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The Bimbo Trope, Explained - Reclaiming the Label

The “Bimbo” is a label that for a long time has been seen as purely negative. But who gets to define who or what a Bimbo is? And is there anything positive about being a Bimbo? While the Himbo (or male bimbo) has been on the rise, for a long time it seemed like the female “Bimbo” label was too unambiguously critical to be salvaged. Now, at last, the Bimbo movement has begun, led by a series of semi-ironic TikTok videos that call for respecting hyper-femininity and redefining Bimbo culture as an inclusive, empowering mindset. Here’s our Take on pop-culture Bimbos, and why it’s important to include them on the spectrum of femininity.

TRANSCRIPT

The “bimbo” is a label that for a long time has been seen as purely negative. After all, it traditionally describes a woman who has nothing of value underneath her sexy looks. But who gets to define who or what a bimbo is? And is there anything positive about being a bimbo?

Here’s how to spot a so-called bimbo on-screen. This woman is usually defined by two inverse qualities: she’s as well-endowed with attractiveness as she is under-endowed with intellect or depth. She tends to have a breathy voice and a hyperfeminine look, which might not be all-natural. Whether she’s actually dim or just superficial, the bimbo isn’t perceived to have deep interests besides her looks and lifestyle, or to boast much of a work ethic. She might be condemned most harshly by other women, often in the context of blaming a bimbo for attracting the attention of a man. Ultimately, the bimbo label is associated with a woman who’s known primarily for her sexuality — and is likely shamed for not being chaste.

Gretchen: “Regina says everyone hates you because you’re such a slut.”

Karen: “She said that? – Mean Girls (2004)

In recent years, we’ve seen plenty of sexist, racist, or derogatory terms get reclaimed by the people they’re supposed to dismiss or insult. But while the himbo (or male bimbo) has been on the rise, for a long time it seemed like the female “bimbo” label was too unambiguously critical to be salvaged. Now, at last, the bimbo movement has begun, led by a series of semi-ironic TikToks that call for respecting hyper-femininity and redefining bimbo culture as an inclusive, empowering mindset. Here’s our Take on pop culture bimbos, and why it’s important to include them on the spectrum of femininity.


What is a Bimbo? A Brief History

“Bimbo” is actually a contraction of the Italian word bambino, meaning “male baby.” The feminine version would be bambina, or “bimba.” Originally, in 20th century American English, “bimbo” typically referred to a dumb or unsophisticated man. Over time, the term became more gender-neutral, and by the latter half of the century, it was more commonly used to describe a certain kind of woman. As the name’s roots imply, this is a character who’s often treated like a baby or a simpleton. Onscreen, this character type was developed in movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, like Born Yesterday starring Judy Holliday, or the work of Marilyn Monroe. What might have been simple “dumb blonde” routines took advantage of loosening content standards by adding stronger hints of sexuality. They also offered images that could be difficult for other women to live up to. These examples established that the bimbo was a strange combination of above other women (in her sex appeal) and beneath them (in her intellect) — setting her up to be an object of both envy and disdain.

Wilma and Wanda: “But you guys ditch us for some big-breasted bimbos!” – Dude Where’s My Car (2000)

In the ‘90s and early 2000s, Playboy-models-turned-screen-stars Pamela Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, and Anna Nicole Smith were instrumental in creating the image of the bimbo as a buxom, usually blonde, vacuous-seeming sex bomb. Supposedly, these women were only beloved for their sexy appearances, and the increasingly common “bimbo” term was widely understood to be a throw-away insult. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the word “bimbo” became especially prevalent in descriptions of scandals involving politicians or public figures. Of course, the women in these affairs were always the designated bimbos in question, even when they were more likely the victims of powerful men. Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign was even rumored to have been trained in how to deal with “bimbo eruptions” that would result from his extramarital affairs.

It’s striking that in the history of the bimbo, it’s often other women who attack her with this label. A schism in second-wave feminism (which came up in the 1960s and addressed issues beyond the legal rights to equality) led to disagreements about whether pornography was harmful to women or should be accepted as part of a sex-positive ideology. As beauty standards continued to expand and evolve, it was easy to dismiss bodies like Anderson’s or Smith’s as pandering to stereotypical male desires, rather than belonging to real people.

