There is a deep-rooted and unaccountable prejudice against this much-abused shade of colour, which it is quite possible some unexpected freak of fashion may one day change.
T. F. THISELTON-DYER, FOLKLORE OF WOMEN, 1906
Every autumn it’s the same—the days grow short, the skies are gray, the evenings dark, the nights too long. Leaves pile against the railings and crunch underfoot, and then are gone, and with them, color abandons the Northern hemisphere. The eye craves it, just as did the eyes of our ancestors before us, decorating their tombs with red-haired goddesses to give us life again, to bring back the sun. The glow of bonfires and the sparkle of fireworks across the UK in November doesn’t only celebrate the last-minute discovery of Guy Fawkes (“a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, flowing moustache, and a bushy reddish-brown beard,” according to the historian Antonia Fraser) and his barrels of gunpowder, and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, they also echo the festivals of All Hallows and of Halloween, of Diwali, the Day of the Dead, Hogmanay, and the world-turned-upside-down of the Roman Saturnalia. We all feel it, that ancient winter hunger for warmth, for light; and every autumn, in answer, the red carpet—where else?—fills up with celebrities sporting newly dyed red hair. As Vogue puts it, “Mythologized, demonized, celebrated: every shade, from carrot to scarlet, conveys an inscrutable allure.”108 A wholly unscientifically assembled list includes, as I write, Jena Malone, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Childs, the models Suki Waterhouse and Karlie Kloss, Amy Adams (a great spokeswoman for the advantages of going red), Sofia Vergara, onetime Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (“It’s been red for a couple of months … I’m definitely getting more attention from men”), Katy Perry, and Katie Yeager. Katie Holmes announces that she’s always yearned for red hair, and the world stumbles to a halt. Meantime, in a pleasing twist on the notion of the undead redhead, a warmth of tone has been noted in the hair of the actor Robert Pattinson, Edward in the Twilight series. Nothing captures the eye like red hair.
We know we are drawn to the color red. Waitresses dressed in red supposedly make more in tips. Men are meant to find women more attractive if they wear red. Women are meant to find images of men more attractive when they are shown those images against a red background. And there is of course the age-old sexual allure of the flame-haired temptress, something neither Hollywood nor the rest of the celebrity industry needs to be told. But the media company Upstream Analysis suggests another reason for our fascination with red hair. As well as drawing the eye and grabbing an audience’s attention, its rarity, Upstream suggests, sparks the reward-seeking instinct in us, firing up the center of our brain that is most highly sensitized to novelty.109 When we see something unusual, we want to get close to it. We want to inspect it, or engage with it in some way, or even to touch it. In other words, we buy into red hair. This is the reason, Upstream concludes, why up to a third of all TV advertising features a redheaded character, when the actual percentage in the population hovers at a scarce (and thus noteworthy) 2 to 6 percent. If nothing draws the eye like a redhead, it would seem that nothing sells like one, either.
Every mother of every redhead the world over will know the experience of complete strangers coming up to comment upon or even to reach out and touch their children’s hair. Growing up as a redhead, it sometimes felt as if the last person my red hair belonged to was me—the person from whose scalp it sprang. It was one of the many things that made growing up as a redhead so deeply confusing. Grant McCracken again: “Redheads become a handy plinth, a medium for the message, a carrier of the color.” Once again, the hair overpowers everything else. It becomes all people see. The normal barrier, the invisible area around us that we all own, and into which others do not enter without our permission, apparently doesn’t exist if your hair is red, and you’re too small for your wishes to count. (And this we endure as children on top of our heightened flight response and hair-trigger adrenaline production. So next time you are tempted, all I’m saying is, ask.) People—like Rachel Lynde, in her encounter with Anne Shirley—talk about and comment upon your hair while you yourself are standing there beneath it, as if you were merely wearing it, like some kind of hat. And if, tiring of this as you grow older, as many a redhead does, and as your dominion over your body increases, you should cut your red hair, or dye it, there is outrage, as if the thing you had changed was everyone else’s property, which you have damaged, willfully. These are such common behaviors in the non-redheaded world, they’re convincing evidence that Upstream Analysis is on to something here.
