A Natural History of the Redhead
by Jacky Colliss Harvey
I am a woman with red hair, and by and large, that has always worked out pretty well for me.
I wasn’t bullied as a child (protected, I suspect, by the redhead’s reputation for a violent temper) as I grew older, I got used to being told my red hair was beautiful, that it meant people remembered me. I learned to tolerate when younger, complete strangers coming up to me to comment upon or even stroke my hair—an experience common to many redheads, I discover. I came to an early understanding of how good looks are public property—something the RED HOT 100 themselves will be familiar with, too—and how hair colour is both so very personal, yet—whether we like it or not—entirely public. In my case, the world’s reaction towards my red hair has been to my advantage. But this whole paragraph might have been worded very differently had I been born redheaded, but a boy.
The business of being a redhead is gendered to a quite extraordinary degree. For example: As a girl, the first role model I was aware of was Queen Elizabeth I—not a bad place to start. Then Pippi Longstocking, the heroine of the Swedish children’s books, with her superhuman strength and ability to get away with being as rude to patronizing adults as she liked (you can bet, no stranger ever stroked Pippi’s bright red pigtails and got away with it). In the United States, I might have spent my childhood with that chatterbox of the imagination, Anne of Green Gables. Now there is Freckleface Strawberry and Brave. On television, there was Lucille Ball—kooky, yet cute. There was, gloriously, Rita Hayworth, who somehow managed to be redheaded even in black-and-white. As a liberal arts student, I encountered Lilith, first wife of Adam, who, reckoning herself Adam’s equal, would not “lie beneath”—way to go, girl!—and Mary Magdalene, who managed to be redeemed, reformed, yet still sexy with it: Clothed only in her long red hair, through which artists down the centuries have nonetheless managed to give us just a hint of breast and nipple, to me she has come to embody the kind of accommodation many redheads find themselves making in their dealings with the non-redheaded world: Yes, we know, we’re different—we’re sorry. (Now deal!)
Meanwhile, had I been born a boy, the first role models I’d have encountered would have been Alfred E. Newman, the jug-eared kid on the cover of Mad magazine; or, later, Ron Weasely. Or King Henry VIII, the ulcerous old tyrant. They would have included Obelix, Asterix’s sidekick, the comedy barbarian, knocking Roman soldiers over like ninepins; or the (to me, at least) ineffably creepy Ronald McDonald. Where are the redheaded heroes? The answer is, in very short supply.
Anthropologists are fascinated by red hair. For one thing, it is “other” but it is a white “other,” which makes it just about unique. It falls between the usual categories—redheads have been described as too rare to be accepted, yet too many to be ignored. And the stereotypes ascribed to them, in particular to men with red hair, have been unvarying for literally centuries.
In brief, the list of redheaded stereotypes goes like this: Everyone with red hair must be Irish.
I have honestly lost track of the number of times I have been told this, and this is even though there are numerically more redheads in Scotland (thirteen percent of Scots are redheads, and an estimated forty percent carry the gene for red hair, whereas in Ireland, ten percent of the population has red hair and it’s estimated that up to forty-six percent carry the gene).
All redheads, but in particular redheaded men, have violent and unpredictable tempers.
The connection between red, the colour, and blood, fire, passion, anger, is so deep-rooted it’s primeval. The perceived connection between red hair and temper is easy to grasp. It also happens to be utter nonsense, of course, as ridiculous a bit of associative pseudo-science as the idea that redheads are dying out—and just to lay that to rest, no, we are not. Red hair is a recessive gene, which means both parents have to be carrying it for a redheaded child to result. It will always be rare, and it will always stand the most chance of manifesting itself in stable populations where there is less marrying out. This is one reason why there are so many redheads on the west coast of Scotland, for example—because more or less the same population has lived there for generations.
Redheaded men are freakish, indoor-dwelling weaklings. They can’t engage in the manly outdoor pursuits of their fellows. They’re wimpy. They freckle. They burn.
Redheaded men are clownish and ridiculous.
Redheaded men are untrustworthy.
Redheaded women, however are highly sexed, passionate, and erotically skilled—“hot stuff,” in other words (think Jessica Rabbit).
Now, do you see what’s happening here? The least negative quality ascribed to redheads is overwhelmingly ascribed to women. Men get all the pejoratives. And this is unusual to say the least. The world does not, generally speaking, ascribe the more positive aspects of a stereotype to women. (In draft, the first title I was kicking around for this piece was “Different for Girls.” The other was “Reclaim the Red!”) In the case of redheads, however, even the language is kinder to women. Women are described as having “auburn” hair, or as being “strawberry blondes.” Redheaded men are described (and interestingly, describe themselves) with the less attractive epithet “ginger.” Women dye their hair red to stand out—more red hair dye is purchased than any other colour, and it’s not men who are buying it. Redheaded men—see some of the stories recounted by the RED HOT 100—dye their hair brown. So why does this happen? Why are society’s inherited attitudes to redheaded men and redheaded women so different?