Olivia Tarplin: [about pornography] “Does this promote violence against women? Does this promote unhealthy sexual attitudes? And, just as importantly, does this cater to women’s needs in any way, shape, or form?” – TEDx Talks, 2015

The bimbo stereotype has plenty of overlap with other female character types in pop culture: like the Dumb Blonde, who is seen as beautiful but ditzy, naive, or easily confused; the Mean Girl, who is sometimes portrayed as having a vacuum of humanity underneath her pretty exterior; or the Girly Girl, who has a similar emphasis on superficial and traditional femininity. But what ultimately differentiates a bimbo from other stereotypes is the emphasis on her sexuality. While desirability and sexuality can certainly play a part in the portrayals of dumb blondes or mean girls, those types can be conveyed without it. A bimbo needs to have perceived sex appeal to qualify, and she’s typically painted as promiscuous. Arguably, the bimbo hatred boils down to an expression of the madonna-whore complex: vilifying a woman for being openly sexual and reducing her identity to only that.

Olive: “People hear you had sex once, and bam! You’re a bimbo.” – Easy A (2010)

This label turns a person into a two-dimensional image like a page ripped from a magazine: a combination of an old-style pin-up girl, a bit of “dumb blonde” vacuousness, and a more explicit, contemporary expression of sexuality. Many on-screen bimbos are portrayed as not just dumb or ditzy or bubbly, but actively vacuous — almost a caricature of a caricature. Bimbo characters tend to be denied humanity by popular culture. They’re treated as things, whether they’re a married man’s plaything, a trophy wife, an object of fantasy, or a vehicle for jokes about their vapidness. And in plenty of stories, the bimbo is used as a device to show that a male character doesn’t have depth or the right priorities. Men in these stories are even implied to like the bimbo more if she lacks smarts or intellectual interests.

O’Neill: “[I wish I had] Somebody I could spend all my time with. Somebody I could really respect… Hey, look at the cans on that bimbo.” – Bachelor Party (1984)

Undoubtedly, this cumulative cultural portrayal of the bimbo makes the term difficult to reclaim. For a while, there was one thing that chauvinists and feminists could agree on: that bimbos aren’t real people.


What We Can Learn From The Bimbo

Actually, so-called bimbos do have plenty of positive attributes, and there’s a lot we can learn from real and fictional bimbos alike. First, they model self-assurance about their physical appearance. To be perceived as a bimbo, you have to really have confidence in your body, your hair, and your sense of fashion. The bimbo’s ability to let go of inhibitions and hang-ups, and enjoy her physicality, is really kind of a superpower. She also understands how to enhance natural beauty and wield her feminine wiles if she so chooses.

“The first tip is to not let people dull your shine. You’re a diamond, not a rhinestone.” – @fauxrich on TikTok

While there’s an assumption that her looks cater to men, both real and fictional bimbos express that they cultivate their appearance because it gives them pleasure. Bimbos also don’t conform to the idea that women, in particular, must dress or present a certain way to be taken seriously. The sexual politics of fashion change all the time, and often for arbitrary reasons: Is a woman wearing a suit showing her commitment to her job, or acting “too masculine?” How fashionable is too fashionable? These concerns can seem ridiculous and pointless compared to the much simpler guidelines a bimbo uses: Do I think I look good in these clothes? Do I enjoy wearing them?

Chrissy Chlapecka: “I don’t do this for the misogynistic male gaze. I do it for my gaze! – @chrissychlapecka on TikTok

In this, the bimbo enacts a broader rejection of the elitism that says you must adopt particular looks or mannerisms to be considered smart or valuable. The bimbo is a symbolic figure of fun. Overall, she embodies a sense of joy and positivity, which she can also unlock in others. But despite all of her positive attributes, there isn’t a wealth of stories that offer a flattering view of bimbos. But looking more closely, we can see that a lot of bimbo characterizations are full of tongue-in-cheek humor, or self-aware stars using this persona knowingly while being fully in on the joke.