And such primates are we that anything we admire we wish to emulate. The human race has been changing the color of its hair with henna, walnut juice, saffron, red wine, red ochre, lye, vitriol, indigo, and woad for millennia, but in the twentieth century the first commercially available hair dyes created an entire new industry and revolutionized society’s response to dyed hair into the bargain. You can’t emulate an image without there being one to emulate, so hand-in-hand, or rather chicken-and-egg with this, went Hollywood’s remaking and shiny repackaging of the actresses who entered its studio system, none of which would or could have happened as it did without one Maksymilian Faktorowicz, or Max Factor, as he is better known.
Max Factor’s life really should be made into a movie itself. Onetime hairdresser to the Russian court—so prized that he conducted almost all his early professional life under guard—he fled Russia to hide the fact of a marriage for which he had failed to receive the tsar’s permission, using his own makeup to fake the symptoms of jaundice in order to be allowed to leave Moscow. Arriving in America in 1904 with wife and very young family in tow, he was promptly fleeced of most of his savings by his partner in the Louisiana World’s Fair, and then found his doorstep darkened by his ne’er-do-well half brother, John Jacob, or “Jake the Barber,” to give him his mob name, a Prohibition gangster and con man who did once, literally, break the bank at Monte Carlo. Unsurprisingly, Max kept moving, heading west and arriving in Los Angeles in 1908 and setting up a business hiring out wigs to bedeck Hollywood’s film extras. Then he did the extras’ makeup, too. Then he did the makeup for the stars, as well. Then he invented the term “makeup.” Within an impressively short span of time, the name Max Factor and the glamour of Hollywood had become just about synonymous. In 1935 Max opened the “Max Factor Make-Up Studio” (note the word “studio” in the title), with its color-coded makeup salons: peach for “brownettes” (a type that failed to catch on, and a rare example of a Max Factor marketing misstep); pink for brunettes, powder-blue for blondes, and a pale mint green for redheads (Fig. 30).110 This Redheads Only room was officially opened by Ginger Rogers, and in painting it mint green Max created a color association that bedevils redheads to this day, and one that Maria Oakey would have taken issue with for sure: “Wherever there is red in the composition of the hair, green (not a pale green, which should only be worn by blondes) … will be becoming.” But no matter, Max’s successes far outnumber the fails. He created Clara Bow’s heart-shaped lips, and Jean Harlow’s platinum blondness (if you thought those Renaissance hair dyes sounded undesirable, Jean Harlow’s candle-flame white was achieved with a weekly wash of ammonia, Clorox, and Lux soap flakes). And although the timing of the claim is hard to be exact about, by repute, Max also created Rita Hayworth’s tumbling copper curls.
Hollywood has been graced by many a redheaded beauty, but nearly thirty years after her death, more than forty since her tragically early retirement, the first name that comes to anyone’s lips when you put the words “Hollywood” and “redhead” together is Rita Hayworth. The second is Gilda, the part she plays in the film of the same name. The glorious, sensuous Gilda, undulating across the stage as she sings “Put the Blame on Mame” in elbow-length black satin gloves and a dress that required the real Rita Hayworth to wear both a corset to get into it and a hidden harness to keep it in place. The third name is of course Lucille Ball. Neither Rita nor Lucille was genetically a redhead, any more than Debra Messing or Christina Hendricks were born with the red hair they have worn so proudly, but no matter. All four, and many more, are a part of the image of the redhead as we all receive and respond to it today; what makes Rita Hayworth and Lucille Ball so extraordinary is that they managed to be so in monochrome. Gilda was filmed in 1945, when the film industry was still veering between the novelties of Technicolor and good old black and white. Lucille Ball’s TV show (with its endnote sign-off “Make-up by Max Factor”) went on the air in 1951. Color TV sets—or shows—did not exist in any numbers until the mid-1960s. What miles we have covered since then.
