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The Brainy Brunette Trope - Why People Think She’s Smarter

Brainy brunette characters follow certain trends, like being driven, book-smart, out of place, and a little… boring. Sometimes her intelligence is cemented by the presence of a “dumb blonde,” and these two stereotypes create a kind of feedback loop, each intensifying the other. Here’s our Take on the brainy brunette, and whether she’s actually smarter – or why we’re trained to think she is.

Transcript

Bookish, quiet, intelligent…and brown-haired? The brainy brunette is embedded in our culture, but why do we correlate female smarts with hair color?

Brainy brunette characters follow certain trends:

- She’s single-minded, driven, and booksmart – she’s exceedingly well-read, but probably not so streetsmart or socially adept.

- She’s out of place – the intelligence of the brainy brunette often isolates her, as if she’s too smart for her born society to “get” her.

- She doesn’t care that much about her appearance – she’s interested in deeper things.

- She’s a little boring – while redheads are fiery, and blondes have more fun, the brainy brunette’s focus on her studies often gets her pegged as dorky and not exciting or desirable.

- She’s the anti-blonde – sometimes her intelligence is cemented by the presence of a dumb blonde, and these two stereotypes create a kind of feedback loop, each intensifying the other.

Here’s our take on the brainy brunette, and whether she’s actually smarter – or why we’re trained to think she is.

CHAPTER ONE: SO…ARE BRUNETTES SMARTER?

In actuality, in terms of hair color, a 2016 study from Ohio University showed that on average, blondes have higher IQs, and are more likely to be classified as geniuses. But regardless of whether brunettes are actually smarter, what’s indisputable is that we think they’re smarter. A study from Garnier in 2009 revealed that 75% of people believed brunettes to be more intelligent. It’s a bias actual women have faced. Silicon Valley CEO Eileen Carey dyed her hair brown in order to impress investors, who were put off by her blonde locks, as there was a “strong pattern of recognition of brunette CEOs.”

“I made the decision based on research to change my perception in a way so that it could improve the likelihood of, you know, being taken more seriously” - Eileen Carey, ABC

Even 2022’s Inventing Anna features a plot where Anna Delvey abandons her babydoll blonde for a reddish-brown in order to attract investors for her elite social club – and this works.

Anna: “No one will consider my business proposal because of how I look.” - Inventing Anna

One reason for the belief that brunettes are brainer might be the number of smart brown-haired girls that appear in the first stories we come into contact with. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle immediately defines herself as a voracious reader and adventurer, desperate to see the world outside of her small town. And this makes her deeply misunderstood by the people around her.

Gaston: “How can you read this? There’s no pictures!”

Belle: “Well, some people use their imagination”

- Beauty and the Beast

But despite this, Belle doesn’t change who she is in order to fit into societal expectations. It’s not just that she’s intelligent, but it’s the fact that she values this intelligence over and above, say, the status that would come from marrying Gaston, the mindless hot guy every other woman in the town has their eye on. Similarly, the moment she begins to fall for the beast is when she’s shown his extraordinary library, and realizes that his intelligence is a match for hers.

With other brainy brunette heroines like Lemony Snicket’s Violet Baudelaire and A Wrinkle In Time’s Meg Murry, their intelligence may be seen as strange in the story, but they are ultimately aspirational figures and offer a contrast to more conservative female heroines whose value is seen predominantly through beauty, kindness, or status.

Like Belle, Roald Dahl’s Matilda is also a girl out of place, a stark contrast to her vacuous family and her dictatorial headmistress, and books are again her much-needed means of escape from her oppressive environment.

Narrator: “These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: you are not alone.” - Matilda

Her intelligence is also tied up with this sense that she is a completely unique person who needs protecting and nurturing, and so the story gifts her another brainy brunette in Miss Honey who is prepared to do that.

The brainy brunette may be coded as typically the smartest girl in the room, but her even more important qualities are also in the fact that she’s independently minded and sure of herself, and she doesn’t center her focus on how she looks, or who she attracts.

Gaston: “This is the day your dreams come true.”

Belle: “What do you know about my dreams Gaston?”

