I was nine years old when Disney first released The Little Mermaid. It had a tremendous impact on me.
Strawberry Shortcake, Little Orphan Annie, Raggedy Ann: these were my people. But they were all children, so they were for babies. Insofar as “adults” were concerned, Barbie and Aurora were blondes, Snow White had black hair, and Cinderella, a strawberry blonde in the movie, was rendered blonde everywhere else, as though her red hair was a shameful secret to sweep under the rug.
(“Shh! Don’t mention the red hair!”)
Prior to The Little Mermaid, the only significant openly redheaded adult character I had encountered was Jessica Rabbit, from Who Framed Roger Rabbit the previous year. And, as I’ve previously discussed, my parents were less than enthused when I latched onto her as a role model.
So along came Ariel (who was hardly an adult, but to a nine-year-old, sixteen is ancient). She was redheaded, she was grown up, and she was “mine.” All redheaded characters were “mine,” up until I started noticing a pattern in the set.
Spunky Ariel challenged her father’s rule and struck her own path. Sultry Jessica Rabbit sashayed her way to whatever she wanted. Quirky Strawberry, Annie, and Ann used their winsome smiles to endear themselves to everyone. But it wasn’t simply their character. The charm was in the hair.
Red hair is a literary hallmark. Like a beacon on a hill, it instantly alerts the audience, “Hey! This character is different and unique and living outside the box!”
Some literary encounters:
- Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren: Pippi belongs in the same category as Strawberry, Annie, and Ann, except that she’s “quirky” on steroids. Those braids! Those freckles! That name! What’s Pippi up to now? D’aww, there are sure to be some hilarious hijinks from the lovable, quirky redhead.
- Caddie Woodlawn, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink: It’s another lovable, quirky redhead! And she’s a tomboy, too! What’s that quirky Caddie up to today? Off riding horses or playing with Indians? D’aww, there are sure to be some hilarious hij—hang on. Didn’t I already do this bit?
- Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: Look! It’s another precocious, fanciful, lovable redhead! And the hijinks! Of course! Anne wouldn’t have been nearly as precocious or fanciful or lovable as a dirty-blonde or a brunette, amirite? Half of her character is built from her hair color. And she hates it. Like, she constantly laments having red hair, to the extent that I started to question my worldview. Was I supposed to hate my hair too?
- Aerin, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley: Say goodbye to quirks and hijinks. This novel broadened my understanding of the negative side of red hair. Aerin, the witchwoman’s daughter, an outcast from her dark-haired countrymen, faces isolation from her own family because of her fiery locks. She’s actually not quirky. She’s also not out-of-the-box by choice. She’s been shoved out because she doesn’t belong. So, breath of fresh air and depressing all at the same time. Hooray…?
- The Weasley Family, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling: Oh, look! We’re magic and could probably build ourselves a castle with magic, but we’re a whole lovable family of super-quirky redheads, so we’re going to live in a super-quirky shambles of a shack that we’ll call The Burrow. It’s so quirky! Did we mention that we all have red hair? And that we’re quirky?
Okay, so I might have already reached my disillusionment stage by the time I encountered Harry Potter. I know that people absolutely love the Weasleys, and I probably would have loved them too if they were a family of blonds or brunets, or a mixture of hair colors. But the whole “quirky gingers” vibe put me off because it’s already flippin’ everywhere. And since the only other redhead in the series (if I recall correctly) was Lily Potter—who is dead on Page 1—as a redhead, I found the “lovable, quirky outcasts” just a bit too stereotypical.
Oh, but that’s just one of my quirks, I suppose. It came with the hair color.
(I guess the “lovable” trait takes some actual work, haha.)