Here’s a case history to ponder. In 1941, Rita Hayworth, coming up to the peak of her career, was in two movies, one—Blood and Sand, a cautionary tale of how badly bullfighting and hubris go together—in Technicolor; the other, The Strawberry Blonde, paradoxically, in black and white. In Blood and Sand, in color, and playing on her own “exotic” Mexican ancestry, Rita plays a socialite, Doña Sol, a sexual aggressor, the possessor of a kind of fantasy sexuality, as it is described by her biographer Barbara Leaming.111 Darryl Zanuck, the film’s producer, had originally wanted Carole Landis for the role, but Landis refused to dye her hair red for it, hence the part went to Rita. This gives some idea of the importance given to the aesthetic of Technicolor in the movie (wrong hair and you’re out), with sets that were meant to evoke the works of the Spanish painters El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez. But you don’t get the impression much thought went into the character of Doña Sol, who seems to be driven by nothing—albeit driven very beautifully by nothing—other than an urge to add notches to her bedpost. In Strawberry Blonde, Rita is a society girl again, but the all-American version thereof, and there’s a neat if slightly queasy-making piece of story-telling/stereotyping in this film. As the cast list comes up on the screen, James Cagney is introduced as “Biff Grimes,” Olivia de Havilland as “the girl he adores.” When Rita comes up on the screen the line under her name is simply “M-m-m-m-m-m.” She’s not a character with a story, she’s simply the audience’s lip-smacking reaction; not a human being but a symbol, a vector for desire.
And ultimately, I would argue, one that is a dead end. The image of Gilda has been referenced in film after film, but in the end, what can you do with a sex symbol other than make it sexier and sexier, until it becomes a parody of itself? Once Jessica Rabbit, who famously isn’t bad—“just drawn that way”—had swung onto the screen in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), we’d gone as far as we could go. The association between redheaded women and sex has become so knee-jerk that advertising now doesn’t even need a body for its message to be understood. In 2012 Sleepy’s, the US mattress company, launched a range of gel-infused mattresses, guaranteed to keep you cool in the sweltering New York summer. The advertising image chosen was a sparkling white duvet, a pillow, and between the two a woman’s head of rich red curls. All you saw of her was her hair and an ear. Sleepy’s tag line was simply “HOT IN BED?” You start to understand Rita Hayworth’s sad complaint that “men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me.” We are not all hot in bed. We do not all, always, want to be. Centuries and centuries of stereotyping, of social and sexual expectation, decades of advertising, can really make you feel the cold.
And did those same ads for Strawberry Blonde feature the redheadedness of Rita Hayworth’s costar, James Cagney? No, they did not. In all this, where were the redheaded men?
Cagney had been a significant star since the 1930s, when Lincoln Kirstein described him as “a short redheaded Irishman, quick to wrath, humorous, articulate in anger … the semi-literate lower middle-class … mick Irish,” and the L.A. Record as a “red-haired Bowery Boy … fiery-tempered, but with a warm Celtic smile.”112 Note the “but,” implied in one description, explicit in the other. We are being invited to like and admire Cagney despite the flaws in his presented image—his red hair being but one of them. We are to overlook that—in fact in the posters for Strawberry Blonde, his hair is brown. You can make an argument, however, that Cagney’s career and the parts he played track the transformation of the pugnacious Paddy, the brawler, the laborer, the Celtic cliché of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century’s sleek urban animal, albeit one who in Cagney’s movies is very often on the wrong side of the law, ready and able to turn on that irresistible Celtic charm whenever needed. By the time Errol Flynn came along (chestnut-haired in life, since you ask) playing the wild Irish card could be the basis, almost, of an entire career. Again, we are to overlook that tint, or taint, of red. Another wholly unscientific list: Eric Stoltz, Ewan McGregor, David Caruso, Rupert Grint, Damian Lewis, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Simon Pegg says he is not; Michael Fassbender happily declares himself a ginger Viking, and who are we to argue? But unlike Rita, Lucille, Debra, or Christina, not one of these has dyed his hair red as a means to further his career; indeed Benedict Cumberbatch, deeply annoyingly, in his best-known role as Sherlock Holmes, has his dyed almost black—deeply annoying in that if ever there was a character who could and should be played as a redhead, it’s the eccentric, intellectual, unconventional, alienated Sherlock. When the photographer Thomas Knights launched his RED HOT 100 project in 2014, photographing redheaded men—staggeringly handsome redheaded men, fair enough—and encouraged them to talk about their experiences of going through life with red hair, one of his sitters confessed that he had found it easier to come out as gay than to come out as a redhead. What does that say about red hair as one of the last great social prejudices? It is, still, different for girls, but here is another paradox: we don’t judge or value men by their appearance in the same way as we judge or value women. So whereas redheaded actors, with some clever manipulation by their image-makers, may escape the stereotyping that comes with red hair, and play against it, and have us overlook the color of their hair entirely in our approval of them, redheaded women, whether in the public eye or no, are still bound by stereotypes stiff as a straitjacket. As an adult it can feel as if you simply get to pick which one you’ll don, out of a choice of three: Rita, Scully, or Lucille. Without Lucille Ball, that choice might have come down to just two.