- Beauty and the Beast

Often the brainy brunette actually is pretty; Belle’s name literally means “beautiful” in French, and Gaston wants to marry her because she’s the prettiest girl in the town. But most of the time people don’t really notice this because she doesn’t put effort into her appearance. When brainy brunette Hermione Granger does herself up for the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Ron and Harry are shocked at how great she looks. But this ultimately just reveals that a lot of what people interpret as “pretty” comes down to a woman devoting a lot of attention to dressing or presenting herself in a certain way. The brainy brunette’s decision not to spend most of her time on that speaks to her devotion to inner beauty and her understanding that things like that pursuit of knowledge just matter more.

Shuri: “I’ve developed an update.”

T’Challa: “Update? No. It worked perfectly.”

Shuri: “How many times do I have to teach you? Just because something works doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.”

- Black Panther

People may think her odd, but ultimately, we see value in her being outside the norm.

CHAPTER TWO: THE BLONDE V. BRUNETTE PARADIGM

The brainy brunette doesn’t exist in a vacuum; her counterpart is the dumb blonde, and often these two stereotypes work to intensify each other, as in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where Marilyn Monroe’s ditzy Lorelai is paired with Jane Russell’s smarter, more acerbic Dorothy.

Lorelai: “How do you put it around your neck?”

Dorothy: “You don’t lovey, it goes on your head.”

Lorelai: “You must think I was born yesterday.”

Dorothy: “Well, sometimes there’s just no other possible explanation.”

- Gentleman Prefer Blondes

Even when blonde characters aren’t stereotyped as dumb, they’re often portrayed as struggling to keep up with the superior intellect of the brainy brunette. Blonde Lisa Simpson may be seen as essentially a child prodigy, but she still gets shown up when a new, intelligent, saxophone-playing brunette girl moves to Springfield, and Lisa’s reputation of intelligence (and confidence) quickly seem to deplete by comparison.

Allison: “I was just skipped ahead because I was getting bored with the first grade.”

Lisa: “You’re younger than me too?”

- The Simpsons, 6x02

In Gilmore Girls, too, while blonde Paris seems to be the more driven high-achiever, for some inexplicable reason it’s brunette Rory who gets seen as the smart one and surpasses Paris academically.

Because for a long time onscreen “blonde” was a shorthand for “beauty,” the pretty-but-dumb blonde versus brainy brunette trope often was really about pigeonholing women – saying they can be either intelligent or beautiful. So in that sense, the brainy brunette can sometimes be used as a way to put other women down, while also dissing the brunette herself by suggesting she’s only focused on her studies because she’s less romantically desired than her blonde counterparts.

Daphne: “Maybe werewolves and ghosts are just distractions to keep you away from what really frightens you: intimacy with another person.”

Velma: “But I’m more comfortable in the world of logic and facts.”

- Scobby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

The blatantly false assumption that a woman could only be pretty or smart is a way of limiting a woman’s power to just one avenue.

On another level, too, this paradigm is also implicitly showing how the more feminine traits associated with blondeness are shallow and empty, while the more masculine traits associated with darker hair are valuable and worthwhile. In An Education, Carey Mulligan’s Jenny, who has lofty aspirations of going to Oxford and filling her life with fulfilling, cultural experiences, is countered by Rosamund Pike’s uber-glamorous blonde Helen, whose interests are more materialistic. Similarly, in 30 Rock, Jenna Maroney’s dumb blonde schtick is associated with her vacuousness and self-absorption.

Liz: “Jenna what’s wrong?”

Jenna: “My niece drew a picture of me and I look so fat!”

- 30 Rock, 4x07

Meanwhile, smarter and deeper Liz Lemon is more often seen around the male characters at TGS – bouncing ideas off Pete or being mentored by Jack, and this subtle male coding of Liz is made even more explicit when it’s revealed she’s been hiding her facial hair from her colleagues. So this dichotomy feeds a message that more girly equals less intelligent and that in society’s eyes, you can never be both at the same time.

CHAPTER THREE: THE END OF THE BRAINY BRUNETTE?

Legally Blonde was a watershed moment in mocking and dismantling the tropes that associate hair color with intelligence. While at first Elle Woods is the typical dumb blonde, and Selma Blair’s Vivian is the brainy brunette counterpart and love rival, in the end, Elle and Vivian have a lot in common.

