Elsa and Blonde Envy

Elsa doll

If you interacted with a small child this past year, you will likely know the immense popularity of Disney’s latest animated feature film, Frozen. It seems like every young child and their (unwilling?) parent can sing “Let it Go”, its pièce de résistance musical number, verbatim. I just checked, and as I write, there is actually an official Frozen website, where the first headline you read is, “What to do while waiting for Frozen 2.” You might have also noticed a seemingly universal obsession with Elsa, the ice queen and Disney princess du jour in Frozen. At one point, some parents were shelling out over $1,000 for the elusive Elsa gown that stores couldn’t keep in stock. However, parents managed. For Halloween last year (and even on regular school days), every other preschool girl seemed to be wearing a blue sparkly Elsa gown. To make sure they were not mistaken for other princesses, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, young girls adopted Elsa’s signature coif, wearing a platinum blond wig with a long braid trailing down the side.

Now, watching young girls struggle to keep this wig on is quite ridiculous, especially when their tiny heads are covered in smooth, shiny black hair, like my friend’s daughter’s. The standard Elsa wig is quite dinky on the top. When you hold one in your hand it looks like a scalping prop in an old cowboys-and-Indians Western. I tried not to laugh too obviously when I watched my friend’s daughter engage in pretend play with the wig. She’s so observant, even at four; she doesn’t miss a thing. But while I was laughing I was inwardly cringing at the same time because, I thought, this is where it starts. This is where we learn that blonde is beautiful – and not just any blonde, but platinum blonde. This is where we learn that blonde means nice, blonde means good, blonde means privileged, blonde means rich, blonde means pure, blonde means better. This is what society teaches us and teaches us early. And I cringe because Elsa is a heroine. Millions of girls worldwide look up to her character, including brown-skinned girls with black hair and brown eyes, girls who look nothing at all like Elsa.

Particularly disheartening, was when another friend’s daughter, an adorable brown-skinned Asian American girl (let’s call her Maxine), at age three, would consistently point to the blonde girl in books and say, “She’s my favorite.” Bless those publishers, there would be Asian girls, Black girls, Latino girls, brunettes, redheads, all equally distributed in the sticker book. Every single feature about the different girls was the same – same cute chubby cheeks, same cute dresses and bows, just the skin color and hair were different. But inevitably if there was a blonde girl on the page, yup, that would be Maxine’s favorite. Once she said, pointing to another blonde girl, “She’s my favorite,” but then pointed to the girl with black hair and brown skin and said, “But that’s Daddy’s favorite.” Maxine’s is growing up in an open-minded, loving, race-conscious household. Despite all these advantages, Maxine’s example shows that it’s so difficult to keep children immune to these messages and to prevent this pernicious learning.

Tina Fey mentioned a similar occurrence with her daughter in her terrific book, Bossypants. In the chapter, “All Girls Must Be Everything” she writes, “When I read fairy tales to my daughter I always change the word ‘blond’ to ‘yellow,’ because I don’t want her to think that blond hair is somehow better.” She describes a reversible doll her daughter has with Snow White on one side and Sleeping Beauty on the other. Tina Fey reports that she always flipped the doll on her daughter’s bed so that Snow White (the non-blonde) would be facing up, but her daughter would consistently flip it back to Sleeping Beauty. Her daughter explained to Tina Fey, “I don’t like [Snow White’s] hair.” “Not even three years old,” Tina Fey writes, her daughter “knew that yellow hair is king.” In that chapter, it struck me that Tina Fey, as a brunette, also had issues with blonde hair growing up. She writes about New Jersey in the 70’s where the standard of beauty was “Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley. Small eyes, toothy smile, boobies, no buttocks, yellow hair.” Apparently, blonde envy is not just confined to Asians (my friend’s daughter), but to Greek-German American comedians as well. But seriously, why do children need to learn that blonde is supreme and then work their whole adult lives to unlearn the same adage?

Society places so much value on the beauty of girls and women. If a girl doesn’t feel beautiful because her hair is not blonde, and places her self-worth on how she looks, it could lead to psychological distress. She might feel that she’s inferior to other girls who are blonde. Even if she doesn’t feel that way, she may be treated that way by others.

