Red Red Whine

Is bias against redheads really “one of the last great social prejudices”?

Redheads Illo.

Illustration by Ed Luce

Jacky Colliss Harvey’s Red: A History of the Redhead is framed as a blend of art history and pop sociology, but it is much more than that. It is a manifesto—and a dangerous one. “People still express biases against red hair in language and in attitudes of unthinking mistrust that they would no longer dream of espousing or of exposing if the subject were skin color, or religion, or sexual orientation,” Harvey writes. Redheads are the “white-skinned other” of the world, she says. Bias against them constitutes “one of the last great social prejudices.” Harvey has even found websites on the Internet that “typify redheads as impulsive, irrational, quick-tempered, passionate, and iconoclastic.”

She’s right: Nobody’s got it worse than gingers. As it should be. Redheads are mutants and probable vampires who are ruining the fabric of society, and they must be stopped. Finally, I thought when I dove into Harvey’s tract, someone has written what every other self-respecting blonde, brunette, or raven-haired citizen has been thinking for centuries. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Harvey’s book is actually a defense of redheads. In fact, the author is a redhead herself. (Apparently they’re allowed to publish books in some countries?) Worse, Harvey seems proud of her condition. She boasts of being born with a Worcestershire orange mop that’s since settled into a “proper copper” in adulthood, and—well, you get the picture; the last thing any of us needs is another carrot top rubbing her color story in all of our faces. In short: “It is, with me, as with many other redheads, the single most significant characteristic of my life,” Harvey says. The hair “overpowers everything else. It becomes all people see.”

Can you blame us for staring? Redheads—particularly those with the trademark white skin, freckled cheeks, and emerald eyes—are practically flaunting their mutation whenever they slather on enough SPF 1,000 to step into the light of day. For the most part, Harvey’s book is an examination of how redheads like her have been depicted in art, literature, and Gilligan’s Island by all the artists and writers who just can’t look away. This is acceptable, I suppose. Harvey did not choose to be born with the devil’s mark growing from her scalp, and if she and her fellow gingers would like to spend their time grouped together in the shade, reading a book about near-relatives such as Prince Harry, Carrot Top, and Judas, then so be it. I admit I found myself illuminated by Harvey’s discussion of the changing cultural depictions of such contested historical scalps as Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Life’s never been easy for a ginger. In societies with little ethnic diversity, a redhead was easily othered, and over time took on associations with Satan, generalized evil, cowardice, prostitution, shadiness, and so on. In the year 403, St. Jerome warned that red hair on a girl would “presage for her the fires of hell.” Historical renderings of Judas as a carrot top sparked a long-standing association between Jewish people and redheadedness: In medieval Germany, freckles were called judasdreck, and at certain points in time, both Jews and redheads were slurred as possessing “bad character at best and barbarity at worst.” Shakespeare’s Shylock was typically depicted with a red wig well into the 19th century.

Harvey doggedly traces such bigotry’s lasting effects on more contemporary redheads. She casts a sinister eye on Orson Welles’ decision to cast wife Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai in 1947, a role that required her to dye her trademark red curls a platinum blond. “If you want to tame a redhead, turn her into a blonde,” Harvey writes. Welles’ bleaching of Hayworth was, Harvey suspects, “symptom of an attempt to control Hayworth as his marriage to her failed.” Even today, redheads are tormented by “the experience of complete strangers coming up to comment upon or even to reach out and touch” their hair—certainly the only demographic group to experience such a thing. And even when a prominent blonde or brunette attempts to sympathize with the redhead’s cause, she inevitably stumbles over her ignorant language. Recently Taylor Swift announced, “I would do a ginger,” a comment Harvey calls “patronizingly infamous.” Harvey invites readers to try “substituting ‘person whose skin, rather than hair, is a different color from mine’ for ‘ginger’ in that remark, and see how bad it tastes then.” I have to admit that she’s right: Replace a nonracist statement with a racist statement, and it becomes racist.

The equation of anti-redhead bias with racism is a constant refrain in Red. “Part of the problem here is that gingerism doesn’t look like it’s racism, and in a way it’s not, or at least not in the way we are used to thinking of it,” Harvey allows. And yet: “There have been some horrendous cases in recent years of redheaded children being bullied to the point of suicide. That has to stop,” she writes. “Would it be acceptable for a child to be bullied at all, let alone to death, because of their skin color? Their religion? Their own or their parents’ race, their own or their parents’ sexuality?” Of course not. This is the 21st century. There is no place in civilized society for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and any other form of bigotry … except for gingerism, which is as necessary as it is real. That’s why no right-thinking mother would allow her brown- or black-haired children to mingle with redheads on the playground—much less allow them to enter a redheaded home, where they may be at risk of falling into the house boiling cauldron or spirited away on a magic broom carelessly left unattended in the backyard.