Lucille Ball single-handedly created the third modern variant in the palette of redhead female types. Her character in I Love Lucy is a kook, a kind of back-formation from the winning, redheaded little girl characters of children’s fiction at the start of the twentieth century, only this time in the body of a grown woman; a housewife who dreams of stardom, who talks fondly of her “henna rinse” on the air, who is unreliable and unpredictable, but human and believable and irresistible because of it. In real life Lucille Ball had her signature hair color created by her hairstylist, who declared “the hair may be brown but the soul is on fire!” Off set she was one of the canniest and most undauntable female studio executives there has ever been. She paid a price, of course, in chauvinism and name-calling, but if the soul was on fire, the business brain beneath the red hair was second to none, and she knew it. It’s more than a little ironic therefore that the character she created—zany, unintellectual, and delightfully flawed—should be what she has been remembered for, referenced by innumerable actresses ever since: Debra Messing’s Grace in Will & Grace, for one; Alyson Hannigan’s character Lily Aldrin in How I Met Your Mother, for another—women whose comedy flows from the gap between what they try to be and what they are. And because she was flawed, and warm, and human, Lucy, the original, was within the reach of housewives, mothers, women everywhere. Hair dye would not work the miracle that might turn the average woman into Rita Hayworth. It might not give you the go-getting career of redheaded Brenda Starr, Reporter, who was at the height of her comic-strip fame in the 1950s. But it could bring you closer to the more achievable glamour of Lucille Ball. And we knew Lucy dyed her hair, and wore makeup, because in her show she told us so. No more the scandalized reaction of Aunt Marilla to Anne Shirley dyeing her hair (“A wicked thing to do!”). If it was okay for Lucy, it was acceptable for every woman. Her signature look even crossed the Atlantic into my parents’ living room, with its shoe box–size television screen. And where demand leads, the advertising men are sure to follow. Except of course that by this time, some of those men were women. And one of those women was Shirley Polykoff.
In 1955 Polykoff was working at the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding and took over the Clairol account, for whom she created the “Does she or doesn’t she?” tag line for their range of do-it-at-home hair dyes.113 What’s particularly pleasing about this bit of advertising genius is the fact that Polykoff, who was born in Brooklyn in 1908, was Jewish and based her slogan on a perfect bit of Yiddisher-momma speak: “Is she or isn’t she?” (complete with hand gestures). Thus one strong woman channeled generations of others, and changed women’s relationship to their hair forever. If you wished to be a blonde, a brunette, or a redhead, now you could be, with a use-at-home hair dye that gave results so natural-looking, said the slogan, that your secret would be safe. And why would you do this? Because you’re worth it—the second game-changing slogan in the field.
The original version of this, created by another woman advertising executive, Ilon Specht, for L’Oréal in 1973, was “Because I’m worth it”—an important difference to the warmer, fuzzier, we’re-all-in-this-together variant used by L’Oréal today. “Because we’re worth it” is several steps on from the hotly contested feminist debates of the 1970s. Of course we’re worth it. We know we are.
