05 December 2015

Red hair - adored or despised?

Red: A Natural History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey (Allen & Unwin 2015) is a book written for me! At 20 I decided I was going to marry a red head and have babies with gorgeous hair, but there weren’t too many Jewish men in Melbourne in 1969 who qualified. Then I saw a handsome redhead from Sydney who met all my important criteria - Joe was single, could play bridge well and had left wing politics. 45 years later his red hair is a bit faded but one of our sons still has reddish hair and two of the grandsons have stunning red hair.

Needless to say, my art historian eyes are always attracted to red heads in art work, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti sought out women like Elizabeth Siddal as their model because her long red tresses were stunning. And the Post-Impressionists, especially Edgar Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, regularly highlighted the red hair in many of the women they painted.

Strangely to me, Colliss Harvey established that the world was ambivalent about red hair throughout history. This ambivalence might have started with the redheaded penitent whore Mary Magdalene, as Western art and literature created her. She was “the single most important reason why Western religious attitudes toward redheaded men and redheaded women diverge so thoroughly".

But, Colliss Harvey added, the antagonism may be racist as well. "If you want to look for reasons for the continuing and increasing antipathy towards redheads in medieval Europe, in particular red-headed men, look no further than its anti-Semitism”. Judas was often depicted in medieval and Renaissance art with red locks. I had to pay close attention here because I had never heard that in medieval Germany, freckles were called judasdreck/dirt. Did this view of the Biblical Judas spark a long-standing association between Jewish people and red-headedness, or did the association in real medieval life alter how Judas was depicted?  In the mid 19th century, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Fagin was described as a shrivelled Jew with a villainous-looking face that was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair .

Colliss Harvey's book cover
La Ghirlandata (Alexa Wilding), 124 x 85 cm
Guildhall Gallery, London
painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1873

I was less interested in the scientific information in the book, but my husband liked it. Red hair is a recessive gene that occurs in only 2% of the world’s population. Red heads may have a stronger immune system than ordinary dark haired and blond compatriots, but they run greater risks of melanomas and endomet­riosis, are more sensitive to extremes of temperature and are more sensitive to pain. Are red heads more fiery and sexually alluring? Apparently redheads do produce more adrenaline than others and their bodies access it more rapidly, so the fiery temper and the transition to the fight-or-flight response seem to be pheromonally caused. Red heads are more likely to be stung by bees, and, as my husband will say, are much more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes.

Examine the Redhead Map of Europe in the book. Perhaps there is some controversy over the accuracy of such maps, but what it shows is the Red Centre is the Udmurt population on the River Volga in Russia and the relatively high frequency (10+%) of red hair to the north and west i.e Scandinavia, Iceland, Britain and Ireland.

One of my grandchildren

Colliss Harvey was most useful when she acknowledged that while red hair has always been seen as Other, it was always a white-skinned Other. In the aristocracy of skin, discrimination was rarely overtly practised against those with white skin. Yet we still have biases against red hair in language and in attitudes of unthinking mistrust that would not be tolerated against a religious group or a gay group. And these expressions of prejudice slip under the radar; it is as if prejudice against hair colour does not count. Is it worse that red hair in men equals Bad while in women it equals Good, or at least sexually interesting, perky (Anne of Green Gables) or winningly cute (Little Orphan Annie)? How bizarre! Culturally, the author notes, it seems we can get our heads around red-haired men as both psycho­pathically violent AND as unmasculine and wimpish.

In typical Australian style, a long standing slang tradition is to take a word and perversely use it as the opposite of its intended meaning. No better known illustration of this is the word Bluey, a nickname for someone with red hair. 1969 has come and gone but the older generation still calls my husband... Blue!


Andrew said...

I smiled a lot as I read this. I find red haired men 'exciting'.

Pommy said...

I would blame those invading, pillaging Vikings for birthing red haired babies in places like Scotland. Orkney is a great example of incoming Norwegians.

the foto fanatic said...

We have a 2yo girl in our family with red hair - in fact almost mahogany - and she is just beautiful!

She also has alabaster skin and a smile that would melt the hardest of hearts.

We will have to be wary of the harsh Queensland sun on her skin.

Hels said...


agreed 100%. That is why reading this book was both exciting and a bit strange. Jacky Colliss Harvey said we (her British audience, I am assume) still have biases against red hair in language and in attitudes of unthinking mistrust. My experience is that red heads are hot and the worst anyone ever says is something benign like "watch out for that child. He/she may have a fiery temper in a few years".

Hels said...


how about that for timing :) We were talking about Orkney and its Norwegian heritage in lectures just last week. But never mentioned the redhead legacy!

