The Consequence of Seeing Red


The social narrative for redheads is a double-edged sword, with the lovable, quirky, positive image juxtaposed against a much darker perception.

In ages past, red hair had a direct association with witchcraft and the occult. It served as evidence of Satanic ties, rumored to be favored by the devil himself. Witch hunters kept watch for fiery locks, and were advised to consider them an outward sign of evil hearts.

I heard, once upon a time, that for England at least, this came because redheads were prevalent among the Celtic tribes: the Irish, Scottish, Cornish, and Welsh. The Irish in particular, removed on their island and resistant to British rule, maintained close ties with their pagan folklore and roots, with the “other-izing” effect that they were perceived as more attuned to supernatural elements.

This belief that red hair marked a witch or other supernatural being was not restricted only to the British Isles, however, but cropped up across Northern Europe. This negative narrative echoes into present day, where red hair can yet signal a social outlier.

The “redheaded stepchild” motif plays into this narrative, as does the bullying that some redheads suffer as a result of their hair color. “Better dead than red,” the saying goes, and many a redhead has sloughed it off as best they could.

Infamously, South Park dedicated an episode to “gingers,” which spawned the ongoing meme that redheads are soulless, as well as inspiring a “Kick-a-Ginger Day” observance among some over-zealous middle-schoolers. And, of course, the Internet is rife with such negative stereotypes.

Redheads are the perpetual outcast, the default whipping boy for the rest of society—or society of European descent, at least. I would say it’s astonishing that a simple physical characteristic could spawn such irrational patterns of thought and behavior, but this seems to be the general modus operandi for much of the human race. Redheads are not the first, nor are they the most abused on the spectrum of victims.

Ginger Pride, too, is alive and well. (As it should be, because we’re awesome.)

For authors who create redheaded characters, whether to fill the role of protagonist or antagonist, the many social concerns of redheads must come into play, at least in the character development stage. Does the society of your story view red hair as a positive feature? A negative one? Is it noted at all? How will that perception shape your character’s worldview? (And believe me, it will.)

Most importantly, is the red hair simply one of your character’s features or is it a full-blown personality trait?

If it’s the latter, you’re playing into a stereotype. Proceed with caution.

Secrets of a Rare Breed


Blog articles abound on redhead statistics: anywhere from 1-4% of the world’s population has this coloration, it’s more prevalent in Northern European countries (from the British Isles over to Russia), and it’s a recessive trait caused by a mutation of the MC1R gene, so it can skip generations.

A few years back, a piece even circulated about how redheads are going extinct. (That was false, by the way.)

I could parrot these articles and give you lots of readily accessible redhead facts. Instead, I’m going to discuss a less-acknowledged coppertop attribute.

To start: natural redheads can usually spot a dye job a mile away. We’re conditioned to see our hair as part of our identity, and we know when someone’s trying to break into the club.

A common phrase among redheads: “This color doesn’t come from a bottle.” For clarification on why this statement is so true, I spoke with Rashelle du Pont, hair stylist extraordinaire. Rashelle, a fellow redhead, is an artist when it comes to hair color. She gets to work with a lot of redheads from young to old, with every tone from strawberry-blond to dark auburn, and she’s an expert at matching the natural color to a shade.

(She’s also my cousin. Have I mentioned that my maternal relatives consider red hair to be a badge of honor and evidence of divine favor? They do, and of course it is.)

According to Rashelle, the spectrum of red hair covers more than just the light-to-dark continuum. Most people think of the fiery red tones when they hear the word “redhead,” but copper, auburn, and ginger all have their place in this color family. What’s more, red hair also incorporates both a warm and a cool spectrum of color.

And most bottle-jobs skew too far to the warm side. When your Lucille Balls and Emma Stones of the world sport that vibrant shade of red that leaps off the screen and looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true. (Both Lucille and Emma were/are natural blondes.)

The cool-toned reds get easily overlooked, but this is the link that your bottle-reds are missing. Rashelle’s custom formula for “the perfect auburn” involves a 50/50 mixture of copper (warm) and what she terms an “ashy bluish-green” (cool). And, from the sounds of it, that’s an easy combo. She mixes 4-5 colors to match some shades of red.

What can I say? Redheads are naturally complex.

As you can probably imagine, this warm/cool combo throws all the fashion color theories out the window, but those theories were created for blondes and brunettes anyway. Redheads almost need their own line of makeup and their own color palette for clothes. However, as only ~2% of the population suffers from this lack, we make do with what we have.

I will admit, though, that my world opened up the day my Great-Aunt Elise (also a hair stylist) disclosed, “Honey, you’re a blue-red, not an orange-red.” All my life up until then, I’d been told that my hair color was warm, which left me to wonder why I looked so horrible in warm-colored clothes.

These days I like to toy with the cool/warm ambiguity. I can tip my green eyes over to blue with the right makeup. I’ve found the perfect shade of orange I can wear (more in the copper spectrum, naturally). I know which colors will wash me out and which ones will turn me pink.

And the cardinal rule? When in doubt, wear black.

(Red hair really should come with an owner’s manual.)

Now, you may be thinking, “But Kate, blondes and brunettes have this warm/cool spectrum as well.” And of course they do. But what does someone say when they’re a warm blonde or a warm brunette?

“Hey, I have some red in my hair.”

Yeah. Sure you do. Welcome to the club.

Cue the Lovable, Quirky Hijinks


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.)