Ella: “Men are helpless, you know that.”

Vivian: “I know, Warner doesn’t even do his own laundry.”

Elle: “I know, he has to have it sent out!”

- Legally Blonde

They realize that Elle is smart and Vivian is fun, and Warner, the man they were fighting for, isn’t good enough for either of them. Significantly, the movie shows them fighting more over the ring to marry Warner than truly focusing on the guy himself – and this reminds us that their blonde/brunette rivalry is conditioned into them, tied to the pressure they feel to obtain a culturally prescribed form of womanly achievement. And while the movie is playful about its mission to tackle “hair color prejudice”, it actually did hit on something true in our biases and tendency to judge women’s brains based on their appearance.

Warner: “I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”

Elle: “So you’re breaking up with me because I’m too blonde?”

- Legally Blonde

Grey’s Anatomy also plays with our preconceptions around the brainy brunette in its first season. Where Christina Yang is set up as the hyper-focused, prodigious talent destined for great things, Izzie Stevens has to work harder to gain people’s respect. However, the real reason the show introduces this binary early is almost to get it out of the way, because after that, all the doctors exist on more of a level playing field, with each finding their own niche in which to excel. And as if to further the point, Christina’s eventual mentor - the person who gives her the final push she needs to become a more well-rounded surgeon - is the blonde-haired Teddy Altman.

Teddy: “You had to be the best, and you had to be first, but today, today I saw a different surgeon. You put the patient before yourself.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 8x07

The end of the brainy brunette isn’t just signaled by blondes playing smart characters, but also by brunettes playing not-so-smart characters. In Derry Girls, it’s the brunettes Orla and Michelle who take the stereotypically blonde roles, being kinda spacy and kinda boy crazy respectively.

Moreover, the blonde/brunette paradigm is often underpinned by the fact that both characters are white. As we get more diverse stories with a wider color palette, the absurdity of basing personality type on a couple of hair colors is brought right out into the open.

The result of these richer female characters isn’t necessarily to completely abandon the brainy brunette trope, but rather to show that it can be just one facet of someone’s personality. In We Are Lady Parts, the brainy brunette role is filled by the studious scientist Amina, but we learn that this is only one side of her - the side of her she thinks she needs to be in order to fulfill a societal expectation of what a young Muslim girl should be. The hidden more creative, artistic side of herself gets drawn out when she meets other Muslim girls who show that she can make other choices. She’s still the brainy brunette, but she’s allowed to be more than that, too.

CONCLUSION

The brainy brunette trope has its problems – in its intersection with the black and nerdy or Asian and nerdy tropes, it can sometimes lead to othered or cartoonish characters without depth. But it’s also been interpreted through many positive, aspirational, and iconic female role models – like Hermione Granger, Black Panther’s Shuri, or Star Wars’ Rey, who’ve become heroes to countless young girls.

Han Solo: “You might need this.”

Rey: “I think I can handle myself.”

- Star Wars: The Force Awakens

So much of being a young girl is being bombarded with messages of who you should be. The brainy brunette reminds you to think for yourself and ask - who do you want to be?

SOURCES

Ollennu, Amerley. “Hair Colour Stereotypes Are Real But This Is How We’re Finally Ditching Them.” Stylist, 8 May 2018 https://www.stylist.co.uk/beauty/hair-stereotypes-blonde-brunette-redhead-pink-hair-dye-colour/194177

Richardson, Hayley. “DYEING FOR WORK: Businesswoman Claims Dyeing Her Blonde Hair BROWN is the Secret to Her Success… So Who Would You Take More Seriously?” The Sun, 11 Sep. 2017 ​​https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/4437193/top-businesswoman-dyes-blonde-hair-brown-for-work/

Gorgan, Elena. “Brunettes Better than Blondes in All Respects.” Softpedia, 14 Jan. 2009 https://news.softpedia.com/news/Brunettes-Better-than-Blondes-in-All-Respects-101894.shtml

Matyszczyk, Chris. “Shock. Blondes are Actually the Smartest, Research Claims.” Cnet, 23 Mar. 2016 https://www.cnet.com/culture/shock-blondes-are-actually-smarter-than-everyone-else-research-claims