And once that ball was rolling, once the products had been created that made dyeing your hair at home your choice, and so easy, and so commonplace, and so much something the stars in Hollywood were doing too, all the age-old censure was gone. An industry that had been worth $25 million became worth $200 million a year. The two shades of red offered by L’Oréal in 1970 were sixteen by 1989, with Redken offering twenty-nine and Clairol forty-three. In fact, it has been estimated that more red hair dye is sold per annum off the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies worldwide than any other shades.
Mrs. Roger Rabbit shares her ancestry between Rita Hayworth and another ’toon, the “little redheaded ball of fire, Red Hot Riding Hood,” of 1943, with her floop of red hair over one eye, tiny scarlet skater’s dress, and a Katharine Hepburn cut-glass accent. Red Hot Riding Hood is still considered one of the greatest cartoons of all time and has the rare distinction of having brought down the wrath of the censor on the director, Tex Avery, when the wolf, a night-club lothario (Grandma in the same cartoon becomes a frisky Park Avenue matron) became just a little too excited by Red Hot Riding Hood’s performance. She was also supposedly influenced by the real-life Hollywood legend Lana Turner, a dazzling blonde. In the movies, if you want to show a blonde gone bad, you turn her into a redhead. It was done to Jean Harlow, of all women (of all blondes), in Red-Headed Woman in 1932. Harlow’s character in the movie, wearing a flame-red wig throughout, was a home-wrecker, blackmailer, adulteress, and would-be murderess, thus ticking just about all the boxes for the sinful female redhead. The same transformation is still being used today in The X-Men—when Raven is Raven, she’s a blonde. When she’s the villainess Mystique, her hair turns copper.
This is a version of the redhead—the evil redhead—that began with Lilith. This is red hair as a marker for sorcery and the supernatural, nowadays with a pinch of existential angst thrown into the mix as well. Possibly one of the best and at the same time one of the most delectably evil redheads was created back in 1866 by Wilkie Collins, in the character of Lydia Gwilt in his Victorian mystery Armadale. Lydia is not only a proto-vamp, she seems to steal something of the vampire’s eternal youth as well, seducing men much younger than her own advanced age of (God help us) thirty-five. Wilkie at this date was forty-two. The book kicks off with the deathbed confession of a murderer, and by the standards of the 1860s gets only more sensational from there on in. Here is Collins introducing his antiheroine:
This woman’s hair, superbly luxuriant in its growth, was the one unpardonable, remarkable shade of colour which the prejudice of the Northern nations never entirely forgives—it was red.
Never entirely forgives, eh? The description goes on:
Her eyebrows at once strongly and delicately marked were a shade darker than her hair [every redhead knows the redhead eyebrow dilemma, of brows so fair they disappear; Lydia however is so flawless that she is spared it], her eyes large, bright and well-opened were of that purely blue colour…. Her complexion was the lovely complexion which accompanies such hair as hers—so delicately bright in its rosier tints, so warmly and softly white in its gentler gradations of colour on the forehead and neck.
In the complete description, we get her mouth and nose as well as her forehead, eyes, and neck, against which one can only imagine Collins resting, in his imagination, once his delineation of Lydia is complete, with a happy sigh. Lydia is poison, but she is the kind her victims imbibe willingly, and Collins’s pen relishes every detail of her. She is a fortune-hunter, a seductress, possibly a bigamist, a murderess, and, ultimately, a suicide. This is the evil redhead, and they are never less than gorgeous, and always deadly in a particularly sexy way. Think of Edvard Munch’s Vampire, of 1893, a painting the artist entitled Love and Pain, but his public, viewing the painting, took one look at the female figure nuzzling down into the back of her lover’s neck, with her red hair dripping down around them both, and retitled it for him. Or there is Gustav Klimt’s figure of redheaded Lust, in his Beethoven Frieze in Vienna of 1902, her long red hair curling between her thighs in a preposterously overt sexualizing of the much more modest pose, five hundred years before, of Botticelli’s redheaded Venus, her head tilted, her predatory gaze measuring up the viewer (Fig. 31). There is Bevis Winters’s 1948 hard-boiled gumshoe Al Rankin, encountering the redheaded Maisie Tewnham (also a bigamist) in Redheads Are Poison: “Her bright red hair ought to warn those foolish guys not to succumb … ” The real Bevis Winter was an Australian, living in the genteel English seaside resort of Hove. In the same scarlet vein, there is Poison Ivy with her toxic kiss, who squares up even to Batman. Or even Bree Van de Kamp in Desperate Housewives, the perfect housewife and mother, with her spotless home and flawless hair and makeup—and her equally perfect willingness to kill to keep it that way. Her red hair is the viewer’s clue that all with this woman is not as it seems.
