If you’re not flaxen-haired yourself, you may not have noticed (or you might not care) but, right now, both parties’ front-runners have unmistakably blond hair. Not fair, not fading, but full-on blond like champagne or a field of wheat. For any student of presidential hairdos, this is the equivalent of a Halley’s Comet sighting—it’s incredible and you may not see it again for decades.
Much has been made of Donald Trump’s comb-over—more of a comb-forward, really—but its color is just as remarkable. In his new Time cover story, it practically glistens, like a nest of golden tinsel delicately arranged atop his head. The bald eagle in the Time photo shoot is as white-headed as the vast majority of former presidents but The Donald is unapologetically blond.
Hillary Clinton’s own blond tresses have received plenty of undue attention in sexist faux controversies over the past two decades. She is an out-and-proud bottle blonde, telling South Carolina voters this May, “I’ve been coloring my hair for years.” French stylist Isabelle Goetz, who has been cutting the former Secretary of State’s hair since 1999, still claims her as a client.
Trump and Clinton: two parties, two genders, two famous heads of hair, one hair color. There must be something in the water—or in the salon mixing bowl—because Carly Fiorina’s bob has been looking a little lighter lately as well. The 2016 election is officially the blondest one in electoral history.
This wouldn’t be worthy of comment if it wasn’t so rare. In an ideal world, a politician’s hair color shouldn’t matter but, in contemporary image-obsessed American politics, it almost certainly does. Politics is perception and perception is hair—at least in part. And so far, light-haired political aspirants haven’t had much luck reaching the highest office.
What’s been holding them back?
For one, there’s some evidence to suggest that blond hair could be a liability for women running for the Oval. Hair color company Clairol has surveyed women several times over the years asking them to predict the hair color of the first female president. In 2002, 76 percent of women and 74 percent of men predicted that she would be brunette. By 2008, when we had a better idea of who “she” might be, the results were more split but respondents still perceived brunettes as being more serious and trustworthy. Nearly 70 percent of women said that if they had to hire someone based on hair color alone, they’d choose a brunette.
By now, too, several scientific studies have shown that negative stereotypes about blond women may have more of an impact on our perception than we’d like to admit. One famous 1996 study found that 136 college students reviewing identical résumés with different photos attached were more likely to rate blond women and redheads as less capable. To add insult to injury, they also assigned blondes lower starting salaries.
“Thus, regardless of their actual performance, blondes and/or redheads may have a difficult time overcoming any initial skepticism about their capabilities,” the authors concluded.
However, there are currently several blond female senators—like Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill—so perhaps the blond ceiling will prove to be less difficult to crack than the glass one.
Blond male candidates, on the other hand, may face even more challenging obstacles, the most inevitable being age.
In over 200 years, we’ve had a mere handful of blond heads of state and almost all of them have gone gray by the time they took office. Jefferson is commonly said to have “reddish blonde” hair as a young man but any golden hues had vanished by the time his stoic portrait was painted.
As Hillary Clinton playfully put it, American presidents tend to “grow grayer and grayer and by the time they leave, they are as white as the building they live in.”
Which ones were blond before their first term? Depends who you ask. Remembering the hair color of men that we know best as white-haired statesmen takes a bit of research. It’s also complicated by the inherent subjectiveness of blond hair—there’s no denying that a young Trump had blond hair, for example, but a young Jimmy Carter is up for debate.
Benjamin Harrison, the artist notes, was “corn-silk blonde in his youth” and white in his old age. Jackson, Coolidge, and Carter were “sandy,” but did not quite cross the blond threshold. James Garfield he describes as having had “light brown” hair, although others have labeled him blond. Gerald Ford likely had the blondest hair of all U.S. presidents but, as his biographer would later observe, it was “shading to gray” well before he took office.
Given the prevalence of blondeness in the European countries from which our presidents’ ancestors tend to hail, there probably should have been a few more in the bunch.
But blond men face stereotypes unique to their gender. We can already see some of them at work in popular depictions of Trump.
In film and television, the trope of the bad blond man is particularly well-worn. In romantic comedies, blond men often play the role of “other guy” who briefly distracts the heroine from her darker-haired destiny. In action movies, they’re usually villains. According to one tally, there have been eight blond Bond villains—most recently Javier Bardem’s effete, bleached-blond, sport coat-wearing turncoat in Skyfall.
Of course, by bragging about his wealth and flying into the Iowa State Fair in his $7 million helicopter, Trump isn’t exactly distancing himself from the trappings of Bond villain either. One columnist has already called him “the swaggering blonde supervillain of the GOP” and the comparison has not been lost on comedians.
Buzzfeed, being Buzzfeed, has already published a “Who Said It: Donald Trump or a James Bond Villain” quiz but Trump’s side-by-side resemblance to Max Zorin from A View to Kill is more interesting than any similarities in conversational style.
Now imagine Trump with a classic Reagan cut. The Bond villain comparison might still be made but it wouldn’t be nearly as tempting. It’d be hard to picture any headlines dubbing him the “brown-haired supervillain of the GOP,” for instance.
And there’s more than just media-based evidence to support the idea that the American public might prefer a brown-haired man in office.
A 2012 study from social psychologist Nicolas Guéguen found that women were less likely to respond to dance requests from men with blond hair than men with brown or black hair. An earlier U.S. study found that less than 20 percent of a small sample of straight white undergraduate women preferred blond men. Everything from dating websites to romance novels can attest that blond men, for some reason, are not as desirable to the masses.
Wrote one romance novel reviewer decrying the lack of blond love interests, “[I]f you are one of the romance readers who lives in the U.S., you might think a blond guy is weak, effeminate, safe, vain, a morally perfect angel, or just too ‘model good looking’ to be interesting.”
Running for president is not the same as dating, true, but both involve a degree of courtship. And in a country where the so-called “beer test” seriously impacts a candidate’s chance of success, it’s not crazy to think that a brown-haired man might have a head start.
After all, we need only look as far as Dan Quayle to see what can happen when politicians bet on blond. When the elder Bush first announced his VP pick back in 1988, the Los Angeles Times recorded the following humdinger of a prediction: “Bush strategists said that the blonde Quayle, sometimes described as a Robert Redford look-alike, would bring glamour to the ticket.”
Years later, political columnists remember Quayle as “a dumb blonde male.” That’s probably how Trump will be described in the future, too.
But the present is still a time bursting with potentialities. Clinton may get toppled and Trump will almost certainly lose if he makes it to the general election but, for now, we can simply bask in the golden rays of light emanating from the front-runners’ coiffures and dream, for the first time, of a breathtakingly blond president.
Blondes may have more fun but they have fewer nuclear codes.