‘Redheaded women are either violent or false, and usually are both’.
Confidently explaining two unpleasant characteristics that come with red hair, this French proverb has contributed to the many stereotypes that the colouring has accumulated. As a female ginger myself, I can say that this statement is wholly unjustified and feel that my friends and family would agree! Yet I could have cited a Russian proverb about the lack of red haired saints or an American saying about redheads causing trouble to illustrate the preconceptions that exist about red haired people. In fact there is an assortment of typecasts, most of which are negatively viewed, including being fiery-tempered, opinionated, noisy and untrustworthy. Prior to writing this I naively believed that the real extent of ‘gingerism’ were just a few stereotypes, nicknames and something that us redheads joke about to make conversation. However after seeing the recent tweet from the now notorious Katie Hopkins: ‘Ginger babies. Like a baby. Just so much harder to love’ and reading several stories of abuse that people have suffered because of their red hair (only this year a man was stabbed after an argument erupted because he was ginger) I realised there was more to it. So has this discrimination always existed throughout history? After some research I can say that yes, it certainly has, and whilst prejudices still exist today, modern taunts such as the nickname ‘ginger minger’ are tame compared to past discrimination against the red haired of society.
Early prejudice against those with red hair existed amongst the Ancient Egyptians. Along with their many fascinating customs, this civilisation buried red headed men alive believing that they were unlucky and sacrificed them to appease the god Set who was thought to have white skin and red hair and was said to control earthquakes and thunderstorms. Despite this severe maltreatment of the redheaded population, the famous Egyptian Cleopatra actually used henna to dye her hair a reddish hue, thus perhaps making it more acceptable.
Having always understood that the Ancient Greeks were a forward thinking and intelligent society, I was disappointed to discover that when it came to copper coloured hair, they were not so advanced. They believed it resulted from an imbalance of the body’s four humours, which they considered need to be equal for a healthy body, hence equating red hair with an illness or disease. What’s more, they believed that when a redhead died, they would turn into a vampire – this from the civilisation that conceived democracy.
During medieval times, red hair was considered to be unlucky and to signify moral degradation and extreme sexual desire. Whilst these charges are cruel enough, those unfortunate enough to have green eyes as well as red hair were accused of being werewolves, witches or vampires during this superstitious epoch. Many auburn haired females therefore suffered indictments of witchcraft and in the Salem witch trials in America many redheads were found guilty simply because of their colouring.
The Tudor period was a contradictory time regarding attitudes towards red hair – it continued to bear associations with sin, witchcraft and misfortune as in the past; yet there was an admiration for the colour which was undoubtedly in large part due to the red tresses of the Tudor dynasty. The Golden Reign of popular redheaded monarch Elizabeth I particularly improved the popularity of the hair colour. What’s interesting is that judging from royal portraits, it has been estimated that before Queen Elizabeth’s death there was a red haired monarch on the throne for 138 years. This appears to indicate that the highest tiers of society found red hair to be in fact attractive, even regal, which contradicts the general negative attitude towards the colour. It may otherwise be explained by the restricted gene pool that provided royals with their appearances, yet the fact that it was sustained for so long cannot be overlooked. As for the reputation of redheads, copper-topped monarchs did not do much for challenging such stereotypes as fiery-temperedness, volatility and violence, traits which were apparent in Tudor royalty.
Whilst the situation of redheads in Britain apparently improved due to ginger monarchs in the early modern period, it is worth mentioning that things were very different on the continent. In Spain, the fifteenth century inquisitions revealed the inherent prejudice against red hair as many victims were burnt because of their flame-coloured locks, believed to have been stolen from the fires of hell. This association with evil also existed in neighbouring France where gingers were compared to Jesus’ traitor Judas, who in Christendom was commonly depicted with red hair. This inspired the insult ‘le poil de Judas’ (the hair of Judas) which implied that redheads were treacherous. One French man did defend the red colouring however, dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac, who stated:
‘A brave head covered with red hair is nothing else but the sun in the midst of his rays, yet many speak ill of it… their flesh is much more delicate, their blood more pure, their spirits more clarified, and consequently their intellects more accomplished.’
This time was also tough for redheads in Germany, where from the fifteenth until the eighteenth century red hair was considered an ‘abnormality’ and a ‘mark of the devil’ along with freckles, moles and birthmarks, all of which were used as proof for witchcraft.
At roughly the same time, the renaissance had developed into a widespread movement across Europe, and red hair was not absent from the art that defined the period. In Michelangelo’s sixteenth century painting ‘The Temptation’ in the Sistine chapel, Satan is depicted with red hair. Similarly in the adjacent tableau Eve is given a twist of red hair as she is thrown out of the garden to indicate that she has become sinful. The first murderer Cain was also often portrayed with red hair at the time, thus reinforcing the belief that red hair indicated wickedness and sin. Nevertheless it was not all negativity for red hair in renaissance artwork. The celebrated renaissance painter Titian frequently depicted female redheads in his works, presumably finding it attractive. He is in fact so well known for his paintings of red haired ladies that his name has become synonymous for the hair colour, many preferring to use ‘titian’ than ‘ginger’. Another perhaps more flattering renaissance portrayal of red hair was Sandro Botticelli’s representation of Venus in ‘The Birth of Venus’ with long flowing red tresses. The choice of this colour is open for interpretation; perhaps Botticelli considered red an appropriate, attractive hair colour for the goddess of beauty and love. Yet it could likewise be said that he believed it was suitable for the goddess of sex, in keeping with the notion that red hair signified intense sexual desire and passion.
During the Victorian era, the most beautiful hair colour was considered to be blonde and it is said the worst was red. Not only was it unfashionable but it was also considered to be unlucky, a superstition which had persisted from the Middle Ages and was still associated with Judas Iscariot. Another intriguing conclusion about red hair made during this time was that women of this colouring were more likely to commit a crime of lust, namely prostitution. In a study published by Italian criminologists Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero, ‘Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Women’, they claimed that 48% of red haired females were ‘criminal women’, compared with 26% of dark haired women. Whilst the study is questionable, in the published results table the column of normal women totals 100% whereas the column of criminal women equals 141%, it clearly indicates that there was strong prejudice against red hair at the time. Nevertheless, a saving grace for redheads in Victorian Britain came in the form of the pre-Raphaelite art movement, which seemed to celebrate the hair colour as many artists chose red haired subjects for their paintings, including Edward Millais for his ‘Ophelia’.
Whilst most superstitions about red hair disappeared into the 20th century with the rise of scientific thinking, it seems that every day prejudice against redheads continued, for being different, and perhaps because of the aftermath of historic beliefs. On into the 21st century, discrimination against red hair unfortunately still exists like any minority and even as I write this I realise that it sounds ridiculous and exaggerated. However that is exactly what Tesco’s may have been thinking when there was uproar over one of its Christmas cards in 2009 which stated, ‘Santa loves all kids. Even Ginger ones.’ However harmless the intentions it cannot be denied that if ‘Ginger’ was replaced by ‘Black’ or ‘Fat’ for example, the card would not have even made the shelves due to its tastelessness.
Having learnt that throughout history gingers have accrued stereotypes such as violent, over-sexed, evil and treacherous it is evident that not only have redheads been wholly misrepresented but also overlooked as a genuine minority. Whilst the vestiges of this still exist today, obviously it is not as extensive as in the past – indeed, I am glad the worst I can expect is a few jokes or nicknames rather than being branded a witch.