A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine
NOT so very long ago I was sitting on a train trying to read an article by the journalist Brendan O’Neill. I say that I was ‘trying’ as across from me sat a group of teenagers who did not appear to have considered the idea that train journeys might afford other passengers the opportunity to read. Their conversation was loud though not especially obnoxious; not at least until it veered onto the topic of someone called Lindsay’s new boyfriend. “He’s that ugly ginger guy, is he not?” guessed one of the boys, correctly as it turned out. All were agreed that the lad in question was indeed “well ginger”, a “minger” and, further, “a ginger bastard.”
O’Neill’s article was about race. As far as I recall he was arguing that the issue, in the west, is now one of etiquette: the white liberal establishment is more bothered about getting everyone to use the correct race language than striving towards anything as tricky as actual equality. It was a view I have time for, but, in that moment, as a red-haired person on that train, another line of thought occurred to me. Gingers, I reflected, have never been seen as less than human; we have never been enslaved, rounded up and massacred or even denied our basic legal rights. There’s no real question of inequality. And yet, and yet: maybe we could be doing with more of a look-in when it comes to this business of etiquette.
People being rude about ginger hair is never all that surprising but hearing such obloquy from adolescent mouths again was a reminder that kids are generally nastier brutes than adults. I don’t have any particularly feverish memories of having been bullied as a boy, but I do remember around the age of six or seven earnestly wishing I did not have red hair anymore and believe I even went some way to convincing myself that indeed I did not.
This involved no small measure of cowardliness. My older brother, also a redhead, also adorned with freckles, was my advance party. Being a fairly rugged infant he had worked out that the best way of dealing with unhelpful epithets was to strike back at others with impunity, shot-across-the-bows style. In the sibling context, that meant picking on me on account of being both scrawny and ginger. Clear as day, I saw that if he could get away with this then so could I; and to my shame I duly set about taunting a girl who lived nearby and whose hair, we decided, was “orange”.
There is a recent novel, written by Laura Marney, called Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby. Ginger babies with loving parents will have baulked at this – and, given the chance, thrown Marney’s book in her face – but there is little doubt that, growing up, redheads fall prey to more slings and arrows than their less radiantly-bonced peers. What displacements, what hurts, one wonders, will fester in the minds of the two red-haired sisters who were attacked at school in Alberta, Canada in November following a campaign on Facebook to start a National Kick a Ginger Day? Down the way, Americans are supposedly kinder to redheads – standing out from the crowd is, perhaps, something to which Americans instinctively warm – but the campaign was seemingly inspired by an episode of the animated US TV show South Park in which the clinically obese Cartman decides people with red hair are soulless and evil.
Over here, a red-haired family in Newcastle were in the news in 2007 after being terrorised into moving home, twice. Kevin and Barbara Chapman’s four children, all aged between 10 and 13, had been routinely kicked and punched in the street, they had had their windows smashed and at one address thugs daubed “ginger is gay” on the outside of the property. It is all very well surmising that people bent on being thuggish will reach for any excuse and that the Chapmans’ neighbours therefore targeted the family simply because they were somehow different and not because of their hair colour per se. And it is all very well (though it might land you in bother) explaining such behaviour away by clutching for bromides about Geordies being uncouth or indeed Canadians backwards. The Chapmans’ story is a shocking one and a rebuke to the idea that people with ginger hair are simply over-sensitive to jokes and gibes.
In 2002, a Big Brother contestant was held up for ridicule when it emerged that he dyed his red hair black, a revelation that somehow licensed sundry tabloid hacks to wonder whether or not he also dyed his pubic hair. Some – including the auburn-haired editor of this magazine – have wondered whether this kind of public ‘dissing’ of red hair is evidence that attitudes towards it in Britain have ossified or regressed over the last 20 years or so. Perhaps they have. And yet it may be that what has regressed – as the BBC has been finding to its cost of late – is popular culture and its idea of what is actually funny.
Two years before that, in 2000, 219 complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Agency after the electricity and gas company npower ran a poster campaign featuring a photograph of a ginger-haired family along with the slogan: “There are some things in life you can’t choose.” The ASA decided not to uphold the complaints as “the light-hearted humour of the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.” I find it difficult to get hot and bothered about this sort of thing – and yet I wonder how such humour would have played had the family been, say, brown-skinned.
