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The Not-So-Attractive Origins of ‘Tall, Dark and Handsome’

As a barely pubescent, closeted gay teen, I remember being confused by Disney fairy tales in which tall, dashing princes galloped to the side of maidens in distress. Were Gaston, Aladdin and Prince Charming really the men I was supposed to be pining for? Rather than, say, Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Home Improvement, Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Tom and Huck and Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Ally McBeal?

Alas, once a twink man, always a twink man.

Meanwhile, my straight friends had seemingly unending options of idealized female archetypes from which to choose. At least that’s what my older brother’s friends counseled: “Everbody loves blondes,” they’d say. Or: “Heroes want redheads.” Or: “Brunettes are minxes in the sack.”

For me and other dudes, though, there was only a single (unattainable) gold standard in terms of looks: “Tall, dark and handsome.” (That’s likely why all the covers of my middle-aged nanny’s romance novels featured olive-skinned, raven-locked models.) But where did this swarthy trope originate? What exactly does the “dark” component signify? And can women be tall, dark and handsome, too?

For answers, I busted out the Brylcreem and enveloped myself in tall, dark and handsome for the weekend. Here’s what popped up (beyond, you know…):

1) The notion of “tall, dark and handsome” — like “Prince Charming” — originated with upper-class Europeans in the 1600s, when swarthy Moors like Shakespeare’s Othello served as generals in the Venetian Army.

2) Incidentally, the word “swarthy” may seem problematic, like when Ann Coulter employed it while calling for airport searches of all “suspicious-looking swarthy males” following 9/11. But lexicographer Erin McKean insists “swarthy” is not in and of itself an insulting term. In fact, she notes, in earlier centuries when it was just swart (the ending was added in the 1500s), it wasn’t even applied to complexions: In the Beowulf poet’s “swart night,” and Sir Walter Scott’s “swarthy hair,” for example, the adjective merely means “dark.”

3) Surprisingly, the earliest use of “tall, dark and handsome” in print actually described a woman. The 1866 book Once a Week: An Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Popular Science and Art poked fun at the women-looking-for-husband ads that were common in what the author, Eneas Sweetland Dallas, referred to as “the cheap papers.” It read: “Twenty Thousand Husbands Wanted — Lonely One, with a little property, and twenty years of age, wants a husband to protect her. She is tall, dark and handsome.”

4) That said, the description had long been expressed in literature. Case in point: In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), she implies the leading man, Mr. Darcy, was tall, dark and handsome. (She does not, however, use that description exactly.)

5) As Tristan Bridges, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains, in the 1900s “tall, dark and handsome” came to describe a mysterious and attractive white, heterosexual man at a time of precarious masculinity. Privileges men had previously enjoyed were falling away as it became harder to live on family wealth alone. Fears of waning masculinity led to the founding of the Boy Scouts of America and an emphasis on men exercising and lifting weights. “‘Tall, dark and handsome’ signified a relatively unprivileged man who accepted the term as an embodiment of his masculinity,” Bridges says. He notes an ethnic component as well: As immigrants with darker complexions arrived, they began taking privileges previously given to wealthy white men.

6) Mae West was the first person to utter the phrase on the big screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933). West plays “Diamond Lil,” the mistress of a big-time gangster, who two-times her man because she can’t resist Cary Grant. “If that tall, dark and handsome man can talk,” she remarks, “I want him for my new co-star.” Pretty much immediately thereafter, Grant became Hollywood’s Prince Charming, with a mid-Atlantic English accent, omnipresent pocket square and perpetual suntan (a literal manifestation of tall, dark and handsome).

Cary Grant

7) The look played particularly well on the big screen. As noted in The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches: Meanings and Origins of Thousands of Terms and Expressions, “the phrase was given further currency by the 1941 film Tall, Dark and Handsome starring Cesar Romero (later the Joker in the 1960s Batman TV series) as an underworld boss who’s a softie at heart.

Cesar Romero

8) Soon then, “tall dark and handsome” was synonymous with Hollywood leading men. Which is why contemporary indie romance novelist Amelia Wilde named her latest book, Tall, Dark and Handsome. In it, the hero, Cannon Hunt, is a rom-com star — “America’s heartthrob” — but carries a mystery about him. “He’s intriguing and a little bit dangerous from the heroine’s point-of-view,” Wilde tells me. “She’s the director of the movie so it’s dangerous for her to fall in love with the star. Everyone’s drawn to a mysterious man. I don’t think a light-complexioned guy would come off as mysterious. Imagine a blond Don Draper. It just doesn’t work.” Wilde’s “dark,” of course, is a metaphor for bad boy.

