When I was pregnant this was one of the questions I was frequently asked. I’m not a redhead and nor is my husband, although my mother-in-law has naturally auburn hair. But this seemed to be a genuine concern for some people – “Can you imagine? A ginger child?! (gasp)…oh the horror, oh the shame!”
Really? Is it still ok to say/ ask this? Are these prejudices still around? And so what if I had a red-headed child?!
In Wendy Cooper’s book on ‘Hair’ she presents a brief history as to why red hair was once so popular; famously Titian depicted beautiful red-haired Venetian women in his paintings, and at the time of Elizabeth I’s reign, society was apparently desperate to find ways of replicating her copper locks…even rhubarb juice was used to try to get that flame haired look. Yet somehow, over time, red heads have been mocked, distrusted and portrayed as suspicious. Flame coloured hair, Cooper writes, is linked to Judas, witches and witchcraft, and sexually promiscuous and dangerous women.
Cooper’s book was published in 1971. Her short narrative on red hair rather breezily concludes that it is now ‘back in favour’, certainly in Europe and the U.S. and she seems to equate this with the advent of colour television and movies and as such, red-haired women being seen as passionate rather than dangerous. Hmmm…Cooper seems to suggest historical prejudices are no more…I’m not so sure. And it seems I’m not alone…
In the last few weeks The Sunday Times has published two articles on the topic of ‘red’. In one, Emma Smith reviews a new book (out last week) by Jacky Colliss Harvey, ‘Red: A Natural History of the Redhead’ in which Harvey explores the history, mythology and biology of red hair. It sounds like a good read – a cultural and social foray into the who’s who of red hair, including Tintin, Ronald MacDonald and Mary Magdalene. As Smith suggests, this book seems to be part of a current ‘growing movement’ to reclaim red hair from the ‘bigots and bullies’ and ‘celebrate it’s varied hues’.
In another article, and on the back of this new publication, red haired historian Kate Williams reports on the mocking of ‘gingers’ and recounts her own experiences of bullying as child growing up in the 1980s – as she puts it, having red hair was a ‘social disaster’. Williams’ article goes on to present a number of grim prejudices experienced by a variety of young people in recent years; name calling, those who are ginger deemed as ‘unattractive’ (she recalls a university friend explaining that ‘ginger rhymes with minger’), those driven to suicide by bullies’ slurs on the colour of their hair, the advent of ‘Kick a Ginger’ websites (that led to attacks on school children), physical harassment…and, reportedly, that red heads are now seven times less likely to get a job than a dark-haired applicant. All pretty shocking stuff.
Following these cruel accounts of bullying and frankly appalling stories of discrimination, Williams plots a brief history of when red-haired men and women have been in and out of vogue and gradually attempts to move towards a more positive conclusion. Now, she suggests, in the 21st Century ‘red-heads are in fashion’ (just as Cooper did in 1971)…although this time I found, rather disappointingly, some of this ‘fashion’ appears to be attributed to the all-powerful Taylor Swift saying she would ‘do a ginger’ and Ed Sheeran believing ‘he has helped ginger men to have more sex “we’re finally getting laid”’. So is the suggestion here that when red heads are in fashion it’s all about attractiveness and sex? Maybe it would have been even better if Williams had, instead, acknowledged, say, Greg Rutherford’s recent sporting achievements or the fact that at this year’s Glastonbury festival, Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch was the first British female headliner this century! Come on Williams – surely red-headed achievements and role models win over Swift ‘doing’ one?!
I was more encouraged by the news that the Australian Red and Nearly Ginger Association (RANGA) are attacking stereotypes and by all accounts attacking prejudices too. And the good news that in 2011, when the world’s biggest sperm bank announced it was to stop accepting donations from ginger men, there was a huge backlash and ‘a surge in requests’ for ginger donors.
Maybe I’ve missed something here, but for me it’s not about ginger being fashionable or not. I think Smith had it right when she suggested we ‘reclaim red hair from bigots and bullies’ and ‘simply celebrate its varied hues’. This got me thinking about my own red headed friends and their many and varied hues (from strawberry blonde to dark auburn)…and their many and varied talents – VP and General Counsel, Development Manager, BAFTA Award Winning TV Producer, Oxford University Student, Musician, Academic, Solicitor, Creative, Personal Trainer, Vintage Clothing Business Owner. So, if I had had a red-headed daughter, I’m sure she would have embraced her hair, been proud of her locks and had some pretty great role models along the way!
P.S. Thanks to my friend Owen for his Facebook post the other day: Gingers Rejoice! Redhead Day UK is coming! A special event that celebrates red-head power, including arts, music and entertainment…and the MOGO Awards (Music of Ginger Origin!!). 12th September 2015, Angel, London www.redheaddayuk.co.uk