thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Beyond Dumb Blondes and Smart Brunettes

In Uncategorized on September 2, 2014 at 7:55 am

all hail hannaSarah Todd

Hanna Marin is supposed to be the dumb blonde. As one of four friends featured on ABC Family’s teen mystery series Pretty Little Liars, she’s prone to malapropisms and gaps in logic. (“Jenna can’t hear us, she’s blind,” she tells her friends in one scene. In another: “Nothing works underwater. It’s a scientific fact.”) She’s more likely to be found flipping through fashion magazines, shoplifting sunglasses or rocking out to Savoir Adore in the kitchen than studying for a test, and her preferred method for taking care of problems is to throw some physical manifestation of them in a lake or a blender—whatever’s handy at the time.

But Pretty Little Liars is mostly interested in patriarchal archetypes insofar as they can be subverted. Hanna was always allowed to be brave, loyal and funny in addition to being a space cadet, and the past couple seasons have gone even farther in complicating her character. She started developing theories and hatching plans in an effort to save herself and her friends from their mystery-tormentor, A. Last year, she developed a reading habit; this year, she was the first of the foursome to see through the manipulations of their former leader, Ali. And last week’s season finale drove home the fact that there’s more to Hanna than meets the expertly-lined eye. Much to her own surprise, she nailed the SATs.

The bubbly girl who realizes her scholarly potential with the help of a standardized test is a familiar television trope. Buffy Summers—witty but academically average—receives unexpectedly high scores and decides to apply to Northwestern. On The O.C., Summer Roberts worries that her cute-nerd boyfriend Seth will ditch her for being intellectually subpar—until her stellar SAT scores inspire her to hit the books and win admission to Brown. Zach Morris, Saved By the Bell’s masculine take on the popular but low-achieving blond, lands a 1502 and winds up slated for Yale. (The questionable utility of standardized tests and the glorification of name-brand schools are topics for another day.)

Like Hanna, these characters don’t spend hours before the tests mastering tricky math word problems and memorizing the definition of “querulous.” They go into the SATs without a lot of confidence in their intelligence, having been frequently informed that their value lies more in their shiny hair and social prowess. Their results inspire them to aim higher and have more faith in their beautiful minds.

But Hanna’s experience differs from those of her television peers in at least one important respect. While Buffy and Summer may be insecure about their intellectual capabilities, their pals never put them down. Hanna, on the other hand, has plenty of self-confidence and has never seemed much fussed about whether or not she’s a brain. It’s her friends who seem invested in making her feel dumb.

As anyone who’s been part of a tight-knit group of teenage girls can testify, young women tend to define themselves against one another. This can be a helpful way for girls to figure out their identities—but it sometimes means pushing one another into over-simplified roles. Hanna’s ditzy-blonde status is an important touchstone for the other members of her group because it allows them to confirm their own ideas of themselves. They’re more responsible and reasonable than she is, less superficial, more grown-up. This comparison is particularly crucial for the character who appears to be diametrically opposed to Hanna in most respects: high-strung, straight-A student Spencer Hastings. She’s a brunette, natch.

spencer hastings, preppy queen of the universe

By both popular decree and self-definition, Spencer is the smart one in the group. She corrects Hanna’s pronunciation of words like “nuclear” and shuts down her friend’s overly blunt or off-topic conversational contributions with a swift, “Not helping, Hanna.” She’s also appropriately scandalized whenever Hanna’s frank interest in sex rears its head. (Dumb blondes in the media, like Hanna’s spiritual sister Marilyn Monroe, are allowed to be sexual because their childlike innocence mitigates the implicit threat their sensuality might pose to men. Smart, serious brunettes, on the other hand, are supposed to be more repressed.) “If you really want to surprise [your boyfriend],” Hanna advises with a sly grin, “have on 5-inch heels and nothing else when he walks in.” Needless to say, Spencer doesn’t take her advice.

Hanna’s tendency to focus on things that Spencer deems trivial—the causes of male-pattern baldness, her therapist’s boots, high-end moisturizer—are a threat to the orderly universe that Spencer is constantly trying to fashion out of chaos. Therefore Hanna’s got to be kept in check.

But the truth is that Spencer wants Hanna to be the dumb blonde. Having her around to correct is an essential way that Spencer can assert her own authority and intelligence. That’s why, when Hanna starts churning through novels or comes up with a plan that Spencer actually approves of, Spencer makes sure to voice her surprise. These put-downs are as much a way of keeping Hanna in line as lecturing her about her ignorance of Russian history. Both methods remind Hanna of the parts they’re each supposed to play. To be fair, Hanna has a tendency to reassert Spencer’s position as the smart one too. “You do not need to know any more big words,” she assures her dark-haired friend as she studies for the PSATs. “You’re already scary enough to anyone under 50.”

But in the tradition of Lorelei and Dorothy in Gentleman Prefer Blondes or Serena and Blair in Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars has been setting up Hanna and Spencer as opposites only to reveal how reductive that premise is. The news of Hanna’s SAT test scores seems destined to change their balance of power. After all, Spencer was denied early admission to the college of her choice (UPenn) and has yet to hear back from other schools, whereas her rival Mona Vanderwaal has already been accepted to three Ivies and counting. If Hanna’s now competing for a spot at colleges like Stanford, Spencer’s tight programming may well short-circuit—and that’s all to the better.

The real point of the SAT plot twist is that there are different ways to be smart. Spencer’s a Winston Churchill-quoting genius, of course, and she has a well-deserved reputation for it. But Aria is a bookworm and a talented writer, while Emily is the kind of hardworking student who lands consistently good grades but little acclaim. And Hanna’s intelligence has been there all along, evident in her sassy comebacks and in the emotional intuitiveness that makes her an excellent judge of character. The SATs offer a satisfying rebuttal to those who are quick to dismiss her braininess, but she’d be just as smart if she’d gotten goose eggs and gone on to attend a school without name-brand cache.

As Pretty Little Liars progresses, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the girls have outgrown their old categorizations. In the season finale, they’re told that they were hand-picked by their former queen-bee Ali for their most salient character traits: Spencer was smart, Emily was loyal, Aria was compassionate, and Hanna (always under-valued) was admiring. But that was years ago. Check them out now: they’re all smart and compassionate and loyal. These are the qualities that make them admire each other, and make the audience admire them too.

The characters’ evolving identities make them harder to classify, less tailor-made for a which-Liar-are-you magazine quiz. But their personalities remain distinctive; it’s just that the borders of what they’re capable of have proved to be more porous than they first appeared. Dumb blondes and smart brunettes, homecoming queens and valedictorians: all those labels mean zilch if you’re actually interested in getting an accurate measure of another person’s character.

As teenage girls, the Liars have been swamped by messages that seek to disempower them by telling them that they can only be one thing. They’ve already learned how to tune those messages out, learn from their experiences and challenge themselves to develop identities that defy easy summaries. Now Hanna and Spencer have just got to learn to extend that same expansive mindset toward one another. After all, it looks like they may be spending a lot of time together in the Ivy League.

Related links:

Pretty Little Liars and the Power of Four

Hateship, Friendship, and the Power Dynamics of “Doll & Em”

True-er Detectives: ‘The Bletchley Circle,’ Lady Sleuths, and Friendship

  1. I love this! I’m so happy someone put it this way and notices how the creators of PLL go beyond stereotypes and do let their characters grow and change.

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