A redhaired girl I knew at school and who is now a teacher, believes she knows the answer. A couple of years ago she was verbally abused over a sustained period by a group of pupils. She believes epithets like “ginger cow” were chosen merely as the most obvious route to undermining her authority, but adds: “Other people, even other teachers, thought that was funny more than anything else. If it had been something of a racial nature, it would have been a much more serious matter in the eyes of the local authority or the police.”
The comedienne Catherine Tait poked fun at attitudes towards ginger hair – from the betwixt and between of strawberry blond to siren red and deep russet – in a series of television sketches in 2005. Ginger “freaks”, it turned out, were being terrorised by hate mobs and had congregated in a refuge shelter, away from the loathing of “normal” people. As a portrayal of victimisation it pushed the limits of comedy to the wall, and probably wouldn’t have been seen as funny at all if the joke hadn’t been built around the exaggeration of what most people see as trifling, low-level prejudice. Tait was able to carry this off precisely because she is a redhead.
Others, one would suppose, might take a more cautious approach. Not so Zadie Smith, the chick who put multiculturalism on the post-colonial literary map – and someone you’d rather expect not to make appearance part of a character assassination. In her breakthrough novel, White Teeth, she introduces her readers to Horst, “an enormous man with strawberry-blond hair, orange freckles, and misaligned nostrils, who dressed like an international playboy and seemed too large for his bike.” There’s nothing particularly nasty about the description but neither is there a point to it. We do not meet Horst again. Elsewhere, in Smith’s short story The Trials of Finch, Ruth Finch is a misfit, unloved and unloveable. Her visible traits are afforded no little delineation: Finch is “stout, orange-haired, and stacked front and back like the Hottentot Venus; she wore a big red face that looked always as if she’d been fishing in a storm.” She has “an unfinished face, boneless and round, dominated by hulking spectacles” and “wore an unfortunate red jumper paired with a more unfortunate pair of orange dungarees.” Smith’s idees fixes about redness seem too incontinent to be merely incidental.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission – formerly the Commission for Racial Equality and a body, incidentally, no longer as enamoured with the ideology of multiculturalism as once it was – does not monitor cases of discrimination against redheads and has nothing to say on the matter of ‘gingerism’. In any discussion of how the phenomenon compares or relates to racism, it will be pointed out firstly that red hair comes from mutations of a particular gene, the melanocortin 1 receptor, and isn’t necessarily directly inherited from parents; and secondly that redheads have not suffered centuries of systematic abuse. Yet if we accept that black people are capable of being racist towards whites, or that whites of one nation can be accused of being racist towards whites of another, then definitions of racism become somewhat less watertight.
Helen Cuinn, a young performance artist from Glasgow, believes being unpleasant towards ginger-haired people has become “the last legally acceptable form of discrimination”. And she knows a thing or two about that unpleasantness. “It sounds really stupid,” she says, “but a lot of people really don’t like red-haired children. I had a lot of negative experiences when I was younger. I had very thick, tight, dark red curls and people would spit on me at school and in the street. When I stopped being an adolescent and got older suddenly I was considered sexy, which really crept in without me noticing. When I worked in a bar guys used to tell me I looked like Nicole Kidman, which just isn’t true, but there’s this notion of red-haired women being sort of beacons, sirens even, which I think you can trace back to some of the red-haired Hollywood icons of the 30s and 40s.”
Now, Cuinn says, she’s happy with the way she looks, though she still contends with insults from strangers. At the RSAMD, where she studied Contemporary Theatre Practice, she developed an interest in identity politics and queer theory – yet more than being gay, interestingly, it is her experience of growing up with red hair “hanging over me” that informs her work. Her current project, The Hair on My Head is Dead – a reference to the wig she had made of it in all its former glory and which she now wears only when she wants to – has so far involved “performed installations” at festivals around the UK, including the Arches Live! event in Glasgow, and is to be developed into a piece of theatre, “part stand-up, part one-woman play” that will run as part of this year’s Glasgay festival.
