By Sascha Cohen
I once saw Britney Spears at Jerry’s Deli in Westwood. I was 20, and the two of us were in line for the bathroom. I cannot tell you a single detail about what she was wearing, the expression on her face, or how tall she seemed. My brain could only process two things: the jolt of recognition at beholding a celebrity who had defined pop culture during my adolescence, and her golden blonde hair, which made her look like a whole sunbeam, a glowing flashbulb, too bright to stare at too closely.
I had been lightening my own hair since age 14, first with sprays of Sun In and later sitting in a salon chair on Melrose Avenue, while a stylist dabbed bleach on sections and folded them into foils. I flipped through Cosmo and People as the color processed, looking at photos of blonde celebrities: women like Holly Madison and Jessica Simpson imitating the style of women like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield — all of us, in the Baudrillardian sense, copies of copies of copies. Hollywood blondes never really go out of fashion — they only shapeshift to meet the psychic and aesthetic needs of each generation.
Our current moment has us revisiting an array of platinum icons from both the distant and more recent past. Documentaries, podcasts, and television shows, about figures from Traci Lords to Pamela Anderson, attempt to tease truth from artifice and interrogate the figure of the “bimbo” more broadly — to varying degrees of success. The best of these projects rehabilitate the Hollywood blonde, who has been historically maligned as a ditz or a slut, without necessarily rewriting her as a legible feminist in the modern sense.
Essayists and journalists anticipated this trend starting a few years ago. Some gave us dark fables of doomed blondes thrown upon the merciless gears and levers of the show business machine. Others wrote triumphant American stories of metamorphosis, of the second act, of the potent mingling of beauty with commerce. Part of the fun of reading about Hollywood blondes is immersing oneself in the language of glamour, sex, fantasy, and occasionally transgression. The pieces on this list explore themes of “eroticized stupidity,” feminine excess, and the crafting of public personas. Like their subjects, they seduce and confound.
“Looking at Photographs of Marilyn Monroe Reading,” (Audrey Wollen, Affidavit, February 2019)
Marilyn Monroe’s iconography includes the infamous Playboy nudes, the billowing white dress from The Seven Year Itch, and several photographs of the actress posed with open books like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. What to make of the pictures of Marilyn reading? They suggest a depth and intelligence starkly opposed by the image of her in our popular imagination: the breathy, empty-headed sexpot whose body telegraphed post-war desire. Like Whitman, she contained multitudes. In 1955, she broke her 20th Century Fox contract and settled into a community of Jewish New York intellectuals, while the FBI kept tabs on her leftist politics. Audrey Wollen’s essay explores this paradox, describing Marilyn’s “passage from pop culture to high culture.”
She fled the castle, or she kept conquering territory, depending on who you ask. From the height of Hollywood, she went to the theatrical stage; from the beloved baseball star, she went to the acerbic playwright; from the front page tell-all interview, she went to the psychoanalytic couch. The press, the public, and the studios all thought she had gone crazy. In the United States, in 1955 and now, nothing screams insanity like shacking up with a Marxist, believing Freud, and reading Dostoevsky.
“Get the Idea, Boys? Mae West’s Shoes,” (Sabina Stent, Majuscule, December 2019)
For a further look into the Hollywood bombshell, explore Camile Paglia’s, “The Death of the Hollywood Sex Symbol,” The Hollywood Reporter, 2019.
Mae West, whom the press called “the Babe Ruth of stage prosties,” inspired at least two Cole Porter songs and Salvador Dali designed a sofa based on her lips. But the voluptuous blonde with the quotable come-ons (“is that a gun in your pocket or…”) was also an artist in her own right. She wrote and starred in risqué plays that landed her in jail on morals charges, and wielded the notoriety to her advantage. Sabina Stent writes about the way West walked — or rather, prowled and shimmied — in a bespoke pair of nine-inch heels. Just as West’s long, glittering, fishtail gowns concealed her secret “double-decker” shoes, her razzle-dazzle flirtations disguised a certain shrewdness about men.
She saunters on stage, hand on hip, purring to her leering audience. “No wisecracks, now,” she says. “A penny for your thoughts …get the idea, boys…ya follow me?” The power of burlesque, the dance of illusion. West gives them the show they want while remaining entirely in control. West sends out an innuendo-laced invitation to chase her, but she knows her value as a commodity, and how to play this gullible crowd at their own game. “Am I makin’ myself clear, boys?” she states, sauntering her way offstage. “Suckers,” she smirks under her breath.
