Recently, someone took my hair. The operative word is “took,” but perhaps a better description of the act is “stole.” I was informed after the fact by the thief, who, I’ve since concluded, thought it was kind of funny and/or romantic. “I pulled a single hair from your head when we hugged and I put it in my pocket for the walk home,” he later texted. My hair is long, sure, thick, yes, but I suspect the real reason he might have done it is because, well, it’s red.
I’ve spent my life running from redhead fetishists — of which there are plenty and usually make themselves visible with the following phrases: “Is your hair, like, natural?”; “Redheads drive me CRAZY”; “I really love your hair.” In fact, any hair-related compliment from men puts me on high alert and makes me immediately want a year-long print-out of their porn history. My hair is natural, which I assure you, really sucked until the approximate age of 18, when suddenly it became unique or “hot” instead of weird and repelling.
Thankfully, however, I was prepared for this sudden shift in attitude. Why? Because of pop culture. While blondes have long-since maintained the role of much-coveted head cheerleader, brunettes the beautiful and delightfully sarcastic manic pixie dream girl, redheads were the objects of often unhinged pursuit. I had heard of Perfume: Making of a Murderer by age 11, a period film released that follows the story of a man with super-smell who targets and murders young redheaded women to bottle their seemingly superior scent. I was raised on the Charlie’s Angels trilogy, wherein the terrifying assassin nicknamed “The Thin Man” becomes obsessed with tearing out and smelling the red hair of Drew Barrymore’s character. ‘Trichophilia’, when one is sexually aroused by touching hair, I get…but why must it always be the redhead?
Of course, genetic rarity makes for great stories. As such, redheads have appeared throughout visual media as the objects of fear (primarily witches) and extreme desire (Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut or Practical Magic, Amy Adams in American Hustle or Nocturnal Animals, Christina Hendricks in Mad Men, Jessica Chastain in almost everything). While the screenwriter doesn’t always articulate the male protagonist’s attraction to their female counterpart as a redhead preference — with the exception of Mad Men, which references Joan Holloway’s locks throughout its six seasons — red hair creates the character itself. The redhead exudes an appeal that is almost mystical: she is infinitely more elusive, definitely sexual, inexplicably intelligent (?), and, by default, more memorable.
In a 2009 column for CNN, a writer claims to have never successfully dated a redhead, despite, evidently—and disturbingly—many attempts. “Every single she-ruby I’ve ever attempted to date has failed to acknowledge my existence, taken a flamethrower to my heart, or disappeared in the morning like a cinnamon mist.”
Ruth Holliday, Professor of Gender and Culture at the University of Leeds, told me that social media has created a new beauty archetype, wherein looking “international” as opposed to “fixed” has become the ideal. You’re already, I’m sure, familiar with this trend — white women with tans so extreme they appear mixed-race, celebrities exhibiting newfound slanted eyes traditionally associated with East-Asian culture. Still, Holliday argues, extreme racial markers — like that of red hair — can lead to rejection. Growing up, red hair was such a prominent symbol of whiteness that I often experienced rejection (yelled at from cars, told by romantic interests I would be more attractive if I wasn’t “ginger”).
“‘Borrowing’ of ‘other’ racialized markers is certainly indicative of a more ethnically diverse society/cosmopolitan world, but this still leaves people who are at the extremes (dark-skinned Africans, East-Asians with very narrow eyes, ‘gingers’ at a disadvantage) although a certain intangible quality of beauty can occasionally overcome all of these perceived ‘deficiencies’.”
“Overcoming” manifests in various methods — and each celebrity redhead has, either naturally or unnaturally, undertaken all of them. For those that don’t want to dye their hair (like I regrettably did, from 2009 to 2012), there are ways to distance yourself from the traits traditionally associated with red hair — therein appearing “international.” Darker brows, eyelashes, and skin (a solution to the oft-associated and dreaded freckles) are several of them. The fortunately freckle-free are often allowed to maintain their pale complexion.
The ‘internationality’ of these on-screen redheads only enhances their allure, prompting irrational attention from the opposite sex. It’s a pedestal that not even the redhead herself can rise to and a reputation that is oftentimes entirely incorrect. Then again, you can bet a redhead will never be your regular ol’ romantic comedy heroine. She’s too sensual to take home to mom, too weird to introduce to your coworkers — too, well, niche. She’s the pitstop, the rendezvous, the awakening, before you settle into the white-picket-fenced vanilla existence you really deserve. After all, gentlemen prefer blondes.