Boys are not immune either. Boys get duped into the same media machine, learning that blonde is more attractive. Want to put a dollar price on hair color? A disturbing article in the Economist did an investigative piece on the sex worker industry. Blonde sex workers apparently get paid more on average for their services than sex workers with any other hair color. Trying to place myself into a man’s shoes, this would make me upset. We like to think our preferences are ours; they are unique individual differences. What if your preferences are just shaped by society?

I grew up in a neighborhood in Southern California that was mostly White at the time (you know, the kind of neighborhood where if there’s one other same-race kid in the class, your classmates either assume you’re related or dating, even in first grade). When I was 15, my school volleyball team and I were lucky enough to take a trip to Maui for “conditioning” to prepare for the season, but really more for a fun vacation, as our awesome coach had family in Hawaii. Yes, this team was basically all blonde, with two brunettes, and one Asian girl (me). You can believe we got a lot of cat calls walking across roads in our twiggy teenage bodies (thanks to the blondes). The last night we went to dinner at a fancy restaurant. As we were getting ready, an older teammate offered to do my make-up. I consented and upon completion, with heavy eyeliner and a deep purple eye shadow, topped off with a hundred layers of black mascara, another teammate looked at me as if with new eyes. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “May Ling is pretty.” It was a kind compliment, but the way she said it made me realize that she had never even thought of me as a candidate for prettiness. Like, in her world, Asian and black hair just wasn’t considered attractive. And I think a lot of boys in my high school thought the same way.

Blonde envy has been around for a while. In 1984, Whoopi Goldberg wrote and performed an amazingly funny and poignant monologue on Broadway, where she pretends to be a 6-year-old Black girl. She arrives on stage with a large white-collared shirt wrapped over her hair, shirt sleeves swinging back and forth, and says to the audience, “This is my long, luxurious blonde hair, ain’t it pretty?” She continues on: “When I get big…I’m gonna’ have blonde hair, blue eyes, and I’m a be White.” She later takes off the white shirt from her head, hesitantly revealing her black curls to the audience. The audience inevitably responds with a pitiful “aww.” She says about her hair, “…it don’t blow in the wind. It don’t cas-, cascadade [cascade] down my back…and I want some other kind of hair to do something else. I do!” At the end, she works through her hair issue with the audience and lays aside the shirt on the stage saying, “I’m never gonna’ put it on again. Never, never again.”

This brings me full circle back to Elsa. Why does the sight of my friend’s brown-skinned Asian-American daughter tossing a blonde braid around make me cringe so much? I think it’s because Elsa is not only blond, but she is ice blonde. So blonde. She represents an ideal that is hard to attain for most girls, even for naturally blonde girls. The father of my friend’s daughter and I had this same discussion. “[Elsa’s] just so White.” Elsa looks Scandinavian, like Nazi Germany’s ideal of the Aryan race. It’s not that White is bad, of course not. It’s just that we non-Whites already have to contend with the White, European beauty ideal when we are far from it. Push that White ideal even further with the white blonde hair, and we worry about how non-White, non-blonde children will deal with it.

The issue of hair and hair color gets crossed with preferences and attitudes about race. The African American community is well-aware of this (e.g., Chris Rock’s Good Hair). The Latino community has its own issues combatting kinkiness and curls for straight locks. When I lived in Harlem during graduate school, I learned that a “Dominican blowout” meant blow-drying your hair until it was super duper straight. We want kids to love their hair color because we want them to love who they are, to love their cultural heritage, and to be proud of their racial/ethnic identities.

Blonde is beautiful, but so is black, brown, red, white, purple, green! Straight is beautiful but also curly, kinky, wavy, and everything in between. Kudos to Sesame Street for writing an “I love my hair” song to address this issue (in English and in Spanish). Apparently the song was inspired by a caring father’s concern about his four-year-old African American daughter’s desire for straight hair. Let’s work towards making sure that this generation of Elsa girls can similarly belt out with conviction, “I love my hair.”