Rising above redhead myths

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I recently went to get my hair cut. 'Just a cut?' my hairdresser asked me. I nodded. 'Good,' she said, 'I would never want to colour that hair.'

Cartman as redhead in South ParkAs a redhead, these kinds of comments aren't new to me. In fact, my mum has her own story of a hairdresser refusing to cut 'hair as beautiful' as hers. In Red: A History of the the Redhead, author Jacky Colliss Harvey points out that this is a common redhead experience. When a redhead cuts or dyes their hair, it's 'as if the thing you changed was everyone else's property, which you have damaged, willfully'.

Throughout history, people have had a lot of opinions about red hair. A third century work called Physiognomonica, often attributed to Aristotle, said redheads are 'of bad character; witness the foxes'. Since medieval times, redheads have been associated with witchcraft and vampirism. In pop culture, depictions of redheads often perpetuate stereotypes about redheads, ranging from temperamental (think Merida and fiery tempers), lustful (Jessica Rabbit) or freakish (South Park).

There's even a gender divide in how red hair is perceived. Redheaded men are often seen as less masculine than their blond or brunette counterparts. There are many redheaded actresses in Hollywood, but there are far fewer redheaded men. To dispel this misconception, Thomas Knights created a photo exhibition of attractive ginger men. 'We have been conditioned to think that ginger men are ugly and weak,' he said, 'I wanted to flip this on its head.'

Conversely, redheaded women are eroticised. The idea of the redheaded woman as an object of fascination can be found in Renaiassance and pre-Raphalite artistic tradition by the likes of Titian, Rosetti and Botticelli, among others. In modern society, this translates into redheaded women, including myself, getting questions like whether the 'carpet matches the drapes'. Even the word 'redheads' is always said with lascivious meaning by male characters in TV shows and films. In her book, Harvey has a phrase for this: 'Man with a Thing for Redheads'.

Growing up as one of the few redheads in any classroom, I was often in the firing line for the newest redhead insult. First it was bloodnut or rednut. Then I was a 'ranga'. During high school I would regularly be tagged in Facebook memes saying that redheads were soulless, courtesy of South Park.

I was (and sometimes still am) someone's 'redheaded friend'. Often, in a shopping centre, someone would come up to my mother to comment on my hair. 'I would kill for that colour,' they'd say to her. 'I have a niece/friend/daughter with hair just like it.' By the time I was a teenager, I was sick of it. I wanted to dye my hair brown at the earliest opportunity.

 

"There's power in reclaiming an identity that was used to box you in. Repurposing dominant ideas so they become yours, on your own terms."

 

Most of our cultural myths surrounding red hair and the people who grow it have been dominated by people who aren't redheads. In recent years, there have been movements to correct this. For the past two years Melbourne has hosted a Ginger Pride rally which aims to combat bullying and celebrate red hair.

In response to Kick a Ginger day, there's now a Kiss a Ginger day. There's power in reclaiming and being proud of an identity that was used to box you in. Repurposing dominant ideas so they become yours, on your own terms.

In perspective, my hair colour really isn't that big of a deal. I don't face institutional discrimination because I'm a redhead. But because of the cultural fascination with red hair, people will always try to project their own ideas about redheadedness onto me. So as I've grown older, I decided to claim this part of my identity for myself.

I feel no shame in my gingerness. I'll tell people that my hair is red, occasionally strawberry blonde and that my favourite childhood book was Anne of Green Gables. I buy 50 SPF sunscreen and when it's a sunny day I'll definitely cross the street for some shade.

But mostly, my red hair is part of me. I keep its natural colour not because I couldn't get a hairdresser to dye it (though that might be an issue) but because it's my inheritance. It is the colour of my sister's and my mother's hair, and her mother's and her mother's before that. No matter where I go and what I do, I'll always be a redhead. It's in my roots.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue. Red hair image: Derek Gavey via Flickr.

