The Bimbo’s Laugh

An Old Hollywood stereotype makes a comeback

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“You’re breaking up with me because I’m too . . . blonde?” Elle Woods drives up to the Harvard campus in her Porsche convertible wearing a hot pink leather suit and a Bottega Veneta bag. Chihuahua in tow, she looks like the fever dream of all the blondes who came before her—effervescent, glitzy, charming. She is a spectacle against the muted tones of the Ivy League, and her arrival sparks mockery. Someone yells from a dorm room above, “Check out Malibu Barbie. . . . Where’s the beach honey?” Driving up to campus, she tells her dog, “Oh Bruiser it’s so exciting! Look, Harvard!” Oblivious to the bemused students who begin to gather, her perky verve is infectious as she proclaims, “This is our new house for the next three years!” Her language is dotted with exclamation points, and her resumé is perfumed.

In a 2001 review of Legally Blonde for the Guardian, Joe Queenan describes Elle Woods as a “nattering imbecile,” “cunningly masquerading as a person who has at least half a brain,” and “an über-bimbo who lives only for fashion, perfume, fitness . . . beautiful, wealthy and mesmerizingly stupid.” Today we read these lines with smug disgust. From our vantage point, we have moved beyond this dull misogyny—but is that true?

There is a lingering nastiness reserved for young women whose casual videos are taken out of context and spread across social media, especially the kind that show a day in their lives or reveal them asking wide-eyed questions about the universe. We take these young women as symbols of the worst parts of culture—empty-headed, vapid, and frivolous. Because their perceived frivolity is entwined with what they buy, we feel justified, if not gleeful, in laughing at them. The sight of young women taking photos of themselves often provokes spontaneous annoyance. This is nothing new, and an echo of what Kate Zambreno describes as “the Victorian suffragette dismissing the shopgirls as victims of consumerism for spending their paychecks on dangling earrings and silk pantyhose and jewelled cigarette cases, as if their sartorial excesses somehow set back the movement.” In contrast, a bright, scintillating era is on the rise.

Materialist Girl

The bimbo and its many iterations (himbo, thembo) are having a renaissance in the current vernacular, and specifically on TikTok, where a conversation about “Bimboism” has emerged. i-D christened 2021 the “Year of the Bimbo,” perhaps unaware that the previous “Year of the Bimbo” was 1987—the women who defined that year like Fawn Hall, Donna Rice, and Jessica Hahn, were embroiled in highly publicized scandals. These “bimbos” were attractive women caught in the crosshairs of powerful institutions and publicized in the media to their detriment. The Wall Street Journal ran a society column soon after Black Monday proclaiming that yes, the year will be remembered for the stock market crash, but “crash or no crash, it is certain that 1987 is the year of the Bimbo,” “everybody’s favorite epithet.”

Bimboism does not necessarily require passivity; it is just not in the bimbo to be cruel. She only punches up.

This is the bimbo as she has been portrayed in film and popular culture: the image of a buxom “dumb” blonde, “an attractive but unintelligent or frivolous young woman,” as Elizabeth Knowles wrote in The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. In contrast, this year has brought a reclamation of the term. Twitter is rife with people self-defining as bimbos, himbos, and the like. What makes the title so alluring in this present moment? There is the aesthetic glitz—jaunty shades of pink and blown-out hair; the idea of being “done up” feels fortifying after a year stuck indoors—but there must be something else.

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. Perhaps after a year of being too online, Bimboism is the antidote.

While scrolling through videos under bimbo-related hashtags, young people attempt to describe or critique the codes and aesthetics of the self-proclaimed movement. Griffin Maxwell Brooks and Chrissy Chlapecka are the viral sensations to have come out of #bimbotok. In one of Brooks’s videos they reveal they’re studying mechanical engineering at Princeton, while yes, identifying as a bimbo. Wearing a midriff-bearing top and low-slung jeans, they simply say, “People can be two things!” Brooks told Rolling Stone, “The modern bimbo aesthetic is more about a state of mind and embracing, ‘I want to dress however I want and look hot and not cater to your expectations.’ . . . You’re aware of all the shit that’s going on around you, but you’re letting go of it because you want to live the life of being pretty and walking around.” The philosophy is the embodiment of the internet catchphrase “no thoughts head empty.”

 

Jane Russell sitting next to Marilyn Monroe.
Still from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), dir. Howard Hawks.

In the Wink of a Lie

While the bimbo takes on the task of freeing hyper-femininity from its conventional shackles, the himbo is her amusing counterpart. The qualities they share are in their good natures. Primarily buff in physique, the himbo is a man who does not have any anxiety about seeming intelligent. Seeming is key here—a himbo may be smart, but the wound-up insecurities of “appearing to be” are what’s different. The himbo accepts that there are some things he does not have the answers for. To him this feels more honest than the masculine farce of pretending to know it all. The himbo is unafraid to ask questions, non-judgmental, and non-threatening. Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby and Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire play experts in their respective fields, but in matters of love they are completely naïve. Playing against Barbara Stanwyck’s street-smart nightclub singer, Cooper becomes a man who “gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk.” While the bimbo is the product of profound rituals that create hyper-femininity, the himbo is an unmade man—innocent and uncontaminated by prevailing forms of masculinity.