Hels said...

foto fanatic

Your little girl will certainly attract lots of attention. Deservedly.

But while red hair and white skin might be protective in Sweden, Scotland and Russia, they are a real risk in hot climates. My husband learned at a very early age that, before he goes outside in summer, he has to cover himself with thick suntan cream over every inch of skin, a big hat and a t-shirt.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am wondering if this author might not be exaggerating a bit. I don't think that at least in the last couple of centuries, there has been any general prejudice against redheads. I have on the other hand often encountered the attitudes/stereotypes of quick tempers, pretty redheaded women, and cute or humorous children. The Life With Father series (one of my favorites) recounts the adventures of a redheaded family with four sons, a point which is made much of in the movie version.

Hels said...


I agree that the historical prejudices largely disappeared from modern thought at least 200 years ago. History is important of course, but it needs to be accurate.

Life of a Redhead (http://www.lifeofaredhead.com/the-ugly.html) wrote: "During the Spanish Inquisition, flame coloured hair was evidence that its owner had stolen the fire of hell and had to be burned as a witch. During the witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, many women were burned at the stake as witches merely because they had red hair". I have a problem with that. The Spanish Inquisition was too busy rooting out real threats to the Catholic Church and rarely bothered with witch trials. The Protestant countries of Northern Europe DID care very much about witches but I cannot find another reference to red hair. Moles, familiars etc yes.

Joseph said...

I was looking at advertising on tv. Last year Inquisitr reported that redheads are not all too common, but people are suddenly seeing them more often on TV. Redheads are popping up everywhere in commercials during prime time. According to NBC News, a new study has determined that 30 percent of network commercials feature at least one person who is a redhead. Redheads clearly sell products.

Hels said...


*nod* agreed, especially for cute children.

But do you remember this (2010)? A series of viral clips aimed at influencing the behaviour of young Victorian drivers, depicting a number of situations that were intended to be seen as undesirable. The voice-over in all advertisements said “Don’t be a dickhead, don’t use your phone in the car".

The Advertising Standards Bureau responded to complaints eg1 "These ads in my view vilify a minority group. In particular the advertisement which takes aim at a racial subgroup who are characterised by red hair and fair skin". eg2 "I'm a red head and I'm a teacher. I find the use of the word ginger highly highly offensive". eg3 "Ridiculing an ethnic minority in a boorish and highly offensive manner. This ad will lead to red headed children being bullied and teased and is completely inappropriate for a government to endorse".

Ann ODyne said...

LOVE redheads, male and female. My dear friend whose red hair is now silvery says he was always so proud of them when he put his 3 redhead children onto the school bus out here in a tiny town of the far far west.
I love that everybody who adores him refers to HRH Prince Harry as Prince Hot Ginge.

Hels said...


agreed 100%. Not only attractive to look at and sexy to live with, but why shouldn't children have some quality that allows them to be just a little bit individual? School uniform is a wonderful idea but of the 1,500 children at my grandson's school, he is one of the children that attracts attention.

At the moment my grandson is saying he would rather be the same as everyone else. But I promised him that when he is 18, and young women are trying to chat him up, he will be very grateful for the red hair!

JahTeh said...

The first time I dyed my hair red, I felt as though I'd come home to the real me. And it was bright, take brownish hair down to platinum blonde then over colour titian red. Standing on a cliff top I could have been a light house plus the locks were almost waist length. A lot shorter now but still flaming.

Hels said...


that is very cute :) I know exactly what you mean.

If there are 23496758203498720985213 people all in their bathing suits on one beach in summer, I can pick out my husband by his red hair and blindingly white skin!!

P R B said...

Lady Godiva was always shown naked and often with long red hair. But her story was unclear. Was she a brave, compassionate, religious woman, standing up to her oppressive husband? Or was she an immodest woman, living out some sort of pagan fertility rite?

Hels said...


I looked up the Collier, Leighton and Rossetti versions of Lady Godiva and yes, rich long and red hair!!

But I cannot find any contemporary history of the naked horse ride around town!!! The 11th century Anglo Saxon noble woman in Coventry was only mentioned as being from a wealthy, landed family. Therefore we might have to accept that the naked body and long hair (red or otherwise) are later fables.

Louise said...

Reading your recent blog post about the book RED, I was fascinated with this excerpt – it explains a lot about the red heads in my family!

"Red hair is a recessive gene that occurs in only 2% of the world’s population. Red heads may have a stronger immune system than ordinary dark haired and blond compatriots, but they run greater risks of melanomas and endomet­riosis...."

Hoping you have a happy Christmas and a bright and shiny New Year.
All the best

Hels said...


me too :)

Thanks for reading the post.