9) Back to the ethnic component, though: Also synonymous with “tall, dark and handsome” is the “Latin Lover,” originally from Spain or Italy but now also Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil and Argentina. I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases defines “tall, dark and handsome” as having been “used to refer to Rudolph Valentino, who created the model of the ‘thrilling dark hero’ for generations to come.” Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History concurs, noting the Italian-born Valentino “became the screen’s first international sex symbol.” Other dark-haired stars on their list include Grant, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, James Garner, Sean Connery, Christopher Reeve, Chris Noth, George Clooney, Jimmy Smits, Antonio Banderas, Ben Affleck and Orlando Bloom.

10) The Tall, Dark and Snarky trope is typically a character who is charismatic, incredibly good at what they do and attractive. He’ll also make sly critiques of the situation that demonstrate his knowledge of what’s afoot. Frequently a mentor or older brother type, the character is used as a foil for the protagonist’s optimistic and foolish nature. Examples include Scar in The Lion King, Severus Snape in Harry Potter and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock.

Professor Severus Snape

11)Tall, Dark, Handsome Stranger” is a song written by Holly Knight and Albert Hammond that Heart performed on its 1990 album, Brigade. In it, a woman describes how she’s tired of men trying to act cool and pretending to be everything a woman might want. The chorus in particular is directed toward a man who is different from those in her past:

I’ve had the tall, dark, handsome stranger
I’ve had the devil in disguise
I’ve been attracted to the danger
I was never satisfied
I know what I want and I want what I see in your eyes

12) John Steven Stark, dubbed the “Tall, Dark and Handsome Bandit,” is responsible for a string of bank robberies in Houston in 2012. His choice of bank robbery, a federal crime, was calculated. “I’ve been in and out of prison all my life, but I always did state time. All through the systems, I always heard people talk about how much better federal time was,” he said. And so, Stark didn’t bother with his appearance before the bank jobs. After all, he wasn’t trying to look good, just to “blend in.”

John Steven Stark (aka The Tall, Dark and Handsome Bandit)

13) Scientifically speaking, men and women are believed to be hardwired to seek certain physical traits in partners that ensure that they will hook up with a good mate. David Puts, an associate professor of anthropology at Penn State who studies the evolutionary basis of human sexuality, says that heterosexual women have prefered traits that are “a bit more masculine” for millenia. “Given cross-cultural similarities among modern humans, we can probably assume that modern humans have preferred similar physical qualities in mates for the past 100,000 years or so,” Puts says. A 2013 study by evolutionary psychologist Gert Stulp found the same. In “Women Want Taller Men More Than Men Want Shorter Women,” Stulp found that, on average, women’s satisfaction with their partner’s actual height was greatest when he was 8 inches taller than themselves.

14) Tall, dark and handsome also speaks to optimal sperm, according to Canadian physician and scientist Sharon Moalem. A contributing factor to sperm quality is folate, a nutrient found in leafy greens like spinach. “Ultraviolet rays destroy folate,” he explains. “The darker a man is, the more protection he has from ultraviolet rays and the less folate is destroyed, making his sperm healthier.”

15) In the paper “Tall, Dark and Handsome: Desired Male Traits For Ovulating Women,” psychology professor Martie Haselton analyzed how women’s preferences for mates change throughout the menstrual cycle. She found that ovulating women have evolved to prefer mates who display sexy traits — such as height, masculine facial features and dominant behavior — but notes these aren’t traits typically desired in long-term mates.

16) In Scottish and Northern England folklore, the first-foot is the first person to enter the home of a household on New Year’s Day and a bringer of good fortune for the coming year. The most desired first-footer was a tall, dark and handsome man. The unluckiest first-foot — blond-haired, blue-eyed people — signified Viking conquerors there to collect taxes or worse.

17) That’s not true everywhere in the world, though. In India, for example, spurred by recent trends in the skin-bleaching market, “tall, dark and handsome” is being replaced by the “tall, fair and debonair.” Perhaps blondes have more fun after all?