Like the fiery redhead or the sultry brunet, the cool blonde is one of those old-fashioned, L’Oréal-sanctioned visual codes for female sexual temperament that white western audiences still eat up like yellow popcorn. Alfred Hitchcock knew that — that’s why he made a fetish of his blond heroines, none cooler on the outside (and, if fantasies came true, hotter on the inside) than Grace Kelly.
I’m dreaming in hair color lately as I’ve been considering the recent dye-cast career of January Jones — first and most effectively as a porcelain-doll housewife blonde in Mad Men; later and more problematically as a “funny” blonde-joke blonde hosting SNL; and now, with only intermittent success, as a very, very icy blonde in X-Men: First Class. This time around, as the descriptively named Emma Frost, Jones’ ambitious blonde works on the side of evil, clad in sexy James Bond-worthy underwear that accentuates her sides of good. The actress’s assignment is to exaggerate an attitude of platinum hauteur and high maintenance, the idea being that this Frost princess doesn’t so much flirt with the various men who admire her Barbarella bosom as toy with them, read their minds, and ruin them. And when hauteur isn’t armor enough, the lady is capable of turning, quite literally, diamond-hard.
Now look at easy-on-the-eyes photo above and tell me if you don’t agree: When Jones strives for an expression of hauteur, she looks blank, bordering on sullen. When she replicates the gestures of a dangerous Bond Girl, she looks blank. Whether she wants to convey Emma Frost’s arrogance, competence, or, indeed, her bona fides as a cool blonde, she looks blank. This is a problem — and let me quickly add that I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem of skill or capability. Not necessarily. Rather, Jones’ features and affect, her blondness and her model-trained preference for physical stillness, combine to project a composed passivity that reads not just as coolness on screen but as blankness.
Matthew Weiner and the Mad Men team knew (I should say know, since the show is coming back some time this decade, right?) how to use that negative space best. I’ve got absolutely no first-hand knowledge of the process, but I like to think that Weiner and company worked closely with Jones to draw out the variations of frustration, anger, petulance, childishness, selfishness, neediness, fear, resignation, and sexual desire that can be read into one or another of Betty Draper’s long, cold looks. The writers at SNL handled Jones’ psychic blondness and blankness worst: They set the guest host up for humiliation in sketches that alternately made crude fun of the whole Cool Blonde thing (I’m still trying to forget the comedy bit about Grace Kelly farting) or exposed an overmatched Jones to Dumb Blonde ridicule for her various comedic flubs and stumbles. (Jones has got to share the blame on this one: She clearly wanted to take the gig to show her comedic “range” and bust loose from Draper-dom.)
Which brings me back to X-Men: First Class, and the character of Emma Frost, and what, I’m guessing, probably felt like a no-brainer at the time, either for the movie’s producers or for Jones, who has been working diligently in recent magazine photo shoots, interviews, and red-carpet publicity opportunities to develop her sexy Blonde Bombshell career opportunities. The X-Men costumers put Jones in va-va-voomwear, the hairdressers framed her pretty face in a big, platinum, Angie Dickinson tousled bouffant. I assume director Matthew Vaughn told her that Frost’s mutant powers include turning her skin into diamond facets. But after that, I think they forgot to work with her — to locate the soul beneath all that cool blondness.
Next time, January Jones needs either a new acting coach, or a new hair color — and all that such a L’Oréal-sanctioned change says about a character, an actress, a woman.