Of course transformation works both ways. If you want to tame a redhead, turn her into a blonde. Orson Welles did this to Rita Hayworth when in 1947 he cast her as Elsa, the eponymous lady in The Lady from Shanghai. The film is heavy-handedly noir, and like many an Orson Welles movie, one of the most intriguing things about it is the way it pulls itself apart. Why Welles should have thought red hair unsuitable for a woman who manipulates every man around her is a mystery. Possibly in typical Wellesian fashion he was interested in defying one stereotype to remake another. Or, less pleasantly, it’s a symptom of an attempt to control Hayworth as his marriage to her failed. But other actresses have done the same: Gillian Anderson has reverted to her natural blonde since playing Agent Scully—an excellent way to break the hold of that character on her career, perhaps. Christina Hendricks did the same to mark the end of Mad Men. Nicole Kidman, to the distress of many another female redhead out there, claims blondeness for herself these days, too. The red-to-blond and blond-to-red toggle switch: it comes in very handy. It was used by Disney in 1989, when their Little Mermaid, Ariel, was given red hair to differentiate her from Daryl Hannah’s blonde Madison, the mermaid in 1984’s Splash. A variant was employed in the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island in the opposing female types of Ginger and Mary Ann, one a redhead, one a brunette.
There is of course an argument, basically a chauvinistic argument, that changing your hair or hair color or lipstick or winter coat is proof that women are at the hopeless mercy of whatever the advertising industry last told them they must wear or be or do. There is in my view a much stronger argument that taking control of your appearance (your body), and having the freedom to make choices about it should be a part of the life of every human being on the planet, particularly every woman, and is a part of the ongoing emancipation of the female sex and, now, many a onetime minority group as well—redheads included.
Some years ago I spent a fortnight in the Ukraine, around the town of Sebastopol, famous as a locus of the Crimean War of 1853–6. Much of Sebastopol looked as if the shelling from that conflict had only just ceased. This had clearly been a very tough place to live for a very long time. Almost every evening there would be a power cut, just to remind the Ukrainian people that Mother Russia had her finger on the switch. President Yushchenko was making his first public reappearances, still as heavyweight and charismatic a figure as ever, albeit pocked and scarred from someone’s attempt to poison him with dioxin. The most popular fashion among the men was for black plastic peacoats, reaching to their knuckles and their knees, which gave them all the appearance of being low-ranking Myrmidons among the ranks of the KGB (for all I knew, from within my gaggle of Western tourists, they were). Far and away the most popular fashion among the young women of Sebastopol was for zinging, cranberry-colored hair, or orange of a beacon-like brightness, worn with red-carpet makeup applied with a professionalism that would have had Max Factor weeping tears of joy, and with vertiginous, stiletto-heeled boots and pencil skirts that had their wearers sashaying like Marilyn Monroe (who began life as a strawberry blonde, if her famous “Red Velvet” calendar shots of 1949 are to be believed). In this performance of hyper-femininity, these shining orbs of red or orange would go bobbing down the streets as their owners picked their way around potholes in the pavements and missing cobblestones in the roads. Talking to them, it was clear that this was the way they chose to counter the uncertainties and hardships of their lives, by expressing the same kind of intense, heightened femininity previously given shape in the “New Look” by Christian Dior, in the drab, gray, ration-regulated world of Europe post-1945. And if you are going to be as powerfully female, as ultra-feminine, as you possibly can, it seems the hair color you choose is red. Many Ukrainians have Tartar ancestry and dark coloring, and it is only human nature to want the opposite of what you’ve got, so you might imagine the hair color they would most desire would be blond, but not in this case. Not for the redheads of Sebastopol. For them, red was the only color that declared their pride in their gender, their defiance of all life might throw at them, and their solidarity with one another. Both the orange and the red were completely elective (there was no possibility of mistaking either color for anything found in nature) and thus said these woman not only had this choice but the freedom to exercise it, too. For the redheads of Sebastopol, red was the color of empowerment.
