Red­heads and dread­locks: How our hair de­fines us.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY JOANNA SCUTTS bookworld@wash­ Joanna Scutts is a free­lance writer and board mem­ber of the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle.

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. Red­heads are not that rare, but they tend to be easy tar­gets. (As a pale, freck­led red­head who grew up in Lon­don, I rec­og­nize my own child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence, some­where be­tween teas­ing and bul­ly­ing, in many of Har­vey’s sto­ries.)

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, the “Man with a Thing for Red­heads.”

Ros­setti’s cir­cle was fa­mous for its ob­ses­sion with flow­ing, fiery hair, but 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?”

But when red­headed prej­u­dice (how­ever lauda­tory) is ap­plied to groups rather than in­di­vid­u­als, it tends to turn ugly. In the an­cient world, the Scythi­ans and the Thra­cians, whose lands ex­tended from the Black Sea to the Aegean, were renowned for their ag­gres­sion— and from a patch­work of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence, it seems that they were also fre­quently red­headed. Many of them were cap­tured and en­slaved by the Greeks and then the Ro­mans, mak­ing the con­nec­tion be­tween tough­ness, rough­ness and red­head­ed­ness a long-stand­ing one, ce­mented when Ro­man in­vaders tried to battle up into the north­ern heart­lands of the fierce, ruddy Celts. Then, dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, red hair be­came fixed as a mark of the “other” onto Europe’s Jews, prov­ing the in­fi­nite flex­i­bil­ity of prej­u­dice against both phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance and groups con­sid­ered hos­tile to out­siders.

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. It’s an aware­ness that un­der­pins this light­hearted but eru­dite his­tory, mak­ing it rel­e­vant even to read­ers who have never tried to get away with call­ing their hair “ti­tian.”


Thou­sands of red­headed peo­ple gather from around the world each year on Red­head Day, a fes­ti­val in Breda, The Nether­lands.

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

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