Blond Bites Dog: The Truth About Dr. Aaron Sell's Research, Warlike Women and Newsroom Vetting

BlogHer Original Post

University of California, Santa Barbara, lead researcher Dr. Aaron Sell provoked ire in women of all hair colors after the New Zealand Herald, the BBC and The Sunday Times misquoted him as saying blonds are more warlike than their nonblond peers.

In a mind-bogglingly botched interview, John Harlow at The Sunday Times misquoted Sell on the subject of hair color, writing:

Sell suspects that blonds exist in a “bubble” where they have been treated better than other people for so long they do not realize that men, in particular, are more deferential towards them than other women. “They may not even realize they are treated like a princess,” Sell said.

Some journalists and bloggers questioned the research enough to dig in, even though countless others didn't.

Sell responded in a ticked-off e-mail to questions from True Slant's blogger Ryan Sagar, explaining he'd never said anything about blonds being more warlike than other women.

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It was too late: Media outlets across the globe immediately picked up this shining kernel of newsworthiness and ran with it without question or the simplest vetting. From the New Zealand Herald:

The researchers also discovered they were less likely than brunettes or redheads to get in a physical fight, perhaps to ensure their looks were preserved.

(I know I always step delicately to the side when a fistfight breaks out to allow my less fair-haired counterparts to get their looks ruined.)

Is this a case of "blond bites dog"? First off, the study didn't discuss hair color at all. But that's not even the story. Despite the fact this study was conducted on men and women, no news outlet I could find discussed the warlike tendencies of strong men, which was presented first in the findings. Every media outlet -- from Gawker to the BBC -- framed the story around only warlike women, even specifically blond women.

Also: The research correlated actual physical upper body strength in men with self-perceived physical attractiveness in women. I'm fairly certain physical upper body strength is quantifiable and perceived physical beauty (especially your own beauty) is, um, not. So seriously -- what kind of research is that in the first place? The researchers did measure physical strength in women and self-perceived attractiveness in men, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the press release:

As predicted, the study showed that men with greater upper body strength feel entitled to better treatment, anger more easily and frequently, and prevail more often in conflicts of interest. Attractive women should also have social leverage, by virtue of their ability to confer benefits. The study found that women who see themselves as more attractive behave as stronger men do: They also feel entitled to better treatment, anger more easily, and have more success resolving conflicts in their favor.

Poof! There goes my blond head. It just blew off. And why did so many news outlets pick it up without question even if you don't bring the heinous misquotation into the picture? I know the publishing industry has suffered a lot of cuts, but come on, people.

At first, I as a blond was annoyed with the whole "warlike blond" thing, but the more I discussed it with BlogHer Managing Editor Julie Ross Godar, I agreed that it was a truly legitimate WTF. Why is the woman's part of the study the only part worth discussing, with or without the blond? Why was a researcher given money to compare actual physical strength and perceived beauty in relation to anger? And why did dozens of legitimate mainstream news organizations in Europe, the United States, Australia and India all pick up this story without so much as a click-through to the actual research?

Sell was clearly misquoted. The official study press release says this of the research methodology:

As predicted, the study showed that men with greater upper body strength feel entitled to better treatment, anger more easily and frequently, and prevail more often in conflicts of interest. Attractive women should also have social leverage, by virtue of their ability to confer benefits. The study found that women who see themselves as more attractive behave as stronger men do: They also feel entitled to better treatment, anger more easily, and have more success resolving conflicts in their favor.

After picking myself up off the floor and banging my head against the monitor several times, I asked four non-blonds to weigh in on the blond warrior thing, including: Julie Ross Godar, Devra Renner, Debontherocks and Kelly Wickham.

Rita: How many different colors has your hair been?

Julie: Blonde. Brown. Black. Calico (home hair dye incident). Pink. Purple. Auburn. Green (chlorine-induced). Green (Manic Panic-induced). Orange. Ten!

Kelly: Brunette, red, and blonde but only with streaks.

Devra: My hair has been two colors: The one my parents gave to me, and the one I pay for myself.

Deb: In addition to various and tiger stripes, streaks and tips, I've been all shades of black, brown, red, purple and one unfortunate month as orange. When my hair was orange, I felt pretty violent, but mostly to the friend who assured me henna was a good idea. I've avoided overall blond because I believed the blond jokes and was afraid it would make me, well, not smart. But now that I know being blond could make me a warrior, hello Clairol! Bam!

Rita: If you've ever been blond, did you think yourself more attractive?

Kelly: No, I had to get it bleached before I went red (long story, bad experience) and I thought I looked ridiculous. And pale. I looked so very pale and sickly.

Julie: No, but I did think myself more blond. Not dumber, or hotter, or more Mean Girl or anything. I just knew I was blond all the time. The opportunity to reference my blondness was always there … meaning I think I set myself up to be a little more flirty, so I probably WAS a little more attractive. The hair falling out from the bleach job, though, I'm pretty sure was not in fact attractive.

Rita: Do men really care about hair color?

Kelly: Yes, every guy I've dated has had an opinion one way or the other.