One of Shirley Polykoff’s ads for Clairol showed a redheaded mother and daughter, the idea being that the mother’s hair color would look as natural as the daughter’s, while the red of their hair established for their audience the familial bond. In the movie Atonement (2007), for the wedding scene, the director filled one entire side of the church with redheads (that’s me in the pale blue suit, dead animal over one shoulder, handsome RAF husband at my side), as a visual shorthand to establish that this was the family of the twin redheaded boys so central to the plot. Two redheads together find that people always assume they must be related to each other in some way. Evian mineral water made use of this idea in one of the recent ads in its “Live Young” campaign, with a pale-skinned, anxious-looking, red-haired young man twinned with pale-skinned, anxious-looking baby with a cockatoo quiff of orange curls. Elle Fanning and Naomi Watts, playing mother and daughter in the film Three Generations, are another example, with the truly red Susan Sarandon joining them in the role of grandmother. Even earlier: there is a story that Rossetti once took Lizzie Siddal and Algernon Swinburne to the theatre together. The boy selling programs was already unnerved by Lizzie’s pallor and above all by her hair. Reaching the end of the row and encountering Swinburne, he is supposed to have dropped his armful of programs to the floor and let out a screech: “Here’s another of ’em!” We crop up so unexpectedly that the non-redheaded world sometimes seems to find it easiest to assume we all belong together, that we must all be family, in some way. Which throws an interesting light on a recent change in attitudes toward red hair.
In 2011 the world’s largest sperm bank, Cryos International (which, ironically enough, is based in the redhead-rich land of Denmark) announced that it would no longer take deposits (their word, not mine) from redheaded donors. This in turn inspired the Italian photographer Marina Russo to create a photographic matrix of forty-eight different types of redhead, published as The Beautiful Gene. Russo’s starkly lit portraits, arranged according to the criteria most commonly used by clients of the sperm bank, stare back from page after page—the human race in all its non-symmetrical, never-ending variety, but presented here in test-tube-like ranks. This was also the period of the patronizingly infamous remark by the singer Taylor Swift, “I would do a ginger.” (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.) But in 2014 the Copenhagen Post reported that Cryos was now struggling to keep up with the demand for MC1R sperm. The turnaround was being driven by demand from couples both straight and gay in which one partner had red hair, so a redheaded child was desired to create the visual effect of consanguinity. And jolly good, too. But why, after centuries when society’s response to red hair was mixed, to say the least, should it in our own day and age become desirable? Is it simply that appetite for rarity, as with those teenagers in Japan, where what was bad becomes good because it was bad? Or is red hair coming to stand for something other than the wimps, the barbarians, the kooks, the witches, the bluestockings, the sexpots?
There is this one question that our species has been asking itself ever since it stood upright: what are we? In our age, that too has undergone a subtle shift. We ask now: what am I? Our texts, our Facebook postings, our tweets to one another and to total strangers, people we have never met and never will, our blog entries, our websites, our Pinterests and Instagrams and uploads and likes and dislikes and all our multiple new means of communication are part of the attempt to answer that question. They’re there, they’re used, because we need them. In a way the network we create around ourselves duplicates our far-flung genetic connections to one another. And in all the words we now throw at one another, around and around the planet, day and night without ceasing, we are both all duplicating one another’s behavior and all trying to define ourselves as apart, to give our likes and dislikes an individual value.
It isn’t easy. We all see the same movies, are aware of the same celebrities and the details of their lives, have the same books, the same goods, the same fads and passing fancies thrown at us. Culture has become something that homogenizes us, rather than characterizes us, as it used to do. Against this background, perhaps red hair is starting to stand for something new and desirable. Perhaps it is starting to stand for individuality, for differentiation. And perhaps it is able to do this, even if twenty young actresses one after the other parade newly rubricated locks on the red carpet, because of the historic depth of its association with otherness and with the outsiders—the borderland, the liminal, the wildlings of society.
