In the season finale of Girls, Hannah and her ex-boyfriend Elijah gossip about a former classmate of theirs who has HPV. “That girl wears floral capris like her hymen’s still intact, but she’s such a slut in such a big way,” Hannah says. “In a huge way,” Elijah confirms. “She used to do this thing where she would literally just rip the condom off.”
“Fucking redheads. Seriously,” Hannah says. “I know,” Elijah replies, “redheads, right?”
That partially tongue-in-cheek exchange was on my mind when I attended a press screening of Brave, Pixar’s adventure story about a stubborn Scottish princess, Merida, who boasts a very large amount of very red hair (1,500 curls, to be exact). Parents will be relieved to hear that no condoms are ripped off during the movie (though there are a few bare bottoms). But Merida still embodies the same cultural trope Elijah and Hannah half-ironically refer to: the fiery redhead.
That stereotype is not the only one associated with redheads, of course. I won’t pretend to understand the Brits’ semi-serious disdain for gingers (a word that has seeped into American English, possibly thanks to Ginger Spice), a phenomenon skewered by South Park (though not all its viewers were in on the joke) and more weirdly deployed by M.I.A. Nor am I prepared to comment on redheads’ supposedly special relationship to pain (but remind me, are we supposed to feel more pain or less pain than everyone else?). I can’t make any personal observations about the unique challenges faced by copper-haired men, either (although I can think of at least a couple of male comedians whose shtick relies in part on their locks). But fiery redheads—stubborn, hot-tempered, passionate, always female—are everywhere, and Brave is poised to pass the stereotype on to a whole new generation.
The spectrum of fiery redheaded-ness has at least a couple of axes. Fiery redheads can be promiscuous like Jessica Rabbit or the titular Red-Headed Woman, or asexual like Pippi Longstocking or Anne of Green Gables—this usually depends on the age of the target audience of the book or movie in question. They can be ruthless, like Rebekah Brooks (whose hair gets a mention in virtually every article written about her) or ultimately kind, like Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter books. (Rebekah Brooks is, of course, a real person, unlike the other characters mentioned here, but the press has been happy to cast her as an archvillain in the New International hacking scandal.) And, of course, there are degrees of fieriness, from the petulant, perpetually mid-tantrum Merida to the cool, collected Joan Harris (née Holloway) of Mad Men.
Joan is an interesting case; whether she’s really fiery is debatable. Mad Men has played up the dichotomy between smoldering Joan and brainy Peggy—a brunette, naturally—repeatedly over the course of the series, and this season Joan literally sold sex to a brutish client, pushing her onto the Mary-Magdalene end of the slutty redhead spectrum. More evidence for her fieriness include the vase-smash that launched a thousand GIFs, prompted by her objectively horrible husband, Greg. But while Joan is always armed with a sharp comeback when a male colleague’s comments go too far, she is generally cool and collected. (Compare her to Megan’s carrot-tressed actress friend, who crawls across a conference room table in front of men she’s just met and brags about a suitor’s comments about her pubic hair: a true fiery redhead.) While the world wants Joan to be a fiery redhead, she is pragmatic above all else.
Merida, on the other hand, is as fiery as they come: rebellious, quick to yell, obstinate, easily offended. And Pixar isn’t shy about associating these traits with her hair: When Elinor, Merida’s mother, trusses her up in a satiny dress to parade her in front of suitors, she not-so-subtly puts Merida’s hair under wraps, too. (Elinor’s hair is dark and straight, befitting her by-the-book housewife priorities.) Merida’s rebellion against this forced pomp is to loosen a strand from beneath her habit and let it rest on her forehead, like the very, very good/horrid girl from the rhyme. For most of the film, Merida’s hair is a semi-autonomous character unto itself, coiling and drifting around her head like the tentacles of a sea anemone, and functioning like a sticker on her back that says “feisty.”
Of course, Merida is the movie’s heroine, and many redheads embrace the fiery trope as flattering or harmless. It’s not as patently offensive as the dumb blonde trope, nor as harmful as the folk stories about redheaded witches and vampires from which it evolved. But it’s still arbitrary and wrong. Scholars have suggested that some Americans who blazon their Irish heritage are trying to have their cake and eat it too, getting the benefits of belonging to a minority ethnic group while still enjoying their white privilege. Redheads who play up clichés about red hair are doing much the same thing: finding a way to be white and different at the same time. (Red hair occurs among people of color, too, but less frequently than among those of northern or western European descent.) Hollywood has learned this lesson as well: For cautious film producers, fiery redheads are just different enough—and not likely to complain en masse about yet another stereotypical portrayal.
As a mild-mannered person who happens to have red hair, I’ve always been baffled by the fiery stereotype. As an adult, I’m generally happy to laugh it off. But kids are impressionable, and movies should stop selling them the same stories about looks having something to do with demeanor. Merida, whose challenge in Brave is to learn how to apologize and take responsibility for her mistakes, is a big improvement over the fiery Disney redhead I grew up watching repeatedly on VHS: Ariel, the titular character of The Little Mermaid, whose rebellion against her parents is to flee into the arms of an older man, whom she seduces by batting her eyelashes and keeping her mouth shut. All The Little Mermaid taught me to want was a flat stomach and a boyfriend my parents wouldn’t approve of. Brave at least gives girls some less superficial goals—but it also teaches kids the old, faulty lesson that there’s a correlation between what’s growing from their head and what’s inside it.