The thing about superstitions is that while they are not often based upon any sort of truth, they still hold a lot of power. Even living in an age where we are aware of the scientific reasoning for most of the things that we encounter, we still hold on to superstitions. Children often hop over cracks in the sidewalk for fear of breaking their mothers’ backs. People will hold their breaths while passing graveyards and throw spilled salt over their left shoulders. “Knock on wood” is a familiar expression that is used whenever someone says something is going well for them.
Red hair pops up in the stories and superstitions of western culture more often than one might think. It is often portrayed either in a negative light as is the case of Michelangelo’s The Fall of Man painted on the Sistine Chapel and Southpark’s episode on “gingervitis,” or it is highly sexualized like in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lilith or the Batman villain Poison Ivy. An article by Thomas Ha and Johnathan L Rees begins by saying that “red hair is one of the most striking variants of human hair colouration and has historically been of profound social importance,” (62). In an old periodical from May 1889, an author wrote, “The prejudice against red hair is both ancient and widespread,” (Dickens ed., 491). The way red haired women are depicted in modern film and television can be directly related to medieval beliefs and stereotypes about red hair. The characters Merida from Disney Pixar’s Brave, Olive from Easy A, and the Red Woman from the HBO drama Game of Thrones are perfect examples of medieval beliefs that red heads were fiery tempered and disobedient, slutty or in possession of loose morals, and witches or otherwise handmaidens of the devil.
Red haired children often grow up being told that it is their red hair that gives them uncontrollable tempers and a wild disobedient temperament, whether or not they actually have uncontrollable tempers or are disobedient and wild being beside the point. It is a belief that has managed to ingrain itself into western society well enough that it is rarely questioned, yet if asked, very few people could probably provide evidence that proves the belief true. Caused by a mutation in the MC1R (melanocortin 1 receptor) that allows the melanocyte to make red-yellow phaeomelanin rather than the more common black-brown eumelanin, it is highly unlikely that a genetic defect which affects mainly appearance and the way the body processes anesthetic would affect the red head’s personality (Ha and Rees, 62).
In her book The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning, and Sexual Power of Red Hair, Marion Roach discusses how in many depictions of The Fall of Man, the Genesis story about man’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, Eve’s hair changes colour. In Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel she is shown as a young brunette but after the serpent tempts her, she is shown “cowering, now, under the weight of her long, red hair” (166).
In 2012, Disney Pixar released Brave, about a Scottish princess with wildly curly red hair who enjoys nothing more than practicing archery while galloping through the forest on her horse and wants the freedom to decide if and when she wants to marry, and to whom. Her mother, an elegant brunette woman who is always poised and put together constantly tries to turn her into a proper lady. The film opens with the girl’s father teaching a very young Merida how to shoot with the bow he made her for her birthday (figure 1) and the young red head’s mother reprimanding him with, “A bow Fergus? She’s a lady!” Her mother continues to try to discourage her from archery as she grows up telling her not to place her bow on the table and following the request with, “A princess should not have a weapon in my opinion.”
Merida is, however more of a warrior than a princess. Her character can be compared to Boudicca, a Celtic warrior, queen of the Icenis, and first recorded red haired British monarch. Boudicca’s husband, the king led a rebellion around C.E. 50 against the Romans who had conquered his kingdom seven years earlier. Upon his death, half his land was given to the Romans and he gave the other half to his young widow and their two daughters. When the Romans took the lands from her, Boudicca fought back, supported by the Iceni and many other Celtic tribes. She led her massive army, fighting alongside them as they “slaughtered [Londinium’s] Roman residents and burned the city to the ground,” (Roach, 29-30). Boudicca could be viewed as disobedient and fiery tempered because she did not allow the Romans, her rulers, to take her lands without first gathering an army and burning their city down. She fits well into an old French proverb which states that “Red-headed women are either violent or false, and usually are both,” (Roach, 78).
While Merida is not quite so violent in her rebellion, she does refuse to marry any of the clan leader’s sons (being the first Disney princess to not develop a love interest and marry him at the end of her film) and instead decides to compete in the tournament for her own hand in marriage. She also tears the dress her mother had made her which hid her wild red curls in an attempt to make her a presentable bride to the clans (figure 2). Usually preferring to wear woolen dresses with a more relaxed fit and her hair down, Merida is very stiff in the blue satin gown with the tight hood that hides all of her hair. The only other person that routinely has her hair covered throughout the film is the maid, making it painfully obvious that this is not what is fashionable in the kingdom, rather an attempt to make Merida more desirable by hiding her hair and forcing her to sit and behave like a lady using restrictive clothing.
More commonly, redheads are highly sexualized and depicted as having looser morals than women of other hair colours. Playground taunts of “carrot-top” are exchanged with sayings like “red-in-the-head, hot-in-the-bed,” as red haired girls grow up (Roach, 28). Red haired women are often asked if the “carpet matches the drapes” by men who might be interested in pursuing them romantically. In her book, a friend of Roach who only dated red heads said that perhaps the reason he found them so attractive was because “they are the only women in the world whose orgasm you can actually see. The pale skin, the blood flushing the chest, rising up the throat, and rushing into the face,” suggesting that perhaps the turn on is the affirmation of the man’s excellence in bed. Another possibility is that in a culture obsessed by youth, the pale skin of a red head could very well be the key. Unlike other women, most red heads keep the same colouring they had when they were children, giving off an illusion of youth and innocence where perhaps there is none. Red heads remain pale their whole lives, nipples never darkening with age and body hair remaining light and almost invisible, aside from the brilliant hues of their pubic hair (Roach, 61).
