Is the world unfair to redheads like Karen Gillan and Ed Sheeran?
- Credit: PA
Being a redhead has proved ‘the single most significant characteristic of my life’, says Suffolk-raised Jacky Colliss Harvey.
Being a redhead has proved ‘the single most significant characteristic of my life’, says Suffolk-raised Jacky Colliss Harvey. ‘If that sounds a little extreme to you, well, you’re obviously not a redhead, are you?’ Steven Russell hears a plea for us to ditch the stereotypes and look at the person
When she was little – the only redhead in the family – Jacky Colliss Harvey’s locks were the same orange colour as the label on a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. It didn’t take long to realise the genetic lucky-dip of birth had marked her out as different.
Five years old. Her village school in Suffolk had a bit of a bully. Brian. Not his real name.
One afternoon, Jacky says, he snatched the hat from her friend’s head and ripped off the bobble. “I can still summon up the extraordinary feeling of liberation as the red mists descended. I wound up my right arm like Popeye and punched Brian in the face.”
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This was witnessed by mums arriving to collect children. Jacky felt “proudly unrepentant”, but knew she was in trouble.
But punishment never came. “There was laughter. There was an air, astonishingly, of adult approval. My mum, who seemed embarrassed, took my hand and began to hustle me down the road. ‘Well, what did he expect?’ one of her friends remarked… ‘She’s a redhead!’” Jacky learned two vital lessons that day: “that the world has expectations of redheads, and that those expectations give you a licence not granted to blondes or brunettes. I was expected to lose my temper.” As she got older, “I was allowed to be impulsive. I was allowed to be hot-blooded and passionate…
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“The assumptions and expectations the world made about me and my fellow redheads were endless. I must be Irish. Or Scottish. I must be artistic. I must be spiritual. Was I by any chance psychic? And I must be good in bed.
“There’s a point where all those ‘musts’ start taking on the tone of a command. She’s a redhead. That was all the world need know, apparently, to know me.”
Has it really been the most significant characteristic of her life?
“It sounds quite extreme, but it really is no exaggeration. Having red hair determines how the world responds to you, and that of course has an enormous effect on your personality and how you respond to the outside world,” she tells me.
It’s something that’s nagged. Why do redheads have these labels attached, with scant regard for their individual personalities? Should we allow people to poke fun?
So Jacky began to research. And write. The result is her first book. Red: A Natural History of the Redhead looks at the influence and symbolism of red hair through the ages and in aspects of life such as science, religion, politics, feminism and sexuality, advertising, literature and art.
And what a nest of wriggling stereotypes and biased symbolism you find if you lift a rock – some positive, many negative.
Red is the colour of love, and also of war. “It is universally recognized as the colour of warning, in red for danger; it is the colour of sex in red-light districts across the planet.”
Red hair during the Renaissance was seen as a sign of Jewishness… and the height of fashion in Protestant England, thanks to Elizabeth I.
Jacky adds that “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 colour, or religion, or sexual orientation.
“And these expressions of prejudice slip under the radar precisely because by and large there is almost no difference in appearance (aside from the hair) between those discriminating against it and those being discriminated against. It is as if, in these circumstances, prejudice doesn’t count.”
Gender? “In brief, red hair in men equals bad, in women equals good, or at least sexually interesting.”
Religious art? Look at Mary Magdalene, often depicted as a redhead. If there was such a specific person, Jacky suggests, she might have come from a part of the world where redheads “while not unknown are vanishingly rare”.
So the choice of red hair, in art, marked her as different. “It reflects the fact that the version of Mary Magdalene that the Western church has always found most fascinating is that of a reformed prostitute, a penitent whore; and culturally, for centuries, red hair in women has been linked with carnality and with prostitution. It still is today.”
We can sort of laugh about being “a ginge”, but for many people it’s not harmless banter but insidious prejudice. The novelty soon wears off if you’re frequently labelled a fun-loving scatterbrain or a fiery-tempered vixen as a redheaded female, or a savage barbarian or redheaded clown if you’re a man.
“To be a redhead, to be a white-skinned ‘other’, is interesting,” says Jacky. “There is the whole business of ‘gingerism’; is it a form of racism? What do we do about it? That all stems from the fact that people make judgments about appearance.
“We always have. We’re hard-wired to do it. But it would be nice if, after all these thousands of years of civilisation, we’d learnt not to trust our immediate reactions to other people quite so much.”
Fortunately, her own experiences have been nothing but positive – Brian aside. “But then I’m a redheaded woman. It’s very, very different for redheaded guys. It’s this extra-ordinary thing where the stereotype favours the female of the species.”
That said, even “compliments” can be negative.
“It can be a little bit trying when you’re a teenager to suddenly come slap-bang up against this idea that redheaded women are phenomenally erotic and sexy, and blondes and brunettes are not, but as you get older you learn to deal with that. You learn to deal with all the ‘witticisms’ and jokes that people make about redheads... if you’re lucky you do – as long as your experience of that kind of thing isn’t too bad.
“You can’t say that ‘gingerism’ is comparable to racism, but it can certainly be compared to. I think the point is that all these discriminatory behaviours are in a line, and you need to tackle all of them. If you aren’t tackling all of them, you’re not really tackling any of them.
“I’m also aware that whenever I hear myself saying that, that gingerism is a form of racism ‘but it’s not as bad as the other forms of racism’, I always feel there’s some poor, bullied, redheaded child somewhere and it’s as if I’m saying to them ‘Yeah, we know you’re miserable, but your misery isn’t quite miserable enough.’
“How do you equate that on an individual level?”
In her book, Jacky goes so far as to write: “Sometimes it feels as if what will finish us off as a species is not climate change, is not running out of fossil fuels, is not some superplague, is not even our deleterious habit of trashing the planet we live on.
“What will do for us in the end will be just two things: ignorance and intolerance.
“A world that can’t deal with something as small and insignificant as people whose hair is a different colour is one where there is little hope of dealing with any of the problems created by those far bigger issues, of different skins, different faiths, different loves, different lives.”
The good news is that things are changing.
There are huge, high-profile gatherings of redheads – a big one at Breda in the Netherlands next weekend, for instance, and last weekend the Irish Redhead Convention in County Cork.
“All of these are coming from an enthusiasm and momentum to celebrate red hair – and by extension to celebrate difference of all sorts.
“Seeing it as being something special, instead of something weird.”
That’s the way to deal with lingering (if usually non-malicious) prejudice, Jacky thinks – “to turn the stereotype on its head and turn it into positives.” You make it “cool”. You take what was marginalized and make it desirable. “When I now describe myself as being a Tractor Girl, I do so with a sense of pride. And because the term has been used so often, and claimed back by the people for whom it was originally created to denigrate, it’s now come to mean something totally different.”
Then there are visible role models, such as Suffolk singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran. “Bless him; I love that guy so much. Apart from the good sense he has said about being a redhead, he’s creating a positive image of redheadedness.
“We’re dealing with thousands and thousands of years of conditioning, of redheads being ‘other’, so the fact it’s changed so quickly in just the last five years or so is really something.”
Red: A Natural History of the Redhead is published by Allen and Unwin at £16.99