Redheads -- There, Now You're Listening


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Ghirlandata (1873)
© Guildhall Art Gallery via Rossetti Archive

Redheads. When we hear that word, we don't think of men. We think of women: sexy, manipulative, powerful, dangerous women. A redhead may be dizzy -- think Katharine Hepburn in her early roles, or Lucille Ball -- but she's always hot as well. Generally, she's a copperheaded temptress who gets her way.

This has ever been true. Redheads were viewed as having supernatural powers in ancient Egypt and in Rome, and this stereotype holds today; it's no accident that a pretty little red-haired witch gets to marry Harry Potter (whose mother was a redhead, too) in the end. I've been writing about redheads since 1996, and what people attach to someone's being "a redhead" hasn't changed, in art or literature or other modes of cultural representation, for a very long time.

Back in 1999, I saw the cleaned, newly unveiled Sistine Chapel frescoes in Rome. What stood out to me? The breathtaking difference in Eve, before and after her temptation, now clearly visible for the first time in centuries. As I put it in 2001, "In Michelangelo's fresco of The Temptation, a mousy-brown-haired Eve takes the apple from a glowing-haired, female-breasted serpent. As Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden in the adjoining fresco, her hair, partially covering the face she hides in shame, has turned a pale orange-red." After the fall, Eve's a redhead.


The Temptation and The Expulsion from the Garden, Sistine Chapel

This Renaissance figuring of a redheaded temptress spills out into art and literature for centuries. Jonathan Swift can have Lemuel Gulliver be assaulted by a horny little female Yahoo near the end of Gulliver's Travels (1726) and smirk that of course this happens with a redhead: when "the hair of the Brute [is] of a Red Color" there's the "Excuse for an Appetite a little irregular." Pre-Raphaelite painters loved piling the heads of their muse-models with huge coils of chestnut hair. When Hollywood created the vamp, even given the constraints of black and white film, a tough little redhead from Brooklyn, Clara Bow, became "the 'It' Girl" in 1927 and defined sex for decades of moviegoers. When Jean Harlow, with her reddish brown hair, was styled into a star, she was bleached to blonde because Bow was the redhead to Hollywood. Rita Hayworth, on the other hand, had her hair colored red and built her career as an actress -- and one of the most popular pin-ups of all time -- on the sexy stereotype. Lindsay Lohan carries the torch today, no matter what color her hair may be dyed.


poster for "It" (1927), starring Clara Bow

Redheaded men haven't been so lucky. In Renaissance painting, Judas is often given red hair. Clowns and devils -- Bozo and Sideshow Bob; and ancient and anime devils alike -- are represented with red hair. Ginger men haven't fared better in literature, where they're usually evil characters or playing supporting, often goofy, roles: good examples of each type are Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1849/50) and Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter novels. Redheaded actors have been consigned to largely comic roles (Danny Kaye), or villainous or outsider ones, even if handsome enough to play romantic leads (Ralph Fiennes, Eric Stoltz).

That might all be changing, now. Damian Lewis has stunned viewers and sped pulses on Homeland. Brendan Gleeson has genially and gigantically, and well-nigh singlehandedly, made film's Irish redhead into a man of menace yet refinement, dangerous but also good company. David Tennant brought sexy back to Doctor Who, his naturally red-brown hair proving irrepressible (even though he complained, after his regeneration, of not being ginger). And a new exhibition by producer, performer and photographer Thomas Knights, Red Hot, opened on December 16 at The Gallery in London. The Huffington Post previewed the show in October; Knights, a redhead himself, said, "I would love there to be a public mind shift to allow more positive depictions of ginger men in film and TV." He put it more bluntly last month for The Huffington Post UK: "We have been conditioned to think ginger men are ugly and weak. I wanted to flip this on its head and present the redheaded male as the 'ultimate' alpha male."


Red Hot exhibition poster via

The BBC, Owen O'Neill, and a host of redheads, including me, explored and attacked that conditioning back in 2007. The Ginger Gene documented our efforts to save the gene by, among other things, acknowledging the eye-catching heat of not only redheaded women but men.

Whether Knights's show manages to chip away at the stereotypes of redheaded men will be in the eye of beholders. I absolutely hope he is successful, but he's got a long way to go. Stereotypes, for better or worse, run deep. As Amanda Hess recently pointed out, it's not just that male redheads are clowns and figures of fun, but they're downright reviled. Particularly in England, bullying of redheaded boys is horribly commonplace. Knights's show has the support of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and word has been widespread on social media. New York Magazine reports that Knights is planning a coffee-table book of The Red Hot 100, and a calendar of his models -- showing that they're genuine natural redheads -- is already on sale. The trailer for the exhibition is out, too, with Knights's video accompanied by Salt-n-Pepa's still-sensational Push It (1986). I'll bet you watch it more than once...


Author's note: Yes, I am a redhead.