They call it the Blonde Fury. For no apparent reason, blonde girls and women are turning into homicidal maniacs — zombies that rip people to shreds and spread death and destruction around the world. For some reason, the virus affects only females, and it affects even those with dyed hair. Emily Schultz’s The Blondes is a sharp social commentary on gender relations and the premium placed on physical beauty. Despite a concept that could quite easily have become a hilarious B movie, Schultz takes the cerebral route, a thoughtful, academic blonde zombie thriller.
Much of the tone is due to the protagonist: Hazel Hayes is a PhD candidate doing her thesis on aesthetology or “what women look like and what we think they look like.” [p. 8] Part of the story is pure zombie thriller — Hazel is pregnant and alone in the woods waiting for the wife of her baby’s father to come back for her. The Blonde Fury has taken the world hostage and Hazel is terrified about the world her baby will be born into. Yet because of her academic background, Hazel is hyper-aware of the socio-cultural issues the author brings to light. Scenes of blonde women throwing furniture around are sandwiched between flashbacks of academic discussions on the Hollywood preference for blondes during the silent film era, because dark haired women were too “ethnic,” and therefore dangerous. Beyond the immediate irony is sharp satire — why does hair colour render a woman “harmless,” and more importantly, is the preference for a more generic type of beauty systemic of a larger disenfranchisement of female power?
At one point (and tellingly before the Blonde Fury had been diagnosed), Hazel discusses her thesis with an expert in the field (also tellingly, a blonde, beautiful woman):
“Beautiful women are full of anger over their privilege,” I said. “They use deceit as a kind of trade. They receive more attention than other women, and want to be the centre of attention at all times. It’s an addiction. And like all addicts, they’re controlling and abusive, full of insecurity and rage.”
“Oh my,” Kovacs said. I think she bit her glass a little. “Is that what you really think? […] This is personal for you.” [p. 79-80]
In the character of Hazel, Schultz turns the spotlight on to the unfortunate reality that the subjugation of women is done just by men — women too are guilty of putting other women down. Hazel admits she may “simply [be] afraid of beautiful people,” and her self-awareness offers a certain perspective by which to read this book.
As a story, there are quite a few weaknesses. The virus affecting even peroxide blondes makes sense from the social commentary perspective, but makes zero sense scientifically, as does the way that shaving off hair protects you from the virus. The shifts between time periods got very confusing, and while I’m usually fine with ambiguous endings, this one just seemed to peter out.
Still, as social commentary, The Blondes is potent. Schultz subverts the stereotype of the brainless blonde by turning them into violent zombies. She also explores the fear of female power and the resulting objectification to subdue that power. In the book, the object of fear is given form — the real-life fear of women taking over corporate boardrooms and governments (and yes, unfortunately there are still people who believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen) is concretized in the characters’ fears that women will take over the world by killing everyone else. That blondes are targeted is significant, given the premium society places on blonde beauty, as stereotyped in the Barbie doll.
Perhaps most potent is the idea that the subjugation of one type of woman (in this case, blondes) eventually leads to the subjugation of all. In a twist that’s distressing because it’s so believable, women who travel are asked to present their pubic hair for inspection for any trace of blonde-ness. The degradation and the humiliation are horrific, yet is that really so far from the ridiculous amounts of security checks we go through at airports? Is that really so different from the intense scrutiny many women are subjected to on a regular basis, when their physical appearance is given primary importance?
Like any good satire, The Blondes takes elements from real life and blows them up to absurd proportions. And, as with any good satire, we soon realize that the absurdity we’d just found so humorous is far too close to reality for comfort.
Minor aside, just because I love it so much — kudos to CS Richardson for an amazing, amazing cover design.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.