“Through drawing attention to my hair, I’m hoping to examine the assumptions people make based on the way others look,” she says of it. “I’ve been thinking about this my entire life. Hair is a multi-million pound industry – people really do care about it. It’s seen as something women care about more than men; but we’re told it’s a superficial thing and it’s our personality underneath that counts. In actual fact, the image you present is the first indicator of who you are and people absolutely make judgements.
“Your race or your creed or the way you look is exactly who you are. Bizarrely, in Scotland – where we’ve got more red-haired people than anywhere else in the world – it’s completely fine to sort of slag that off. My work is quite tongue-in-cheek – I think I’m entitled to have a humour and negativity about it. Making jokes at your own expense is quite a Scottish way of dealing with things, actually.”
Cuinn is interested in drawing out some of the stereotypes that inform contemporary attitudes towards red hair. On mainland Britain, anti-Irish sentiment dating back to the pressures brought about by mass migration in the wake of the potato famine may have had an impact, yet many believe the most durable slurs date from mediaeval times. Certainly in early morality plays colours tended to be used to signify good and evil and red was like to be associated with the devil, his associates, werewolves and the degenerate.
Even before then, Judas Iscariot was believed to have had red hair, and the ancient stereotype of the Jews was that they all had it – even on the Elizabethan stage this held currency, with Shakespeare’s Jewish money-lender Shylock in the Merchant of Venice tending to sport a red wig. Shakespeare, indeed, called red “the dissembling colour.” Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology, and the personification of lust, turned out to be a redhead somewhere along the line, too, and was later painted in that guise by Gabriel Dante Rossetti, but sales of hair dye among god-fearing redhaired women must surely have bottomed out when not one but two of their own – Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots – ruled entire kingdoms, albeit the English queen subsequently had her French cousin killed.
The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth, is seen as having been a moderate, sensible sort of a monarch – at least when held up against her father, Henry VIII, another redhead – but Mary’s fiery temperament was more in-keeping with the idea of redhaired women being flighty and sensuous. It was by the 16th Century common for artists to paint Mary Magdalene – another biblical figure associated with sin and desire – with long red hair, while over in Venice Titian was busy painting so many red-haired women he eventually lent his name to a shade of the colour.
Even into our own age redhaired women, from Rita Hayworth and Katherine Hepburn to Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Kidman are seen as sultry and glamorous. That glamour has tended to escape ginger men. The journalist James Medd, though not a redhead himself, wrote in the Guardian last year about being the father of redhaired sons. He now believes ginger to the best hair colour going, but suggested a little positive discrimination might go a long way towards increasing its popularity. Forget Christopher Columbus, Napoleon and Churchill – a few new ginger role models, Medd believes, are what we need now.
“Movie stars like Robert Redford and Damien Lewis have that kind of strawberry blonde shade that’s always been quite popular,” he told me. “The test is darker red hair and freckles – I don’t know how people would respond to that being more visible on television or in movies. Proper red hair is still kind of stigmatized, or else it’s the geeky side-kick who has it – Biggles’s mate, or Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. Weasley is such a kind of cliched, geeky redhead, although he does get the girl (Hermione) in the end, doesn’t he? Maybe she’s doing her bit!”
Medd lives in London where school playgrounds are full of every skin colour and creed imaginable but there are, proportionally, fewer gingers than here – three per cent of people in the British Isles have red hair but that rises to 13 per cent in Scotland. He admits to being slightly worried about bullying, but adds: “It’s been really good so far. No-one has said anything negative about my boys in public and they’ve had nothing at school, although the eldest is now eight so I guess this is about the time it would be likely to start.
“When I grew up it was seriously bad luck to be a redhead. You were bullied; it was considered ugly, straight off the bat. But when I grew up racism and homophobia were also rife and people would use words like ‘spazz.’ Those things have changed. It just seems that anti-gingerism is still socially acceptable in a way that political correctness hasn’t reached it yet, but I do think things have improved.”
Regardless of whether this is mere wishful thinking, Medd and I are agreed that any sort of monitoring of people’s behaviour around redheads would not be constructive. It may be that the proscription of other forms of discrimination has made slights towards gingers more common, or at least more conspicuous, but it is unlikely that the badging up of yet another minority group would do anything much for social cohesion. Everyone has the right – and sometimes it is a duty – to be offended; but it would be difficult to argue that we have the right not to be offended. Charles Kennedy for the next James Bond, anyone?