About Robert Luketic, the director of Legally Blonde, Joe Queenan complains, “[Luketic] seems to think he is breaking new ground by suggesting that if you’re a beautiful and ambitious moron, you can still find your place in the world. But we already know that if you’re an ambitious, beautiful moron you can still find your place in the world. The place is called Hollywood.”

But the essence of the bimbo in cinema has always been subversive. If you weren’t in on the joke, you were the butt of it. The bimbo’s humor was for a feminine audience. She often made fun of men, but they rarely noticed, distracted by the aesthetic attack of the bimbo’s physicality. As Gina Barreca writes, “you can use irony undetected by its subject but apparent to the correct audience. Girls are taught to do this very early on, blinking darkly fringed round eyes at the most boring man in the room and telling him that he is fascinating, . . . while her girlfriend stands behind the guy laughing silently.”

When Marilyn Monroe winks, the pretext is a sexual invitation while the subtext is look how silly he is. She weaponizes this expert humor best in the 1953 Howard Hawks film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe plays gold digger, dumb blonde, and blueprint bimbo Lorelei Lee. The joke of the film is not that Lorelei is naïve, but that she must perform naïveté in order to achieve success. The joke’s target is never the woman, but the men watching her. In the film, Monroe’s performance of Lorelei physically enacts this duality of being both sly and innocent: “This is not a question of Lorelei/Monroe being one thing one moment and another the next, but of her being simultaneously polar opposites,” writes Richard Dyer in Stars. Monroe’s delivery makes Lorelei’s lines sound like questions, when in reality she is making demands. Visually, Monroe’s facial movements transform from authoritative to doe-eyed, often in a single moment. Critics found this dualism in the film to be incoherent; “simplicity and calculation is a clearly paradoxical phenomenon,” according to Eduard Andreas Lerperger. The humor, then relies on Lorelei being a character who is seemingly passive but “acts in response to her own desires rather than in response to the desires of men.” Barreca writes, “Learning to sound like a Good Girl, while half-concealing the text of the Bad Girl, has been the subject of a great deal of women’s humor.”

The most commonly cited predecessor to Monroe is Jean Harlow, whose roles in films like Dinner at Eight and Red-Headed Woman were never obviously unintelligent; rather, her characters were unlikely heroines due to their class status. Harlow’s version of bimbo was crass and unrefined but insistent on rising through the ranks to secure a better future for herself. In cinema, the gold digger, dumb blonde, and the bimbo all walk the same line, concerning themselves with sexuality, beauty, and commerce—wielding all to their advantage.

Excess Baggage

In criticism of this new era of Bimboism, Laura Mulvey’s theory of The Male Gaze is alluded to like scripture. The gist of it goes something like, “How can being a bimbo be liberating or radical if the bimbo’s hyper-feminine aesthetic caters to the Male Gaze?” This way of thinking has come around before on Twitter and Tumblr. As Kate Zambreno writes, “Feminist critics have swallowed some sort of narrative punishing women who are too feminine that reflects the revulsion towards the excessive that comes right out of patriarchy.” This narrative demands “that women must write, must be, empowered heroines, and if they are not, they are frivolous and should be dismissed.” To define the aesthetic choices of femininity as a trap set by men feels deceivingly easy. The Male Gaze concept interrogates how male artists present women in their work. It’s troubling that this theory is then misapplied to real world interactions that have nothing to do with representation in art. Laura Mulvey’s manifesto has been recast as an inescapable fact of life, conflating men’s artistic gaze with men’s literal gaze—the latter being painted as inherently oppressive. How long will we measure women’s every action against the Male Gaze? What is the political function of this omnipresent Gaze besides something to keep in mind when we consume media? What is its destination?

Perhaps after a year of being too online, Bimboism is the antidote.

When we measure art by these standards it often feels too prescriptive. It becomes a formula that we must adhere to in order to seem politically good. By the time these formulas reach the mainstream, they offer nothing but a pat on the back for those who take comfort in minute progress. Hollywood adopts these formulas to do the bare minimum, in the hopes that this will silence their critics—it’s similar to the way they trot out condescending material to satisfy diversity quotas and finance stories of racial injustice specifically for the consumption of white audiences. The products are hollow and overwrought. These easy solutions prevent us from telling authentic, nuanced stories of how people live.

Just like Hollywood, men want women who fit into their lives neatly, without too much adjustment on their part. The bimbo, in all her glory, is a walking reminder that femininity is a process of making oneself. High maintenance and high effort. The more time a bimbo puts into her looks, the less time she spends on anyone but herself.

In a curated film series at Indiana University, the nineties film Party Girl, starring Parker Posey, is described as a bildungsroman that is “not about the accumulation of emotional or social intelligence, but instead the sublimation of a feminine intelligence to a patriarchal order.” Posey, who by way of mastering the Dewey Decimal system while working at a library, casts off her socialite life and designer closet to enter graduate school. Similarly to Elle Woods, her intelligence is not taken seriously until it is bolstered by an institution. Why do we require an official seal of approval to legitimize and substantiate the existence of these hyper-feminine characters? Must we use academic theory to explain away the existence of Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, and the like? Elle Woods, poolside in her sequined bikini, didn’t need to go to Harvard—but perhaps we needed her to.

Marlowe Granados is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. She co-hosts The Mean Reds, a podcast dedicated to women-led films. Her debut novel Happy Hour is now available in Canada. It will be published in the US & UK September 7, 2021, by Verso Books.

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