“The Mystery of L.A. Billboard Diva Angelyne’s Real Identity is Finally Solved,” (Gary Baum, The Hollywood Reporter, August 2017)
California’s recent gubernatorial recall election was a total bore until Angelyne entered the race on a platform of mandatory Bubble Bath Day. She lost the vote but won the hearts of Angelenos, who know her as the woman that invented “being famous for being famous” — long before Kim Kardashian was a twinkle in Kris Jenner’s eye. For no small fee, the camp icon, now in her 70s will take a photo with you in front of her Benadryl-pink Corvette and upsell you autographed T-shirts. Few people knew of Angelyne’s unlikely backstory until genealogical research revealed she was born Ronia Tamar Goldberg, the Polish Jewish daughter of Holocaust survivors. Making the most of Tinseltown’s penchant for reinvention and self-mythology, she donned full “shiksa drag.”
Goldberg had purely committed to the fundamental principle of Hollywood — escapism — by inhabiting the character she conjured to the point of no return. Like many dreamers, she adopted a stage name and altered her body and behavior to better position a prospective entertainment career that, like many dreamers, never panned out quite as intended. Nevertheless, far more than most, by any definition of success, she truly became the person she was pretending to be.
“The Bimbo’s Laugh,” (Marlowe Granados, The Baffler, July 2021)
For another take on the concept of the bimbo, read Alana Levinson’s “Justice for the Bimbo,” The Cut, 2022.
Not all blondes are bimbos, and not all bimbos are blondes, but the two are often linked: during the ’90s, a wave of “dumb blonde” jokes cemented the stereotype in our collective consciousness. These days, the bimbo (hair color and even gender notwithstanding) has been enjoying something of a renaissance among TikTok zoomers drawn to fluffy frivolity during what increasingly feels like the end times. The bimbo is sugar-sweet, but not altogether guileless — as Elle Woods proved at Harvard Law — and to fret that she caters to the Male Gaze now reads as hopelessly second-wave. In 2022, we can walk and snap our bubblegum at the same time.
Historically speaking, the archetypal bimbo is enthusiastic and good-natured. Bimboism does not necessarily require passivity; it is just not in the bimbo to be cruel. She only punches up. She pursues hyper-femininity to the extreme—at times to the point of drag. She’s glossy, voluminous, and kind. The bimbo counters the assumption that we would opt out of femininity if we could; in fact, she embraces it. Ultimately the desire to absorb the identity of the bimbo comes from the fact the bimbo is unburdened—whether or not this is a performance. Her respite is covetable, especially when the internet often feels like it lives in the grips of irascible snark.
“How Anna Nicole Smith Became America’s Punchline,” (Sarah Marshall, Buzzfeed Reader, February 2017)
Another rags to riches story, Anna Nicole Smith grew up poor like Marilyn Monroe. But no matter how much fame she secured (the covers and centerfolds, the Guess Jeans modeling contract, the bit movie parts), Smith could never shed her humble class background and its attendant signifiers in the eyes of Americans who deemed her “white trash.” She elicited that combustible alchemy of fascination and revulsion that makes a woman perfect tabloid and reality TV fodder. But it was Smith’s status as an unrepentant gold-digger that cast her tragic downfall as the just desserts for her larger-than-life appetites.
The woman rose up, made powerful by beauty, and then found herself falling, her beauty fading, her power eroding, her ugliness as she tried to cope with this loss providing spectators with the reassuring feeling that such power is never really worth having, if losing it looks like this. And the only person more deserving of this humiliation than the cluelessly beautiful woman is the beautiful woman who, even more unforgivably, knows she is beautiful: the woman who knows she is worth something to the world, and leverages her value to escape a life she can no longer stand. The woman who looks back at a world that always wants something from her, and asks, How bad do you want it? How much are you willing to pay?
“It’s Britney, B*tch,” (Lili Anolik, Air Mail, February 2021)
What about a ’90s icon? Rachel Rabbit White considers Pamela Anderson in “Who’s Afraid of Pamela Anderson?” Vulture, 2022.
More than anyone else, Britney Spears was the blueprint for Y2K vocal-fry teen girlhood. She was no spindly heiress like Paris Hilton; in the early years of her career, she offered something a bit more accessible. As Lili Anolik explains, “you could find half a dozen of her wandering the food court of any shopping mall in America.” If her look was ordinary, her dancing was remarkable — even better than Madonna’s. She may be best understood as the spiritual successor to Elvis, another poor white Southerner who made good, another entertainer with moves meant to titillate. If you were a high school girl at the turn of the millennium, Britney may have helped you discover the frisson of performing sexuality that you didn’t wholly mean — oops! — and that you could always coyly deny. Above all, the pop star was a study in contrasts.
Britney communicated in two ways. She talked with her mouth, and what she said was soft, flat, polite, girlish, self-effacing, devoid of nuance or interest or force. And she talked with her body, and what she said was assertive, aggressive, teasing, taunting, cruel verging on sadistic, and full of raw female power. The second voice was the louder and more insistent, and it tended to drown out the first, though not always and never entirely. And so the disparate elements that made up Britney Spears—part sweetheart, part rebel, part angel, part whore, part artist, part exhibitionist—fused together. Until they didn’t.
Sascha Cohen is a Boston based writer who grew up in Los Angeles.
Editor: Carolyn Wells