Two years ago when I dyed my hair red, I intended to have it only briefly as a transition to going dark brown. Immediately seduced by the look, I’ve been a redhead ever since. Thing is, I became not only a woman with red hair, but a woman with red hair living amongst the mythology of the redhead. What began as a stylistic choice fast merged with my identity, but also masked it – a cultural imposition that was consciously indulged in and sanctioned by myself. A woman with red hair and glasses always draws attention. Unfortunately, our Prime Minister has had to cop piles of ignominious criticism for her red hair and glasses combination. Luckily, I just get to write a column.
Natural redheads only make up one percent of the world’s population, more or less (as a natural strawberry blonde, whether I fit into this category is up for debate). A far larger group artificially streak their locks with vermillion and as a downside to looking fabulous, they are bombarded with an array of indignant opinion. Whether concerning or completely removed from any real personality trait, such opinions often give little respect to individuality.
The tension surrounding redheads has been going on since at least 1932, when the premier platinum blonde Jean Harlow became the Red-Headed Woman. A direct slap in the face to the old adage that gentlemen prefer blondes, she openly seduced her married boss with a photo of him attached to her garter, visible beneath a sheer dress. In 1943, a sexy redheaded nightclub singer was given the colour animation treatment as Red Hot Riding Hood and was seen as so desirous that she made a censorship scandal – and surely gloried in it. A year later in Cover Girl, Rita Hayworth’s red hair was revealed to the world in glorious Technicolor and she was dubbed, ‘the most sensational redhead since Cleopatra!’ In the film I Want To Live! (1958), Susan Hayward plays a gangster’s moll who gets arrested, and we are told that ‘an attractive, red-headed party girl will get a year in prison because she loves a good time.’ In 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl, prudish brunettes Lauren Bacall and Natalie Wood are contrasted with Tony Curtis’ redheaded lover, who flirtatiously claims, ‘I wouldn’t give up my career for marriage, kids and happiness!’
In the early 80s, Molly Ringwald gave redheads a softer profile, but this was soon brightened by Jessica Rabbit, another nightclub singer to take the title of sexiest cartoon character, followed closely by Ariel, by far the ocean’s most popular Little Mermaid. Now, Christina Hendricks, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon have locks that make their looks some of the most coveted in Hollywood. Needless to say that if a woman has red hair it rarely goes unnoticed; they are met with a combination of almost fearful fascination and perverse disdain. Red makes everything else redder; as Susan Hayward says of her silk pajamas and nail polish, ‘Flaming scarlet! That’s what they always call red when I wear it.’
No matter how many women are or become redheads, the colour will always set us apart, and it is always open to criticism, preconceptions, and misconceptions. Red hair is inscribed in our culture as theatrical and melodramatic, and I’m not sure we’ll ever escape it. Rita Hayworth’s natural hair was thick and black, to make her a star Columbia Pictures stripped back her hairline and dyed her hair its famous red. Thus immortalised, Rita’s image endures in the cultural presence of the redhead, constructed all at once as sultry, sassy, daunting, and desirable. A biographer of hers once wrote that few actresses had their hair used so deliberately as a sexual metaphor; if this started with Rita, it’s kept on.
Hair colour is of course fluid and really quite a lot of fun, but it is important to recognise that it makes a difference to everybody’s lives. Does the current fact that Emma Stone’s particular shade of red is the most requested in the Los Angeles vicinity have meaning for her, or just for the hair dye? Safe to say that just as naturally blonde Emma has red hair, red hair has Emma; trapped in the allure of its sensuous freedom and notorious appeal. The redhead image hasn’t changed, and its good-time mythology isn’t going anywhere: nearly 3 million views of this ‘Rita Hayworth is Stayin’ Alive’ mashup video should attest to that. But perhaps films just need to stop talking about our hair colour. It’s been covered that gentlemen prefer blondes and marry brunettes, but they need to start telling us that redheads are just women, and in the end, women are people too.
Eloise Ross is a Killings columnist and PhD candidate at La Trobe University. Her research interests include cinematic affect, phenomenologies of sound, and the senses. She infrequently writes at cinemelo.wordpress.com, and tweets more often at @EloiseLoRoss.