Main image: Eric Cartman in the South Park episode 'Ginger Kids'.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, prejudice

 

 

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Existing comments

This is a really informative article for us 'non-redheads'. A great insight into the special life experiences of those blessed with red hair. My daughter Anna Therese has gorgeous red hair; she works in Paris and occasionally lets me read one of her excellent poems. Anna will love your article dear Neve.
Dr Marty Rice | 18 April 2018


Great article Neve. Red is a provocative colour and that's why I like it. And freckles go with red hair so you have to be careful in the sun, which you are. Enjoy your beautiful hair colour and remember you are one well-read person.
Pam | 19 April 2018


Ah, Neve! Neve, mo cuishla mo croidh; your hair! your lovely name! Peggy O'Neill had red hair, rose madder red that would have wound itself around the Venetian heart of Tiziano Vecellio. Her voice, her smile, her cornflower blue eyes, her conversation! She was a First Year Nurse at Ballarat Base Hospital. I, minus appendix, was post-op, eleven, and in love. Fridays after school (Ballarat HS) I'd lean my bike against the Kids' Ward Wall, and assist her on her rounds. I missed her after we moved to Melbourne.
james marchment | 19 April 2018


Red-haired Religious As a former member of the "red-headed league" myself - now grey, I have found the following in research years ago: Brother P. J. Leonard of the Irish Christian Brothers, Cork, 28 April 1828, writing to Brother Guillaume de Jésus, FSC (De La Salle Brothers) Superior General, asked him « …et pourquoi n’admettez-vous pas ceux qui ont les cheveux roux ? » (...and why don’t you admit those who have red hair ?) [Clearly this would be a problem for the Irish who have a good number of red-heads.] Reply of F. Guillaume: Paris, 31 May 1828 « Ceux dont les cheveux sont simplement roux peuvent être admis ; mais nous refusons ceux qui les ont absolument rouges, ce qui est regardé en France comme une grande défectuosité et l’effet d’un vice particulier dans le sang. » (Those whose hair is merely ginger/russet may be admitted; but we refuse those who have hair that is fiery red, this being regarded in France as a great defect and the effect of a special vice in the blood.)
Br Peter Gilfedder | 19 April 2018


It's a well-known fact that Judas was a redhead. I keep telling my sisters this - they're a lot redder than I - but, like you, they refuse to cower in shame. What brazen effrontery.
Joan Seymour | 19 April 2018


I am interestedin knowing a statistic I have followed since my days at school, there are more left handed redheads than any other hair colour. Are you or family left handed? Maria
maria fatarella | 20 April 2018


I hope ES isn't expecting to reach a harmonious consensus on this vexacious issue as it does with other controversial issues (tongue in cheek for those without a sense of humour). On the issue of redheadedness, there are so many biological, sociological and cross-crultural barriers to consider that I can't see any peaceful resolution arising in the near future. I was born a redhead and was teased and bullied during primary school and early highschool for it. For some unknown reason (perhaps pleas to God that my hair colour darken to the mediocre/neutral brown colour) my hair changed colour during puberty and the bullying started to relent. AT roughly the same time, during early/late puberty, my very observant aunty started to notice this darkening of my reddish locks to auburn/dark brown and started enquiring as to whether I'd been dying my hair. And as we all know, in ocker - especially Queensland culture -, for a male to voluntarily change the colour of his hair (ie through artificial colouring processes) is the same as deciding to "bat for the other side". So I was left in a no-win situation, through no fault or conscious decion-making rocess of my own. I assured my aunt that I hadn't dyed my hair dark brown during puberty, but to this day, she still doesn't believe me! But the mind still boggles! Why would it have been such a tragedy if I had indeed dyed my hair? But as sure as the sky is blue, (at least today) - I still tell my aunt that I'm happy God answered my prepubescent prayers and saved me from the wretched fate of being a ginger outcast! (without the need to resort to ungodly/unnatural means!)
AURELIUS | 21 April 2018


Major thanks for the article post.Much thanks again. Cool.
suba pron | 13 August 2018


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