Review: ‘Red: A History of the Redhead’ by Jacky Collins Harvey

RED: A History of the Redhead. Jacky Colliss Harvey. Black Dog & Leventhal. 230 pages. $28.
RED: A History of the Redhead. Jacky Colliss Harvey. Black Dog & Leventhal. 230 pages. $28.

Is red hair a blessing or a curse? To answer that question, art critic and redhead Jacky Colliss Harvey sets out to trace the history of this genetic mutation and to untangle the stereotypes associated with ginger, strawberry blond, auburn or chestnut locks. Not even those descriptions are neutral: As (carrot-topped) Mark Twain explained, “When red-headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.”

Whatever you call it, red hair attracts attention. Hollywood stars from Rita Hayworth to Lucille Ball to Christina Hendricks have banked on the notice-me power of natural or dyed red hair, and for better or worse, in daily life, it’s impossible to hide. “It is, with me, as with many other redheads, the single most significant characteristic of my life,” Harvey writes. “If that sounds a little extreme to you, well, you’re obviously not a redhead, are you?”

Contrary to what many people assume, redheads did not originate in Scandinavia, Scotland or Ireland, but in central Asia. Their coloring is due to a mutation in the MC1R gene that fails to produce sun-protective, skin-darkening eumelanin and instead causes pale skin, freckles and red hair. As our distant ancestors migrated to settle the cool, gray climes of Northern Europe, redheads had a signal advantage over their darker peers: Their pale skin produced vitamin D more efficiently from the wan sunlight, strengthening their bones and making women more likely to survive pregnancy and childbirth. But the gene is recessive and thrives mainly in remote regions and closed communities such as Ireland, Scotland and coastal regions of Scandinavia. Its rarity and vulnerability have, over the years, given rise to a host of stereotypes and myths, from fears of witchcraft to the modern canard that red hair is on the verge of extinction.

Harvey is British, which sharpens her awareness of red hair stereotyping in ways that might seem strange to American readers, who haven’t grown up with the cliches that red hair makes girls punchy and boys puny, and who aren’t used to hearing “ginger” deployed as an insult.

But the stereotyping of redheads goes far beyond playground hair-pulling, and as even non-redheads realize, it is sharply gender-segregated. Notwithstanding the occasional rise of a star like Ewan McGregor or Damian Lewis, redheaded men are rarely seen as sex symbols. Most redheaded women, on the other hand, remember the moment when their hair changed “with bewildering rapidity” from a target for bullies to a target for admirers. The pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, jumping out of a hansom cab in London in 1865 in pursuit of a beautiful teenager he wanted to model for him, is just an extreme version of a familiar type.

This particular artistic fascination has a long history. Among several engaging mini-lessons in the iconography of red hair, Harvey analyzes the evolution of Mary Magdalene into a redhead, as visual shorthand for her sexual knowledge as a reformed prostitute (and a contrast to the blue-robed Virgin Mary). Even with the scantiest of evidence, historians have been tempted to collapse legendary women, such as the Celtic Queen Boudicca, into the enduring archetype of “the flame-haired seductress, exotic, sensual, impulsive, passionate.” Even Cleopatra, queen of a country not exactly overpopulated with the pale and pre-Raphaelite, is rumored to have had red hair. It makes little logical sense, but given her personality, Harvey asks rhetorically, “What other color would it be?”

In her final chapter, Harvey travels to Breda, in the Netherlands, to attend “Redhead Days,” the biggest worldwide gathering of people who share her rare hair color, and is briefly overwhelmed to confront what she calls “an incandescence, a frenzy, an apocalypse of redheads.” The festival, started somewhat accidentally in 2005 by a Dutch artist, has grown to a gathering of 6,000 people from all over the world, from Ireland to New Zealand to Senegal: men who’ve been bullied and women who are eye-rollingly familiar with those pre-Raphaelite redhead-chasers. The festival’s growth has been spurred not only by social media but also by a growing awareness that anti-ginger discrimination is rooted in the same impulse — to reduce physical attributes to objects of fear and fetish — that fuels much more violent forms of racism. The awareness underpins this lighthearted but erudite history, making it relevant even to readers who have never tried to get away with calling their hair “titian.”

Joanna Scutts reviewed this book for The Washington Post.