Of course I suspect the author to be a witch. Harvey labors to dissuade readers of the idea that redheads are associated with the occult, which comes across as a little defensive in my opinion. Harvey would have us believe that the red hair assigned to the witches in Macbeth is little more than a spot of “local color” sprinkled in to jazz up the Scottish Play. Nice try. It bears repeating that the author is a redhead and thus cannot be trusted on this or, frankly, any other matter except for possibly the location of the local eye-of-newt store. To my knowledge the Witchhunter General has not tested Harvey’s buoyancy, so for now her witch status remains unresolved. Refreshingly, Harvey is somewhat less shy about discussing her possible association with vampirism. She writes: “Vampires, so the thinking goes, are bloody; red is the color of blood, therefore redness must predispose one to vampirism.”

Though she is plausibly a vampire, Harvey is correct in pointing out the societal double standard applied to male and female redheads. Harvey traces “an age old connection” between “red hair in women and sexual desirability.” Due to their superior absorption of vitamin D, redheads have been heralded as assets in childbearing. Some associations are cruder. “Red is the color of blood,” Harvey reiterates. “One of the most ancient slurs thrown at redheads is that they are the product of sex during menstruation, in itself one of the oldest of sexual taboos.” (I’m obligated to note here that Harvey is unable to prove that redheads are not created by period sex.) Moreover, redheads are red in more places than the name would suggest. “Set against a redhead’s normally pale skin,” a naked ginger’s pink nipples and genitals function like “flashing a set of sexual super-stimuli” at her partner, and “doubly so when aroused, when the coloring in these parts of the body deepens.” Some even say that at the completion of orgasm, “the skin flush is particularly noticeable and gratifying” in a redhead. But perhaps because redheaded women are seen as hypersexual beings, redheaded men have been coded as the opposite—cowardly wimps.  When Americans were surveyed on the matter in 1979, redheaded women were seen as “brainy but no-nonsense, and slightly scary to the opposite sex,” while men were seen as “good but effeminate” and “timid and weak.” To be blunt, “red hair in men equals bad, in women equals good, or at least sexually interesting.” The sexism here is unacceptable. In 2015, I’d hope that we are all enlightened enough to recognize that red hair equals bad regardless of the redhead’s gender.

When Harvey’s manifesto has finished counting perceived social slights against redheads, it turns to advocating for red power. Near the book’s end, Harvey is seated on a train traveling toward Holland when she spies another redhead across the aisle. “Red, I find myself intoning inwardly, is the color of dominance,” she writes. Finally, “red hair is starting to stand for something new and desirable.” She praises Julianne Moore’s 2015 Best Actress Oscar win as a “tipping point” for ginger acceptability. (Notably, Lindsay Lohan does not appear once in this book, an ominous omission that says everything you need to know about Harvey’s pro-ginger bias.) She recommends radical pro-redhead websites such as “Ginger With Attitude” and “Ginger Problems” for further reading. The train, by the way, was headed for a festival devoted to redhead boosterism, where the freckled masses spoke excitedly about “a redheaded moment not that far off, a redhead renaissance indeed.” Chilling.

Harvey even argues that women ought to be allowed to dye their hair red if they so choose. “Taking control of your appearance (your body), and having the freedom to make choices about it … is a part of the ongoing emancipation of the female sex and now, many a onetime minority group as well—redheads included.” Why any natural blonde or brunette would willingly choose to debase herself in such a way I don’t know, but the thought is frightening and we ought to consider legislation to deter women from falling to the bronze side. If Harvey and her growing gangs of redheads had their way, red hair dye would be readily available at the corner drugstore, as easy to access as emergency contraception.

Truth be told, a part of me can sympathize with Harvey’s cause. I was born with a head of orangutan fuzz that’s since faded to a blond that, in the dead of winter, still betrays a strawberry tint. Sometimes I miss being one of them. Mostly, though, I maintain a healthy sense of perspective. “I began working through the final draft of this book in New York, watching thousands of people march wearing t-shirts bearing the words I Can’t Breathe,” Harvey writes in the book’s conclusion. “And if all of this seems to have become rather political all of a sudden, that’s because when you drill down into it, dammit, it is.” To Harvey, “A world that can’t deal with something as small and insignificant as people whose hair is a different color is one where there is little hope of dealing with any of the problems created by those far bigger issues, or different skins, different faiths, different loves, different lives.”* Personally, I think a world where we care more about cops killing unarmed black men than we do kids teasing each other over their hair color is a world that has its priorities straight. But what do I know? I’m just a blonde.

Red: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey. Black Dog & Leventhal.

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*Correction, Aug. 6, 2015: This article originally misquoted Jacky Colliss Harvey as writing that “there is a little hope of dealing” with larger bigotries as long as we still discriminate against redheads; she wrote that “there is little hope” of dealing with those other problems. (Return.)