One possible answer, I think, has to do with our skin. I remember watching a clip of the US chat show host Conan O’Brien being teased by a guest about the paleness of his skin. “You look like they drew you,” the guest said, “and forgot to colour you in.” Not all redheads have pale skin, by any means—see Vernon François here, for instance. Red hair occurs in communities from the Middle East to Africa to Polynesia, and can come with skin dark enough to protect you from desert or tropical sun. But for the most part, a redhead’s skin will record a northern European ancestry, and will be pale, pale, pale—as I am. There are probably blind, cave-dwelling fish with more pigment in their skin than me. But white skin in a woman speaks of being kept apart, as something precious. Basically, it speaks of the harem. Naked, it means those parts of your skin that are not white stand out with erotic vividness—as Roger Sterling put it in Mad Men: “I like redheads. Their mouths are like a drop of strawberry jam in a glass of milk.” It also means that under sunless northern skies you can nonetheless process Vitamin D with great efficiency, which gives you a strong pelvis for bearing children, and means your body can cope with the demands of breast-feeding. All these are highly desirable in a female mate, and powerful reasons for seeing red hair in women as attractive—so powerful in fact that I wonder if what might be happening here is that a man with pale skin and red hair registers subconsciously as presenting a feminized idea of beauty. But as for wimpy? Weaklings? I’m writing this with the video of RED HOT 100 scrolling past me, and I have to tell you, it’s a thoroughly pleasurable experience. Red hair and unmanly? I think not.
But for men, right back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome, very little of what red hair symbolized has been good. The ancient Greeks believed that “the reddish are of bad character, witness the foxes.” (In the UK, redheaded women will still hear themselves described as “foxy,” although this is apparently meant as a compliment.) Redheads were the barbarians of the ancient world—for the Greeks, the tribes of neighbouring Thrace, now modern-day Bulgaria, where there do indeed seem to have been redheads a-plenty; for Imperial Rome those savages from the north, from Germany and Gaul.
Now every race, as the Greek historian Herodotus put it, has its own “other,” its own barbarians. As far as England is concerned, ours, for centuries, were the Irish and the Scots, and red hair became their historic marker. This might also explain why prejudice against redheads has either been less or is less overt in the United States—you could argue that immigrant populations arriving in the States from Scotland or Ireland in the 19th century were all already on an equal footing of being outcasts. (You could also argue that the US already had a focus for its racial prejudices—one based not on colour of hair, but on colour of skin.) There are cultural stereotypes redheaded men have to counter which simply don’t exist for redheaded women, and the Glaswegian roustabout marauding down the street in a See-You-Jimmy hat and spoiling for a fight, is one.
Another is the idea that redheads are clownish. This too has an astonishingly long history. Those same ancient Greeks put actors in red wigs on stage to play the goofball roles of slaves in classical drama precisely because, I believe, so many of their slaves were Thracian, and some of these would indeed have had red hair. As with the Irish and the Scots, it’s as if the one physical characteristic is so noticeable that it comes to stand in for an entire nationality. So there you go: the white-faced, red-haired clown—born on the Athenian stage some two-and-half millennia ago and still merrily terrifying children in hospital wards across the world today.
And then—and this leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth— there is the way in which red hair became caught up with that other historic European prejudice, of anti-Semitism. Around the 11th century, Ashkenazi Jews began establishing their first European communities in Germany. The Ashkenazi are again a stable population, with less marrying-in or -out than some—and to this day, many Ashkenazi Jews are redheads. And from the 11th century onwards, in European painting from England to Italy, the figure of Judas begins to acquire red hair. Not in every case by any means, not even in the majority, but quite clearly enough to create an association. In Spain, under the Inquisition, simply being redheaded was enough to have you fall under the suspicion of having Jewish blood. Even in 1697, two hundred years later, the London printer Jacob Tonson, following a mighty falling-out with the poet John Dryden, found himself stigmatized as having “two left legs and Judas coloured hair.” We’ve rid ourselves of the most passionately held beliefs of our forebears without a thought, rightly dismissing them as mere superstition— but their prejudices, like stains, seem far more permanent. So where does all that leave us redheads now?
In 2000, the UK energy company Npower ran an ad featuring a redheaded “family” with the strapline “There are some things in life you can’t choose.” The flood of complaints against Npower was dismissed by the Advertising Standards Authority. But when in 2009, the Tesco supermarket chain offered a Christmas card showing a redheaded child sitting on Santa’s knee with the legend “Santa loves all kids. Even ginger ones,” the outcry and embarrassment to Tesco was such that it apologized and withdrew the card from sale. Attitudes are changing, but they’re not changing fast enough. It is still acceptable to use red hair in a way that is no longer tolerated where gender or religion or sexual orientation or, above all, race are concerned. Redheads are “other,” but we are not unknown. There are no cultural barriers between bully and victim, and for this reason prejudice against red hair acquires a measure of invisibility. And prejudice has most certainly played a part in the stereotyping of the male redhead in particular.
It creeps in under the radar. Redheads are “safe” to tease. A psychiatrist would tell you that redheads cope by confronting, assessing, and then rejecting the negative identity ascribed to them, and transforming that identity into a positive, viable self-image instead. This is what Conan has achieved. And for many redheads, this might also describe the arc of our lives, from childhood teasing or outright bullying to an adult acceptance and even celebration of our otherness.
Well, good—let’s have more of it. But redheaded children are still being bullied, sometimes tragically and horrifically, to the point of suicide, and “gingerism,” so-called, is an ugly word for an ugly thing. Which is where RED HOT 100 comes in. This rebranding of the stereotype, as Thomas Knights puts it, is how other minorities began tackling prejudice. In Thomas’s photographs, in the pride expressed by his subjects in their genetic inheritance and their sense of confidence and sense of self, their splendid turquoise backdrop screaming “Look at me!” in their front-on gaze and in-your-face presence, these ancient associations are being turned upside down. Let’s repossess that colour, and our rarity, and all the things that make us stand out as being something to celebrate. We are the world’s pepper—reclaim the red!
Excerpt from Jacky Colliss Harvey’s book Red: A Natural History of the Redhead published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.