Redheads — they are everywhere, right? You probably know a redhead or know someone who knows a redhead or are a redhead yourself. You can be born that way or you can choose to become one — it actually doesn’t matter how you join this universal brotherhood and sisterhood. According to Erin La Rosa, author of the recent The Big Redhead Book: Inside the Secret Society of Red Hair (St. Martin’s Griffin, $22.99), the time has finally come for the hashtag #GingersUnite.
We spoke with La Rosa, a redhead herself (pro tip: Don’t ever call anyone a “ginger” unless you also have red hair), about some fascinating info she dug up while researching her fun, trivia-filled tome. La Rosa (yup, that's her actual name), a Los Angeles writer who’s also the deputy editorial director at BuzzFeed, went through everything from scholarly books and research papers to colorful news items to compile a definitive ode to all things redhead.
“This book debunks a lot of myths,” La Rosa says, “and also a lot of strange prejudices against us redheaded women and men.”
Here are a few red-hot facts.
1. The origins of the “Red-Headed Vixen” stereotype go back to the Garden of Eden.
“She walks into a room,” La Rosa writes, “her hair is loose, and her outfit is so tight it might actually just be her skin covered in paint. Chances are, she’s after your man!” It’s one thing to celebrate the sexiness of redheads, but this is something else: an up-to-no-good femme fatale using her irresistible charms to wreak havoc on the conservative ideal of the family.
“The man-eating vixen,” La Rosa says, “comes from historical and religious paintings. Painters, especially in the late 19th century, depicted the Jewish tradition of Lilith, who was supposed to be Adam’s original wife, created before Eve.” Starting with paintings such as John Collier’s Lilith (1892), La Rosa draws a line that goes from Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) straight to Ginger in Gilligan’s Island to Ginger Spice (“Apparently all vixen redheads are named Ginger”) to the tabloid representations of Lindsay Lohan. “The Lilith stereotype was blamed for everything from destroying marriages to causing wet dreams,” La Rosa says, “and it was implied her hair color was part of her character.”
2. Redheaded women aren't necessarily “crazy in bed.”
“This is probably one of the more dominant rumors about redheads,” La Rosa writes. “As soon as we get you alone, we’re going to lead you into our sex dungeon and show you things you’ve never seen.” La Rosa remembers acknowledging this strange assumption for the first time when she watched American Pie and saw the character played by Alyson Hannigan finally confess what she had done that “one time at band camp” with her flute. “‘I bet you’re like that girl in American Pie, huh?,’ I was once asked at a bar years later,” La Rosa writes.
Two recent studies claim to confirm the stereotype of “the slutty redhead” — and they're both extremely dubious. “The latest one [from Match.com in 2013], got picked up everywhere,” La Rosa says. “It said redheaded women orgasm more than any other hair color — 41 percent of redheads allegedly had orgasms ’90-100 percent of the time,’ versus 36 percent of blondes, 34 percent of brunettes and 29 percent of women with black hair.” The study also claimed redheads thought more about sex, had more threesomes and had more one-night stands and friends-with-benefits situations than people with other hair colors. This got reported as “redheads have more fun” by several publications — including La Rosa's own employer, BuzzFeed.
La Rosa found that the sample for the study was only 186 women who identified as “female redheads,” and this was after the question, “Currently, what color is your hair?” which mixed the natural redheads with sexually adventurous women who might have picked the color because they thought it made them look more fiery. “There was clearly a feedback effect,” La Rosa says with a laugh.
3. The color red really does make your heart rate increase.
Both the vixen and the sexually voracious stereotypes, though, might be linked to some actual science related to the color red and redheads. There is actually a reason why red lipstick is so popular, and why so many people would describe a red dress as “smoldering” or why the kinkiest location in Christian Grey’s icy penthouse is that notorious “Red Room.”
“The color red has been shown to make your heart rate go up,” La Rosa says. There’s a reason why hospital clothes (outside of David Cronenberg films, of course) are in cooler tones. This effect on the heart rate has been extrapolated into a general “fieriness” that has been applied to redheads in general. Of course, the hair of natural redheads is rarely “red” in the red lipstick sense, and more like different shades of orange. A true red complexion would be closer to a sunburn or a very angry, drunk blond Englishman — and far fewer people have felt the need to sexualize soccer hooligans than redheads.