Julie: Not that I've seen, but that's probably because I'm so aggressive they don't want to bring it up around me.

Devra: My husband only cares about hair length. Wait, I take that back. I think he would truly appreciate any effort I made to get my hair colored blue and orange to match the Denver Broncos, his favorite team.

Rita: Do you find blonds warlike?

Crickets chirping. WHAT? THIS IS SOLID RESEARCH.

Deb: Right now the only blond in my life is my golden retriever, River. He's a saint. As loyal and smart as a brunette. I've tried to make him warlike so that he will guard my safety, but so far when I command "sic" he thinks I say "lick my face and don't stop until you get a treat." He has an incredible sense of entitlement about treats. Do dogs count?

Julie: When I think of blonds and aggression I tend to think less Warrior Princess and more Village of the Damned.

Rita: Name your favorite celeb warlike blond.

Devra: Can I answer Thor? Because I want to.

Julie: Jean Harlow, totally. Is this John Harlow guy doing all the misquoting in the Times any relation?

Kelly: I can't think of a single kick-ass blond celeb. I'm pretty sure I could take any one of them.

Deb: I love warlike blonds. Uma is fierce. Helen Mirren. Deborah Harry. Sharon Stone. Meryl Streep. Dame Edna--no wait, her hair is purple. You know who is a complete warrior badass? Betty White. But my favorite warlike celeb/character was Xena, and she's a brunette. Some blond chicks I personally wouldn't mess with because of their known volatility: Daphne from Scooby Doo, Ellen DeGeneres, David Soul, Vanna White, or Doris Day. Especially Doris. She's was rough!

Rita: If blonds are more warlike, how do we explain Angelina Jolie?

Deb: Good luck explaining Angelina Jolie using any laws of the known universe.

Kelly: We explain her as "smoldering, the dark temptress" and a myriad of other stereotypes because we can't just say, "Wow, she's attractive." Women always have these qualifiers and it makes me kind of warlike to think about it.

Rita: How do the Vikings fit in?

Kelly: The ones with the big boob breastplates? Those Vikings? They seem to be stocky women who are more "male-like" than feminine blonds who can fight.

Devra: Please see above where I answered "Thor."

Deb: My Danish Viking relatives are all brunettes. They are pretty peaceful socialists, too. They ride bikes a lot and worry about global warming and tiny sandwiches.

Rita: Do attractive women always get what they want?

Julie: Confident women do, more often, I'd say.

Kelly: Yes. It's sad and true. It's why I put on a push-up bra and lip gloss before going to get my oil changed. If they're gonna treat me better like this then I'm going to appeal to their stupidity thus making the baby Feminism cry.

Devra: No. But attractive men don't always get what they want either.

Rita: Did Barbie ruin it for nonblonds everywhere with her thick, four-foot-long, golden tresses?

Devra: No. But Mattel may have.

Kelly: I don't blame Barbie. I blame Cheryl Ladd and Christie Brinkley. Because I saw them on every magazine cover as a young girl I have come to resent women who look like that because that was the "standard" and I've rejected it in my deep psyche.

Julie: I think Barbie ruined it for blondes everywhere by setting the expectation that fair hair must be accompanied by great whopping ta-tas and permaheels.

Rita: How about the Disney princesses? Should we blame Cinderella for blonds' sense of entitlement?

Deb: I do blame the Disney and the fairy tales. Because of them, blonds walk around worried that like Cinderella, they might be tortured into cleaning other people's messes, or having to wear used shoes, or having to clock in at midnight as though they are on probation for passing bad checks in order to buy non-used shoes. That is why blonds are so freaking aggressive. The fear of Cinderella eats away at them, and they snap, like cornered wolves, demanding freedom from the perpetual threats of smelly pumpkins and mice. Like cornered blond wolves, and who could blame them?

Kelly: No, them I pity with their fatherlessness. Wasn't Snow White a brunette? Ariel was a red-head.

Julie: I never really wanted what they were entitled to. Or maybe I just didn't feel I deserved it because I grew up brunette.

Rita: Have you ever seen a street fight involving a blond woman other than Tanya Harding?

Julie: Yeah. A drunken row between two sorority members in college. I am not kidding.

Deb: I've taken a few down myself. I have to say they aren't any more aggressive than others, but I would advise you to look for rings. Their wealthy, entitled boyfriends often give blonds rings that will cut you, so therein lies the extra advantage.

Rita: What does the twisting of research do to women's perception of themselves and each other?

Julie: Makes me want to dye my hair blond and go all Brigitte Nielsen on the patriarchy.

Kelly: I kind of feel like the whole thing is a head game to get us to think more about our looks and not about our brains. It's a distraction. A way for us to avoid the more important things. If we are fighting about hair color and what the perception of that does to what we get or don't get then we won't be in direct competition with men who are allowed to be smart and creative and leaders.

Devra: It puts women in a position where they either question each other or themselves more than necessary.

I rest my case.

Rita Arens writes at Surrender Dorothy and BlogHer and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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