Christianity said...

The devil is often depicted in red in mediaeval imagery, but not invariably - in Chaucer, he's green! - and the most common colour is black. Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie) attributes this to the association of the devil with darkness in general, as God is associated with light (John 1). The night also suggests hiding and secrecy. This has classical (Pluto) precedent but the notion is pretty generic. Meanwhile red means blood, violence and passion. Red-haired people were unfortunately often considered evil because of this connection, and Judas was usually shown with red hair. It is also the colour of fire and the New Testament considers hell to be fiery. There's the red dragon in Revelation 12:3 just to cement it further.

Hels said...


Thank you. Satanic, night, secrecy, blood, violence, passion, darkness, the fires of hell :( Not a ringing endorsement of the devil, is it. I can understand the connection between blood and the colour red, but blood is essential to life! If I wanted to pick on death and misery, I would not depict blood.

Hels said...

At a Brisbane conference this week, Old Testament brothers Esau and Jacob were described in very specific terms. Esau was a redhead, hairy, rough, a man of the fields, a hunter and killer of animals, a cunning man. Jacob was not a redhead, was quiet, scholarly, sensitive to his family's needs, not a hunter-killer of animals.

Perhaps I need to rethink the Biblical origins of distrust of red heads, since nasty Esau was far earlier than nasty Judas. In an early 17th century painting by Giovanni Ferrari, Esau had red hair, wore a red jacket and was begging for Jacob's bowl of red pottage.

Anonymous said...

You may have to alter your opinions on red hair. For evidence I attach the article No Red Hair on Angels, by Russell Lynes, whom you must know as an art and architecture critic. (This is from his anthology Confessions of a Dilettante.) The anonymous writer of the letters seems adamant about the non-angelic quality of red hair. I don't quite recommend disowning your family, although ______ certainly would have.

Take care,

Hels said...


that man who wrote his instructions to the artist was very very adamant, wasn't he? "On angel's hair, no red hair. Red hair is out. No red hair on angels!" In fact I have never seen such minutely detailed instructions to an artist before (re the angels' clothing, colours, flowers, what they were to be sitting on, scrolls in their hands etc).

Perhaps the man was obsessive compulsive about everything. But even then, red hair on angels seemed particularly offensive to him. I wonder if he saw barely-dressed red headed ladies painted by Degas, Renoir, Lautrec etc and was horrified.

Parnassus said...

Or perhaps angels really don't have red hair, a theological point of consideration second in importance only to how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

Hels said...


there is no theological point of consideration so small or so remote that we shouldn't at least consider it :) But then I saw Giovanni Battista di Jacopo's (1494-1540) Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus and lots of putti playing instruments. One gorgeous putto had bright, tussled red hair.

9News said...

More than 1000 proud redheads have taken part in the first Ginger Pride March, which took place in Melbourne's CBD. Ginger-haired Australians travelled from all corners of the country in a bid to raise awareness about bullying against people like themselves.

The event, which was organised by RANGA (Redheads & Nearly Ginger Association) and Buderim Ginger, saw attendees uniting to walk across Princes Bridge to Federation Square. The rally-goers dressed in orange attire and carried slogans that ranged from ‘Drop Red Gorgeous,’ to ‘Day of the Walking Red’ and ‘Nobody Puts Ginger in the Corner’.

The Dutch have held their own annual ginger rally Roodharigendag since 2005.

Hels said...


thank you. I have just written a post about Ignacy Paderewski who should have led the Ginger Pride March! It will appear this month (August 2016).

USA Today said...

Amidst all the hip-hip-hoorays about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's pregnancy announced Monday, there was another group of royal-watchers, especially in the United Kingdom, who were celebrating for a different reason.

"All of us redheads in the U.K. are wildly excited about the possibility of a red-haired baby" says Jacky Colliss Harvey, the proudly red-haired author of the 2015 book. Harry, the most famous ginger prince since at least Henry VIII, is wildly popular around the world, commanding every stage because of his distinctive curly red hair and his gregarious, good-guy persona.

Maria Puente
USA TODAY, Oct. 17, 2018

Hels said...


That is so true. I saw the young royal couple getting close to Australians across Melbourne and Sydney, and kept noticing how cute Prince Harry is. I realise I am biased, but he does stand out in the huge crowds.

Israel21c said...

See beautiful portraits of redheads in a ‘Fifty Shades of Fire’ exhibition in Holon.


By Naama Barak
MARCH 4, 2019

Hels said...


I will admit that I am biased towards red heads... but these portraits are truly beautiful. I hope the exhibition went well.