When Mattel decided to release a pregnant Barbie doll, they chose to use Barbie’s red haired friend Midge rather than sully Barbie’s reputation with the implication that at some point she would have had sex (Roach, 192). But with Midge being a red head, perhaps to Mattel she seemed the obvious choice for the role. Even in family shows like Doctor Who, redheads are sexualized. Amy, the eleventh Doctor’s first companion is introduced as an adult dressed as a fake police woman in a mini skirt and pretend Kevlar vest, announcing that she’s a kiss-o-gram, not a police woman when she realizes that she and the Doctor are in danger and he’s rather counting on the police backup he believes she’s called. Later in the series, she propositions the Doctor on the night before her wedding by climbing on top of him and trying to remove his clothes. When he protests saying that she’s getting married in the morning and he’s not human she shrugs it off saying that the morning is a long time away because he has a time machine and that she didn’t really want anything long term. She’s the first of his companions to want casual sex rather than a romantic relationship.
In the film Easy A, Emma Stone’s character Olive develops a reputation as the school slut after a white lie letting her insistent friend Rhiannon continue to believe that she lost her virginity to a college guy one weekend spread around the school and her gay best friend asked her to pretend to have sex with him so the other guys would stop teasing him about being gay. Red haired Olive became the go-to person for the socially awkward and alone who wanted to look like they’ve had more experience than they really did and word quickly got around that she was handing out sexual favours for gift cards and cash. Upon the suggestion from one of the school’s self-righteous Bible-thumpers that she include a scarlet A in her wardrobe because like the character Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, she was an adulterer and going to Hell for her sins, Olive began wearing corsets to class with the letter appliqued on the breast (figure 3). She took the theme of the red-haired harlot and ran with it, making it something she pretended to be proud of.
At the end of the film when she was tired of the way she was being treated by both classmates and teachers for perpetuating the rumours that were spread about her, Olive dressed up in her last corset, a feather boa, booty shorts and a pair of fishnet stockings (figure 4) and put on a memorable performance during the mandatory school pep rally in order to get attention for an online show she decided to do to tell the whole school the truth. Most of her classmates and teachers tuned in because during the performance she tells the school her webcast would interfere with the school basketball game that night but “come on, would you rather be here cheering on the Woodchuck or watching me do one?” but instead of having sex with the school mascot, she told her side of the story.
But perhaps the most common medieval belief about redheads that is still perpetuated in modern film and television is that all redheads are witches. There are plenty of theories as to where this myth originated, the most probable being the story of Lilith. In some Bibles, God created both Adam and Lilith from the earth. Lilith was to be Adam’s partner but because they were made from the same material, she saw herself as Adam’s equal. The story goes that Lilith refused to lie beneath him and left Eden for the Red sea where she lived a life of promiscuity and evil. Born before Eve ate the fruit, Lilith is not burdened with mortality. She is also portrayed as a succubus who steals into men’s beds and creates demonic children from their nocturnal emissions, killing them after they are born, also causing miscarriages and barrenness in otherwise pious and healthy women, and she is most often portrayed with red hair (Roach, 21-24).
The character Melisandre (figure 5), known as The Red Woman both for having long red hair and for wearing red pretty much exclusively (if she is clothed at all) in The Game of Thrones follows the theme of the evil red-haired witch to the letter. Priestess of the Lord of Light, a religion that is not embraced by most of the people in Westeros, drawing a parallel to the Pagan/Christian dichotomy of the witch trials, Melisandre supports Stannis Baratheon as heir to the iron throne. In typical Lilith fashion, Melisandre stole away to a dark and secluded dungeon where she threw off her cloak, revealing that not only was she completely naked, but she was also extremely pregnant. She proceeded to sit down on the ground, legs spread wide and give birth, the whole time moaning like she was having an orgasm (figure 6). The thing that came out of her though was not a baby. She birthed a six foot tall skeleton shrouded in black smoke that clawed its way out of her womb.
While her god is called the Lord of Light, her penchant for the colour red, the parallels between Melisandre and Lilith, the way she skulks about casting spells in the night, and her habit of saying, “The night is dark and full of terrors,” to those that either don’t believe in him or don’t support Stannis as king make it quite clear that there is nothing “light” or good about this religion, further supporting the notion that all red heads are evil. According to Marion Roach, marks of the devil include “syphilis, gonorrhea, leprosy, birthmarks, freckles, and – of course – red hair,” (72-73). Roach also suggests that as witches were often stripped during examinations because witch marks – markings placed on the witches body by the devil – were believed to be most commonly found on a woman’s most private of body parts, it could be the way red pubic hair stands out against the alabaster pale skin that usually comes with the gene that conjured up images of Hell for the Puritanical (61).
Rather than trying to fight back against the stereotypes, most of us red heads own it. People believe what they want to and it isn’t really that bad to be thought of as fiery tempered, sexy, or a witch. Worst case scenario, red heads have an excuse if they have an off day and lose it on someone. Best case scenario, they are seen as a little more attractive to potential partners. And as for the belief that all red heads are witches, well who doesn’t want a little magic in their life? If the stereotypes were really that bad, red would not be the most colour hair dye sold (Roach, 210).
Brave. Dir. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell. Perf. Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connolly, and Emma Thompson. Disney Pixar, 2012. DVD.
Easy A. Dir. Will Gluck. Perf. Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, and Penn Badgley. Screen Gems, 2010. DVD.
“Flesh and Stone.” Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series. Writ. Steven Moffat. Dir. Adam Smith. BBC. 2010. DVD.
“Garden of Bones.” Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Vanessa Taylor. Dir. David Petrarca. HBO. 2012. DVD.
Ha, Thomas and Jonathan L Rees. “Red Hair – A Desirable Mutation?” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology July 2002: 62-65. Print.
Roach, Marion. The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006. Print.
“Red Hair.” All the Year Round 25 May 1889: 491-493. Print.