. Part of it was that I am brunette, and I love it. The more major influence for her hair colour, however, was avoiding that traditional stereotype. Having a female protagonist, blonde? Geez, cliché much, Libby? So she had brown hair. Simple. Easy. Familiar.

A friend and I discussed this yesterday. She mentioned that she made her heroine blonde to escape the stereotype of female main characters with dark hair. At first I didn’t understand what she was saying. What are you talking about? Blonde heroines are the stereotype.

But I thought about it.

In YA novels, especially in recent years, the leading woman is brunette. Hermione Granger of Harry Potter, Arya of The Inheritance Cycle, Katsa of Graceling, Katniss of The Hunger Games, Calwyn of The Singer of All Songs, Bella Swan of Twilight (I only include her to prove my point), Aislinn, Leslie, and Ani of Wicked Lovely, Bitterblue of, er, Bitterblue…Need I continue?* It’d be fascinating to ask these

Leslie, dark-haired heroine of Ink Exchange

 authors if the hair colour of these women was to avoid the blonde stereotype. If so, then it seems that in avoiding the golden stereotype, we’ve only created a new one.

 Fascinating.

And, I really have to say this (my body isn’t allowing me another choice): Anne Boleyn, while famous for her beautiful eyes and elegance, was not considered traditionally attractive by the standards of her time. Dark-haired with darker toned skin, her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, was generally acknowledged to be more beautiful with her fair hair and blue eyes (or, more conventionally beautiful.), and her successor, Jane Seymour, was a more traditional English Rose with her almost-extreme paleness. The ways of the world are strange. The Victorians, the romanticists they were, often portrayed Anne in art as a blonde, trying to add conventional beauty to enhance her already-tragic end. There. I said it. 

Do you think, that in ten years or so, writers will be making their protagonists blonde to escape the brunette stereotype? Have you contributed to this new stereotype? Have you noticed this before?

*I realize that these are all fantasy or urban fantasy characters. As I generally only read fantasy and historical nonfiction, my variety of dark-haired ladies from other genres is lacking.

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8 thoughts on “Blonde vs. Brunette Heroines

  1. Well done, Libby! I have come up with a solution; Red hair. 😉
    I shall still keep my leading lady with Blonde/red locks, but it’s quite funny how things work isn’t it?
    I think that today’s society has altered movies based off of novels to fit today’s picture of beauty as well. For example; Percy Jackson and the Olympians. In that series Annabeth had blonde hair, but when it was transformed into a film she was played by a beautiful brunette. The Merlin TV series also hired a dark haired and darker skinned actress to play the fair Gwen.
    Maybe it only appears this way because the actresses simply beat out the blondes! Who knows! But I suppose the best thing to do is create the characters as we imagine them, and leave it at that. 🙂
    Great insight, Dearest!
    -Zozie

    • Thanks, Zozie. I never think of having my characters with red hair, because from what I know from my year or so as a redhead, having red hair becomes the most dominantly talked about feature of that person. I don’t want my protagonist to vanish behind the hair colour…though talking about it now, I think we are! lol
      Hollywood translations of movies don’t often pay 100% hommage to the novel or legend they’re based off of, so in this case I think it’s just that the more suiting actresses have darker hair. But maybe it was purposeful? Questions, questions…
      Thanks for stopping by, Zozie! 🙂

  2. Redheads are clearly the way to go!! But really – this is quite an interesting point, now that you’ve made me think more about it. Back before the brunette protagonists began to pop up to avoid the stereotype, a wonderful book was written by M.M. Kaye called “The Ordinary Princess” – not sure if it’s still in print, but it directly addresses the Blonde Stereotype when a fairy puts a spell on a princess to say she will be “ordinary.” So I guess that was the first time I thought about the blonde complex, but I never really applied it to super modern contemporary literature.

    I do think it’s going to be kind of a balance shifting back and forth, however, as far as books go, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a conscious decision every time. Sometimes I’m sure authors do it without even realizing it or being too aware of it. And as much as it’s a fair point, I don’t think readers are going to judge too much one way or the other, based on a protagonist’s hair color. (Except the deep intellectuals who think about everything, like us.) 😛

    • Until my friend mentioned about her character, I hadn’t really thought of it before, either. I’ll have to check out the local library to see if I can find “The Ordinary Princess”; it sounds interesting!
      I agree that it’ll mostly be unconscious decisions that give heroines their hair colour (many characters pop into my head fully formed, and I have nothing to do with their appearance). Another thing that niggles at the back of my mind is probability — I see far more brunettes daily than blondes, even despite easy access to bleach and hair dyes. This also ties into my avoidance of redheaded protagonists. Because natural redheads are quite rare, I don’t want to overuse them, and wear out the wonderful novelty of it.
      …I have a feeling I’m dwelling deeper down than necesarry!! 😉 Thanks for following and commenting, Margaret!

  3. I’m actually doing a research paper on this exact topic: female brunette protagonists have become the norm for many books, particularly YA literature. I’ve wondered if it was because brown hair is so common, and many YA books deal with a very ordinary, common person doing extraordinary, heroic actions. They are the Plain Janes, the ones who don’t stand out, and yet they accomplish the most difficult feats.
    Very well written! Very interesting.

    -Grace

    • Hi Grace,
      Thanks for much for your comment and reading this post! Female brunettes are still such a trend in YA literature, and as a brunette I suppose I’m okay with that. 😉 Good luck with your research paper!
      Libby xx 🙂
      PS: I’m no longer writing on this blog, but am posting new material over at http://www.libbyschofield.wordpress.com 🙂

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