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The sexy, kooky, sinister history of redheads

Christina Hendricks played redhead Joan Harris in the series “Mad Men.”AMC

They are common tropes in pop culture: vivacious, sexy redheads like Christina Hendricks’s character, Joan, in “Mad Men,” or clowns with red hair like Ronald McDonald. Their prevalence in modern television and advertising resonates with long-held stereotypes that date back more than 2,000 years. And while they might seem innocuous, many have sinister roots: The idea of a redheaded man’s untrustworthiness, for instance, stems from European anti-Semitism.

Author Jacky Colliss Harvey traces all this in her new book, “Red: A History of the Redhead,” from the fiery-haired Judases in medieval art to the auburn stunners in pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Red hair comes from a recessive gene more common in geographically or culturally isolated communities, and it has always been exoticized and eroticized. And while we might like to think that we are more enlightened than our medieval ancestors, we still hold many of their views.


Ideas reached Harvey — a redhead herself — by phone in London. Below is an edited excerpt:

IDEAS: How prevalent is red hair?

HARVEY: About 2 percent of the global population has red hair. The percentage rises the further north you go and in populations that are isolated, either geographically or culturally, from those around them. That gives a recessive gene the highest possibility of expressing itself. There are lots of redheads in Ireland and Scotland, but there are also lots of redheads in Jewish populations because Jewish people tend not to marry out as much as other groups, at least historically. There are redheads in the Near East, in Algeria for example. There are still redheads in the Atlas mountains and on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. And some thousands of years ago there were redheads in western China. You still do get people with red hair in born in the Xinjiang province in the far west of China.


IDEAS: Talk a bit about stereotypes.

HARVEY: It is one of the few examples where the female seems to get a better deal than the male. The stereotypes of male redheads are either clowns, somewhat sinister supernatural figures, or they are regarded as having an uncontrollable temper. Whereas the main stereotypes for redheaded women is that they are very highly eroticized. They are seen as very sexy, and sometimes loose-moraled as well. Thanks to Lucille Ball there was another refinement added to that, which is the redhead as someone who is slightly kooky.

The cult of the redheaded bird man thrived on Easter Island. Associated Press

IDEAS: Are there other cultures that have stereotypes of people with red hair?

HARVEY: There were myths in Serbia and Bulgaria and other parts of Southeastern Europe that said you could spot a vampire by their red hair and ruddy skin. They were engorged with blood, and this came out in their complexion and the color of their hair. And there is also a belief, certainly in parts of Serbia and in Greece, that Judas became a vampire after he hung himself, that he was rejected by heaven and hell. On Easter Island, many of the famous statues there were originally topped with red stones that were cut and chosen and carefully positioned to get them these red top knots, which might connect with the cult of the redheaded bird man, a religion that lasted on Easter Island right up through the 19th century.

IDEAS: And the origins of all these?

HARVEY: The clown stereotype traces back to the presence of redheaded slaves in Athenian households way back in ancient Greece and then the presence of redheaded slave characters in Greek theater. It is possible that quite a few of the slaves in ancient Greek households did have red hair, and that they would have come from the tribes around the Black Sea, an area that was noted as having a high proportion of redheads by Greek writers at the time. I think that the connection between red hair and bad temper in Northern Europe might stem back from some kind of fear or memory of the Vikings, although my personal opinion is that there was probably very little difference in appearance between the Vikings and the Saxons in modern-day Britain who they raided and were at war with for so long.


IDEAS: How do redheaded men and women feel about all this?

HARVEY: There have been studies done on this. Men are apparently much more likely to describe themselves as ginger, a word that quite a lot of people with my color hair would describe as slightly pejorative, unless another redhead is calling you a ginger. Women are supposedly much more likely to call themselves strawberry blonde. But one of the things that I think is happening now, during this “redhead renaissance” as its been called, is that people are becoming much more willing to describe themselves as ginger, or to claim red as opposed to using any of the other synonyms for it, like auburn for example.

IDEAS: Talk about this intersection of recessive genes and bullying.

HARVEY: Have red-haired, white-skinned people suffered to the same degree that people whose skin is black have suffered over the centuries from oppression, prejudice, and stigmatization? No. But the experience of one child being bullied at school? I don’t think you can choose which person’s experience is more miserable based on the particular stereotype that they are being victimized for. I was quite shocked to learn about the prevalence of bullying and the nastiness that other redheads endured as children. I wasn’t aware of that at all when I was growing up. I wonder if that would have been different if I had been born as a boy instead of a girl.

Follow Noah Guiney on Twitter @NoahGuiney.



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