4. Redheads do sense hot and cold temperatures more than others.
“We’re also the groundhogs of humans,” La Rosa writes, “because we’ll tell you right away if it’s going to stay cold or if things are looking warmer.” Researchers from the University of Louisville discovered that the ginger gene (MC1R) may overactivate the temperature-sensing gene. (Again, this might also play into the sex stereotypes, but only if you’re into ice cube or hot wax play — then again, who isn't?)
5. The South Park episode “Ginger Kids” resulted in documented real-world violence (and probably a lot of undocumented, unnecessary bullying).
Season 9, episode 11 of South Park (which aired in 2005) started with Cartman making a ludicrous school report about a disease called “gingervitis,” which included the line, “Ginger kids have no soul.” The episode was below par for South Park's usually superb standards of satire, but it spawned a real-world prank called “Kick a Ginger Day,” which resulted in threats, online bullying and actual violence in Canada, California, Massachusetts and the U.K. (where there is a long-standing prejudice against redheads connected with anti-Irish sentiment). What started as an absurd indictment of prejudice by picking an arbitrary target (MIA would use the same comparison in 2010 with the “Born Free” video, directed by Romain Gavras) ended up “perpetrating a ridiculous thing where satire led to bullying and real violence,” La Rosa says.
6. No, redheaded men are not evil.
If the ultrasexual vixen stereotype has been the curse of the female redhead, male redheads have had to deal with their own extremely negative connotations over the years. How extreme? “There’s a weird and unfair notion that ginger men are evil,” La Rosa writes. “And red hair has a well-worn history of being perceived as treacherous.” La Rosa interviewed Notre Dame’s New Testament professor John Fitzgerald, who confirmed the long history of ancient medical and physiognomical texts diagnosing red traits in hair and body as indicative of treachery, lack of modesty, anger, deceit and cunning. This is also related to …
7. Anti-Semitism is linked to the origins of anti-redhead prejudice.
The Gospels single out one of Jesus’ disciples as the epitome of treachery and an agent of evil: Judas. And through the Middle Ages Judas was represented as a redhead and was made to symbolize the Jews who had not accepted Christ. “In medieval Europe,” La Rosa writes, “anti-Semitic writings and art often featured Jews with red hair to portray them as satanic.” Although this stereotype has largely vanished from popular culture, La Rosa sees it surviving in the X-Men character Magneto as represented by “ginger” actor Michael Fassbender, who portrays him as a Jewish Holocaust survivor filled with vindictiveness and self-hatred.
8. There's a stereotype that redheaded men are not sexy but are especially “funny.”
This has worked well, of course, for Conan O’Brien, a wealthy, successful, tall and handsome redhead who constantly leans on routines about his supposed lack of sex appeal. O’Brien is only the latest of a long line of “gingers to be laughed at,” which originated with the 19th-century clowns. “There are practical reasons why a circus clown’s hair worked better if it was red,” La Rosa says. “You had to see him from afar. But there were also other reasons, and the clown was also a poor man or a country bumpkin, which the audience identified with recent Irish immigrants then. Think of the Irishness of Emmett Kelly, who created Weary Willy in the Depression era, but also of Ronald McDonald.”
For the record, La Rosa finds redheaded men extremely sexy, and her book is filled with pictorial examples of hunky gentlemen of the red persuasion (check out the work of photographer Thomas Knights if you have any doubts). “According to ancient ginger legend,” La Rosa writes, “if you manage to count all the freckles on a redhead man’s body, you’ll live forever. This is 100 percent accurate. Don’t ask questions.”
9. Redheads are not going extinct.
Regardless of T-shirts marketed to redheads exclaiming “Kiss Me, I’m Endangered!” and of sensationalistic clickbait headlines such as “Will Rare Redheads Be Extinct by 2100,” redheads do not need to furiously have unprotected sex with each other (or other recessive carriers of the gene) in order to propagate their exuberant “species.” Don't get us wrong — they are still welcome to have all kinds of sex with each other for their own personal reasons, but not to “preserve the color.” That’s not how genetics work.
10. Redheads smell better than anyone else. Really.
“Why, yes, we do smell better than the norms,” La Rosa writes. A French doctor first discovered this in 1886, though via dubiously scientific methods. Still, Dr. Augustin Galopin wrote in Le parfum de la femme that redheads smell like “ambergris, an earthy and sensual scent. “While perfume on a blonde or brunette will smell the same,” La Rosa writes, “any scent you put on a red’s skin will smell different.” However, as far as she knows, there are no scents specifically marketed to redheads. And nobody, as far as we know, has tried to replicate that supposedly unique “earthy and sensual” eau de rousse.