If the Golden State is a brand (as a recent tourism commercial puts it, “Every day in California is your lucky day!”), then the sun-kissed siren is its unofficial spokesbabe, and she’s been coaxing people to buy into the myth for decades. In his 2006 book Laurel Canyon, a look back at the denim-and-stardust Los Angeles rock scene of the sixties and seventies, West Coast journalist Michael Walker includes a chapter about the legendary honey-blonde groupie Morgana Welch and her fellow “L.A. Queens” of the Sunset Strip. “There were hundreds of teenage girls like Morgana fidgeting around L.A. and Beverly Hills in the seventies: white, stunningly attractive, overprivileged, and undersupervised,” Walker writes. “They lost their virginity between Bill Blass sheets on weekday afternoons in silent, over-air-conditioned faux-Mediterranean manses.”
Sound familiar? As Walker says, “Morgana could’ve walked out of there and straight into The Hills.” By now the California babe has become an archetype as classically American as jazz, preppies, and Masters of the Universe, and like all archetypes she has a special skill for adapting to each passing decade. So we had Christie Brinkley in the big-haired, aerobicized eighties. Alicia Silverstone in Clueless in the ironic-semiotic nineties. Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, in 2001’s Legally Blonde, valiantly litigating her way to victory as the unstoppable airhead of the Abercrombie & Fitch generation. By now the veneer has become so extreme and scientifically engineered, with its blur of bleached teeth and chemically orange skin and android cleavage, that it perfectly reflects the everybody’s-desperate-to-be-a-star ethos of the reality-TV age. “Clueless, to my mind, was a fantasy, a comedy of manners, and a satiric look at some of the things that I saw going on,” says filmmaker Amy Heckerling, who directed both that film and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, two classic explorations of the SoCal daydream. “I don’t really care about California. The Hills and all thatthey’re trying to make you think that the whole world is like that, and it’s ridiculous. It’s like two blonde girls are mad at the other blonde girl because of a blond boyfriend? What?! These showsI think they’re hilarious because they’re so fuckin’ moronic.”
Are they, though? Look back through the ancestry of the California babe and it’s clear that Morgana Welch and Elle Woods and the Olly Girls all have something crucial in common, and it’s not mere blondeness. It’s shrewdness. They may look dumb, but they always get what they want, whether it’s money, fame, instant access to Led Zeppelin on the 11th floor of the Riot House, or a recurring role on a reality show. Ambition really is blonde. And that, after all, is totally American.