“I asked him what his sexual fantasy was, and he said, ‘Two redheads.’ I’m a brunette.”
Thus goes the promotional anecdote on the back cover of my friend Rob Elder’s latest book, It Was Over When, a fun (and occasionally galling) book composed of the exact moment at which you know a relationship is over. Not when you actually break up, mind you, but the moment at which you know, in your heart, that it’s a no-go. My personal favorite is, “It was over when he asked his cats what I wanted to do that day. In a doggy voice.”
Actually, that’s my second-favorite. My real favorite entry is the “two redheads” one above—and that’s because it was mine.
In the fellow’s defense: A) He was 20 years old (so was I), and neither of us knew how to handle our liquor at that tender age; B) We were playing Truth or Dare (see point A); and C) We were theater majors, which has nothing to do with anything except to justify why it was acceptable to be playing Truth or Dare outside of a prepubescent slumber party.
My ensuing hysterics (see point C above) have been long forgotten, but the essence of it stuck with me. Tactlessness aside, I'm guessing my ex's comments had less to do with wanting to sleep with two women who happened to possess red hair (well, that too), and more to do with wanting to sleep with two redheads. Being a redhead isn’t just about having red hair, just as being a brunette or a blonde is only partly to do with hair color. Being a brunette is about what we imbue a brunette with: She is serious, a girl-next-door type, intelligent, stable. Blondes, as we all know, have more fun. And redheads? Them be craaaazy.
The most egregious example of this stereotyping, of course, is the blonde joke—which, I should add, I’ve most often heard from fair-haired women, possibly in an attempt to beat their detractors to the punch. But even that’s a joke, if a poor one, and the idea is that we’ve moved past this in general: We riff on gentlemen preferring blondes, understanding that its humor is antique. Therein lies the joke, right? But the fact that we still use this terminology at all—and apply it much more frequently to women than we do to men—shows that it hasn't died out entirely. (I'm sure that brunet still shows up on occasion, probably in British Elle as applied to Keanu Reeves and Keanu Reeves only, but let's not pretend that brunet and brunette are equivalent.) In the current Marie Claire, writer Erin Hosier goes so far as to alter her signature hot tamale shade in order to attract a different kind of man—one who’s, say, a doctor who wants to settle down instead of someone who’s into the “alternative lifestyle” she believes her hair currently indicates. She winds up with a happy ending—dating a man who swears he’d like her no matter her hair color—but that’s almost beside the point. We understand what each of the cues means; that's the whole point of the piece.
I do sometimes wonder how my life would be different if I'd inherited my mother's flame-red hair. Would I be seen as wilder, more sensitive, sexier, kookier? And if the recessive blonde gene had struck: Would I be more preferred by gentlemen? Would I have more fun? As it happens, I possess much of what is attributed to brunettes: I'm intelligent, serious, self-sufficient, and stable. A neat coincidence, almost as neat as me fitting the list of my zodiac characteristics to a T—communicative, curious, easily distracted, flexible (some would say "hypocritical," but those people are usually Tauruses). Of course, I also fit Libra (diplomatic!), Virgo (practical!), Cancer (moody!), and Sagittarius (optimistic!). In truth, my personality is probably about as influenced by my hair color as it is by my sun sign (which is to say, not much)—but my self-perception probably has been shaped by what we attribute to both, as much as I don't want to admit it. (I got my hands on the Cosmopolitan Bedside Astrologer at an inappropriately young age and dearly wanted to be as, well, cosmopolitan as that guide said we Geminis are.)
When I was growing up, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed "all-American girl" look was en vogue, but I never yearned to have that aesthetic, despite buying into the beauty ideal in other ways. Had I actually been blonde in those preteen years, would I have felt more acutely the desire to acquire that prevailing beauty ideal? Blonde was beautiful; I wasn't blonde; ergo, beautiful was farther away from me, so good thing I had all those other smart-girl attributes going for me--you know, the brunette attributes. I don’t think my smart blonde-haired friends were shortchanged in their education, but I’m pretty sure that there’s some sort of relationship between the attributes I pride myself on today and the reinforcement those attributes received because, in some ways, I looked the part.
I started fishing around for the inevitable scientific studies that would “prove” whether there was truth to the stereotypes. But I quickly stopped. I’ve written here before about how I think so many appearance-related studies are suspect, in large part because I wonder about their motivation. Were I to keep looking, I’d be doing exactly what I accuse those scientists of doing: Seeking to quantify our suspicions, even if they’re not necessarily my suspicions, in the name of “science.” I remember reading a study about how people who required glasses really did overall have higher IQs than those who didn’t, and felt a vindictive A-HA! for the hassle my nearsightedness has caused me over the years. Were I to find that brown-haired women were smarter, I risk that same shameful flash of unearned pride, which means I’d be buying into it even as I didn’t want to; were I to find that the stereotype was unfounded, I’d feel embarrassed for having peeked in the first place.
But back to It Was Over When, which, incidentally would be a fun gift for anyone who’s ever broken up with anyone, and I’m only partly saying this because it was written by a friend. (Though it’s certainly easier to find a way to mention this book here than another recent endeavor of Rob's, the sober Last Words of the Executed, given that nobody on death row mentioned lipstick in their final statement.) It Was Over When features an addendum to each tale of love's end; my quote's wrap-up is: "He left me two months later. For a blonde." Which was true. But the real ending here is that he soon met the woman he wound up marrying, a fluttery, pixie-like creature whose charm easily flits from drowsy Southern belle to ethereal hippie, always with grace and delight. She also happens to dye her hair a different color every few months. I know nothing of their marriage, and I don’t want to, for I’m rather fond of the matrimonial vision I have in my head: In it, she challenges him every day by refusing to fit into any checklist of characteristics he entered their union with. Maybe she dyes her hair darker when she’s feeling stable and down-to-earth; maybe she dyes it in order to help her find that gravitas when her self-perceived blonde flutteriness becomes too weightless. Maybe her hair-dye whims are just that—whims, caprice, a head of hot pink—and are made in relative isolation, and she offers the same easy verve she did the day, month, or year before. Maybe she enjoys playing into his checklist; maybe she has a checklist of her own. Or maybe her very presence in his life has helped him crumple up the checklist he held onto when he was 20, and he’s a step closer to not passing on ideas about redheads, brunettes, and blondes to their children. This is what I hope.