Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hollywood doesn't prefer blonds

Let's play a game: Quick! Name a current male film sex symbol who is blond!





Don't worry, you're not just drawing a blank: These days, Hollywood's notion of handsome invariably means dark.

(Tall is good, too, though movie stars tend to be shorter than you'd think. But that's another column.)

Alright, you've had another minute -- still haven't come up with a towheaded star who sets the girls' (and some boys') hearts aflutter?

That's because there aren't any.

And no, we're not counting Robert Redford or Steve McQueen. I said a modern movie star, meaning their heyday is 2010, not 1970.

If you guessed Brad Pitt: Thanks for playing, but you lose. Although he's worn blond wigs or dye jobs for the occasional role ("Troy," "Legends of the Fall") the reigning embodiment of male beauty has a naturally brown head. (Check the eyebrows, they don't lie.)

As a film critic and owner of flaxen vestigial fur, I've long been dismayed by the dearth of actors who are considered sexy and also happen to look like me. (Well, except with good cheekbones and a strong chin.)

On a primal level, it's discomfiting that celluloid depictions of the panoply of human diversity leave me feeling marginalized. One thinks: Where am I? Don't I matter?

It may sound strange for an Aryan type to claim solidarity with African-Americans and other minorities who have long cried foul about movies reflecting them poorly, or not at all.

But with year after year of George Clooneys, Will Smiths, Johnny Depps, Tom Cruises and other pigment-blessed stars taking turns dominating the box office, I'm starting to wonder if Hollywood and the movie-going public have it in for blonds.

(Quick aside: The proper usage is to say "blonde" for women and "blond" for men, it being one of the few English terms that has feminine and masculine forms. Although many people, including me, mistakenly use the extra "e" for everybody.)

I'd almost grown resigned to the fact that when any given actor is held up as the new model of desirability, he would always have brown or black hair. But in recent years, things have grown even worse.

On the rare occasions when blond men do appear in popular films, they fall into one of three highly stereotyped roles: The goofball, the gay pal, or the psycho.

Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell typify the first pigeonhole: Guys who butter their bread with comedy, dancing for their dinner by playing the fool. To put it bluntly: We are not meant to take them seriously.

It's notable that Wilson, despite being quite good-looking in dude-ish way, has never played a romantic lead.

When it comes time to portray a (usually minor) character as effeminate, it's no coincidence that he's usually fair-haired. Look to the backgrounds and throwaway jokes of mainstream movies, and you'll see a lot of blond guys expressing over-the-top gay mannerisms.

The last category is the scariest (literally).

When sadistic killers occupy the screen, respected actors like Stanley Tucci ("The Lovely Bones") and Robin Williams ("One Hour Photo") love to trade in their dark locks for pale ones.

Sometimes it seems like the nastier the murderer, the blonder he gets: Look at the rash of nearly colorless killers such as the twin assassins in "The Matrix Reloaded," Jake Busey's religious bomber in "Contact" or Paul Bettany's killer monk from "The Da Vinci Code."

Although there have been some rugged midcentury blonds to grace film -- McQueen, Alan Ladd, Van Johnson -- almost from the dawn of cinema, dark hair has been associated with manliness and virility. Blonds have been relegated to the role of "the other."

The bias may have some basis in nascent film technology: Black-and-white cinema had a high amount of contrast in its early decades, so blond hair would tend to get washed out against lighter backgrounds. Similarly, those with pale eyebrows have a harder time projecting their facial expressions, especially to the back of the theater.

And the brutal truth is that, when it comes to commonly held standards of male attractiveness, most women just prefer dark hair.

Consider this from someone calling themselves Hairwatcher in an online chat: "It's something about the way the dark hair frames the face, giving it more presence. The eyebrows being dark also make them more pronounced, which emphasizes the eyes and all of this makes the face look stronger."

So the sad (for us blonds) conclusion may be that Hollywood is simply giving audiences what they want.

Still, that doesn't completely explain the way yellowheads are routinely dissed and dismissed at the movies.

Recently, brown-haired actor Chris Evans was cast in the lead role for 2011's "Captain America" movie, despite the comic book hero's alter-ego Steve Rogers always being drawn with platinum locks. This is old hat for Evans, who previously turned another blond super-hero, Johnny Storm -- aka The Human Torch -- to the dark side in the "Fantastic Four" flicks.

For me, the final straw was when they turned on Ken.

Or rather, when they turned Ken.

In its eagerly awaited film "Toy Story 3" hitting theaters May 18, the animation geniuses at Pixar have taken the inexplicable step of transforming the Ken doll -- y'know, of Barbie & Ken? -- into a brunette.

Despite decades of iconic blondness -- with that distinctive molded plastic hairstyle that looked like it'd been combed with a push broom -- Ken has gone to a coppery brown for his big screen debut.

Of course, Ken has always been a bit swishy, with a thing for brightly-hued scarves that was positively metrosexual before they even invented that term.

Oh, and he lacks genitalia. That fits, since Hollywood treats blond humans with a penis as if they didn't have one.

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