January 29, 2003: Perspective

Seeing red
“There are dozens of books on blondes,” my husband said. “Why don’t you write one on your species?”

By Anne Margaret Daniel *99


Anne Margaret Daniel *99 is a lecturer in the English department at Princeton. She hopes to finish her book, Redheads, this summer.

"Redheaded women buck like goats.” So pronounces James Joyce’s stately, plump Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, about to plunge into the Forty Foot with Lily, the red Carlisle girl, on his mind. Like so many writers and artists before and since, even Joyce, that allegedly unprejudiced and democratic writer of the modern everyday, succumbed to classic stereotypes of the redhead. Hot-tempered, hot and tempting, quick to anger and quick to bed, quirky and queenly, rare and russet, redheads are the stuff of fantasy and nightmare. As his lover Caroline Lamb famously wrote of the auburn-haired Lord Byron (who oiled his hair to make it look darker), they are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. And “the redhead” has not changed, in art or letters or other modes of cultural representation, for a very long time.

This made me mad. A redhead myself, I noticed the stereotyping everywhere: in paintings from all centuries, in museums around the world; in London newspapers and New Jersey bars; in billboard and magazine advertisements; in so many of the Victorian and modern English novels I was using as I wrote my dissertation at Princeton in the mid-1990s. My late husband, Garrick Grobler ’86, laughed when I got mad, pointing out how I was, predictably, acting just like a redhead. “There are dozens of books on blondes,” he said. “Why don’t you write one on your species?” When I finished my dissertation in 1999, I began to do just that.

Redheads is a long, loose study of redheads from around 1600 to the present, primarily, although not exclusively, based in English, Irish, and American literature. It includes redheaded men, real (Henry VIII, Thomas Jefferson, Red Grange, Ralph Fiennes) and representational (Uriah Heep, the “’umble” villain of David Copperfield; Giotto’s Judas; Harry Potter’s sidekick Ron Weasley). But redheaded men aren’t what we think of when someone says “redhead.” We think of the dizzy and dazzling Katharine Hepburn, or Lucille Ball, or the lavish and lustful Rita Hayworth, or Nicole Kidman. Copperheads are relentlessly interesting and irresistibly perilous.

In courtly literature, every mention of “golden” hair means red, says Oxford’s Jonathan Wordsworth; gold, in Renaissance times, looked rather more like today’s bright copper, the pinkish gold Venetians still call “Venetian Blonde.” What red hair denotes is not so much a courtly nobility, though, but power, whether the power to do great harm or have another sort of enduring impact. Painters as well as poets used red hair for this purpose; paintings from Botticelli’s strawberry-blonde Venus to the lavish women of Rembrandt and Rubens to nearly every Mary Magdalen put on canvas bear it out. Judas and John the Baptist, outsiders on opposite ends of good and evil, are consistently redheads. Donatello’s haunting, terrifying sculpture of Mary Magdalen, covered from head to bare feet in a flood of orange, is unforgettable. But my favorite iconic redheads are on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 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.

The stereotype remains the same in every period and in every mode and genre: Redheads are different, unpredictable, fascinating, entertaining, peril-seeking outsiders, from Gulliver’s Travels to Pre-Raphaelite models, from Anne of Green Gables (constantly creative and in trouble) to The Little Mermaid (Disney’s Ariel, with her long pouf of red hair, who disobeys her father and abjures her people to get the prince in the end).

No place provides more redheads in its literature than Ireland, as I realized more than ever while preparing the survey course of 1,000 years of Irish literature I’m currently teaching at the New School University in New York. The fiery-haired beasts and demons of the Book of Kells presage Jonathan Swift’s female Yahoos, most dangerous to poor Gulliver when “the hair of the Brute [is] of a Red Colour” and there’s the “Excuse for an Appetite a little irregular.” Yeats, a dark-haired Anglo-Irishman, clung to redheadness for validity as he created himself Superbard of ancient Erin, constantly invoking an appropriate lineage: “a red-haired Yeats whose looks, although he died/Before my time, seem like a vivid memory.” Joyce’s work, particularly Ulysses, abounds with redheads, from the “bronze by gold” barmaids of the Ormond Hotel, Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, to Molly’s flaming-haired lover Blazes Boylan. The many redheads in contemporary Irish poetry and song, including Princeton Professor Paul Muldoon’s “paprika-haired” girls, carry the redhead into today.

Why do people without red hair dye their hair red, anyway? Of course, no natural redhead really has red hair – candy-apple, fire-engine, traffic-light red hair, that is – without the help of the dyes that enable anyone in need of feeling more alive to “pass” as a redhead for awhile. I have interviewed salon owners and stylists in American cities, London, and Rome, as well as people, mostly women, who have gone red. They generally do it, as a colorist at Frederic Fekkai in New York said, “because life sucks and they want it brighter.” One of my chapters is on redheads in 20th-century “gentlemen’s magazines,” particularly Playboy, where they have reigned triumphant since the first cover girl, a peroxide blonde with chestnut hair named Marilyn. And they inhabit – and haunt – popular song, from ballads of times long past to contemporary songs by Bob Dylan (“Tangled Up in Blue”) and local Jersey bard Bruce Springsteen (the raunchy “Red-Headed Woman”).

I’ll finish my research this summer in Ireland and Scotland, the two countries with the highest percentages of naturally occurring redheads. Both countries, and England, have political organizations devoted to protecting redheads as minorities under law; England’s RedAndProud is most active. Legislation has been drafted to combat discrimination against redheads, particularly the young and school-aged, and the groups have attacked companies using advertising that makes fun of redheads. In May 2000, the English energy company Npower tried to drum up business with an ad showing an unattractive redheaded family with the tagline, “There are some things in life you can’t choose.” The Advertising Standards Authority made them remove the ad after a flurry of complaints. Even ads admiring redheads can cause problems. In November 2000, billboards for shampoo were removed from the Glasgow area after Muslim leaders in the city complained; the ad showed a redhead smiling as she looked down into her bikini bottoms, above the tagline, “Keeps Hair Colour So Long, You’ll Forget Your Natural One.”

We all know stereotypes, suffer from them, and indeed sometimes are guilty of perpetuating them ourselves. Why do stereotypes arise? Perhaps from something as simple as saving us time; if we can fit someone quickly into a pat stereotype, we needn’t take the time to get to know the real person. Why do stereotypes endure? Can they really change, or be laid to rest – and if so, how? What effect do they have on those subjected to them? Within the crimson context, I’ll try to answer some of these much larger questions.

Visit www.princeton.edu/paw/plus for more redheads. Click here.



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