And perhaps the change in its status has something to do with redheads themselves.
After all, we know how to do this. If the decades since 1945 have taught us how to do anything, it is how you tackle prejudice head-on. You take hold of the stereotype used to define and to subjugate you, you confront and assess it. You reject its negative aspects. You go to war on them. The redhead’s reputation for a fiery temper could come in very handy here. But you take the aspects of your image that you like, and you use them to fashion something positive and viable. For Conan O’Brien, one of the most successful, perspicacious, and quietly canny redheads of them all, that is his career. For many of us, it describes the arc of our life from childhood bullying to an adult sense of pride in our identity and our genetic inheritance.
Or at least it should. There have been some horrendous cases in recent years of redheaded children being bullied to the point of suicide. That has to stop. 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? Making it stop, making people more aware of the language they use and their attitudes toward red hair, was one of the impulses behind Thomas Knights’s hugely successful RED HOT 100 project. Redheads are also finding a voice for themselves. When in 2000 the UK energy company npower ran an ad featuring a redheaded “family” with the tag line “There are some things in life you can’t choose,” the flood of complaints against npower was dismissed. But things move on. The tag line was picked up and used by Eleanor Anderson, a redhead herself, as the title for her 2002 thesis on attitudes toward redheads. Two things to note here: that red hair should be the subject of a thesis, to begin with, and then the repurposing of this notorious ad to attack the very attitudes responsible for its creation. In Australia, where “ranga” is still supposedly an acceptable term for a redhead (hard to know who should be the most insulted by this, redheads or orangutangs), the Red And Nearly Ginger Association is doing the same thing. Picking up the pace, in 2014 the Australian company Buderim Ginger ran an “Australia’s Hottest Ginger” competition as a marketing tie-in, and although some might say this was more a cynical reuse of a stereotype than a repurposing of it, it was not, refreshingly, for women only. There was a male hottest Australian ginger as well as a female. There are redhead websites, some of which, such as How to Be a Redhead, Everything for Redheads, and Ginger Parrot are models of how to e-market and thus by sleight of hand how to e-lobby, as well, as are Ginger with Attitude, Ingingerness, and Ginger Problems, all with a nice line in turning bias against red hair on its head. Bit by bit, attitudes start to waver, then to change. When in 2009 the Tesco supermarket chain in the UK 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 the company not only apologized but withdrew the card from sale as well. So yes, attitudes are changing, but they never change fast enough. “Gingerism,” so-called, is a truly ugly word for an ugly thing.
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. Race may not be involved at all. And red hair does stand out, it can’t help it, so for those of that befogged and bigoted understanding, in apparently calling attention to yourself it’s as if you are asking to be picked on.114 Then, redheads are not so other that we are going to turn out to be unexpectedly dangerous. We’re a known quantity. Our skin is white. You see two people whose skins are different colors with one victimizing the other, you know what you’re looking at. But with red hair there are likely to be none of those obvious clues between bully and victim; only the color of the hair. And who would pick on another human being just because of that?
But perhaps the most significant development is this: that redheads are no longer merely that 2 to 6 percent, those isolated individuals within the rest of society. Redheads are rapidly forming a community. There are redhead festivals in Russia, in Scotland, in Ireland, and one has even been started in Israel, on the aptly named Carrot Kibbutz. There are ginger pride events in the United States in Rome, Georgia; Portland, Oregon; in Chicago; in New York; and in Austin, Texas; in Milan, in Manchester in the UK, and in Montérégie, Quebec, in Canada. They are growing a new awareness of redhead identity and worth, of redheads’ knowledge about themselves socially, scientifically, and culturally. There is naturally a sense of ganging together, of a rallying, of pride at these events. There is speculation of a redheaded moment not that far off, a redhead renaissance, indeed. And the biggest festival of them all is held in September in Breda, Holland.