Paris Hilton: “I’m not a dumb blonde. I’m just really good at pretending to be one.” – CBS Sunday Morning, 2020

The bimbo can surprise people with hidden likability or depth. Stories that are sympathetic to a bimbo character often pit her against more traditionally respectable people and allow the bimbo to prove her worth to skeptical or dismissive onlookers. In Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods rises to the top of her class at Harvard Law, transcending dumb-sexy-blonde stereotypes to show how her seemingly bimbo-esque qualities can be strengths. The screenwriters of Legally Blonde also wrote a movie that engages with the bimbo specifically as a type. The House Bunny stars Anna Faris as Shelley, a model who is ejected from her life at the Playboy mansion and winds up becoming a den mother to a college sorority full of outcasts. Though Shelley does learn to be less superficial, she finds her bliss by doing what the bimbo does best: embracing her natural positivity, not worrying about what people think, and helping others.

Shelley: “You said you needed to raise money. Well, washing cars is a fun and sexy way to make all the money that we need!” – The House Bunny (2008)

On The Big Bang Theory, Kaley Cuoco’s character Penny might seem like a bimbo, but Penny grasps plenty of real-world matters that puzzle and vex the socially clueless nerd characters. And eventually, they learn to value her for a lot more than her looks. In Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion, the two central supposed bimbos learn the lesson that they don’t need the validation of others’ approval. Their self-acceptance doesn’t have to be predicated on popularity, wealth, or a man, because they succeed on their own terms. And while ’90s figures like the Spice Girls were sometimes derided as bimbo versions of feminism repackaged as capitalist “girl power,” there is value in pop culture that reminds us that feminism and fun are not mutually exclusive. At its best, this mindset can result in a character like Cher in Clueless. She may have bimbo-like characteristics — like great hair, a love of shopping, and a tendency to be underestimated — but she’s a fully realized protagonist who can also be witty, creative, sexually inexperienced, and kind.

Michele: “I never knew that we weren’t that great in high school. I mean, we always had so much fun together. I thought high school was a blast.” – Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)


Reclaiming the Bimbo

Today, our culture is showing newfound respect for bimbos. People increasingly acknowledge a woman’s choice to make her living as a model, exotic dancer, or sex worker, and to use her body however she sees fit. A figure like Kim Kardashian — who was once derided for becoming famous largely for her appearance and a sex tape — is one of the most successful businesswomen on the planet. And the bimbo movement currently thriving on TikTok aims to reorient the “bimbo” image as a more socially conscious, satirically minded Gen Z woman. This new-age bimbo espouses progressive and inclusive ideas while making fun of bimbo stereotypes, defending hyper-femininity, and encouraging respect for all women. Morgan Sung writes for Mashable, “The modern bimbo is hyper-feminine, embraces their hotness, and rejects the capitalist mentality that they must showcase marketable skills.” The modern bimbo isn’t necessarily uneducated or unintelligent, but their personality doesn’t revolve around their degrees and resumé.”

Chrissy Chlapecka: “She’s actually a radical leftist, who’s pro-sex work, pro-BLM, pro-LGBTQ, pro-choice…“ – @chrissychlapecka on TikTok

This Gen Z bimbo is also no longer limited to being a cisgender heterosexual female. Now we have the “himbo,” which is closer to the original Italian word; the “bimboy,” who can be smaller and more feminine than the traditional “himbo;” the gender-neutral “thembo,” and bimbos of color. All these variations offer a more intersectional idea of the bimbo, and they shift away from mocking traditionally feminine qualities with the accompanying assumptions about who should be taken seriously and why. Ultimately, judging bimbos as unworthy is a lot more superficial than anything they could do or say. Today’s bimbo moves beyond the stereotype of a thin, blonde, vacuous, sexual woman, but also points out that it’s OK to be thin or blonde or unintellectual or sexual. And this inclusiveness eliminates the reason the bimbo label became an insult in the first place: to control or degrade another human being. Now, being a bimbo is your choice, not a word that anyone can hold over you.

Elle Woods: “You must always have faith in people. And, most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.” – Legally Blonde (2001)