When my daughter was born nine months ago, we were delighted to discover she had the requisite ten fingers and toes, a head in the right spot and all working innards on the inside where they should be. What came as a bit of a surprise was that I had birthed a redhead. A ranga. A ginger. A bluey. A bloodnut.
As neither my husband nor I have red hair, this seemed odd. As the months have gone on, the red has not grown out or faded, as some had predicted. It has come through even redder. It is the colour of an autumn sunset and it is wonderful.
But I have become acutely aware of all the ginger-bashing that seems to have become sport in our society. Our former PM Julia Gillard was a high profile example, but ask any redhead and they will tell you they have had to develop thick skin to cope with the constant barrage of comments and jokes – whether it be their fiery temperament, supposed lack of attractiveness or tendency to sizzle like bacon at the first ray of sun.
I have always thought of the attention as light-hearted fun, and wondered if those who took issue were being oversensitive. Now, as I anticipate my beautiful girl being the butt of jokes in the school yard, or feeling ‘less than’ because of how she looks, I am starting to plan cruel and unusual punishments for her tormentors.
Red hair occurs naturally in around 1-2 per cent of the world’s population – mostly in those of Northern and Western European descent. If you want to get technical, you need to have two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. Even science is calling my daughter a mutant.
Redheaded friends report they were bullied and teased as kids because anything that makes a child different makes them an easy target. But as an adult, having red hair means you are harder to forget. And, for better or worse, redheaded women are often given femme fatale status – think Nicole Kidman, Jessica Rabbit and Christina Hendricks from Mad Men.
It is tougher for men, of course, who have to be cheeky or funny – such as Prince Harry or Conan O’Brien – or classed as the thinking woman’s crumpet – think journalist Kerry O’Brien or Homeland’s Damien Lewis . Straightforward heartthrob status seems to elude them.
Then, of course, there is that fiery temper – hello, Anne of Green Gables, Queen Elizabeth I and her famously surly dad King Henry VIII. And Aristotle had little time for redheads, claiming they were “of bad character”.
But stereotyping can quickly turn into something more serious, as happened when television show South Park ran an episode which ultimately spawned Kick a Ginger Day. The satire was lost on some pre-teen viewers, resulting in assaults in schools across the USA. In a bid to restore balance, a student started Hug a Ginger Day in 2009. While well-intentioned, redheads presumably got sick of being talked about like they weren’t in the room. And of random people touching them.
Last year, New Zealand radio station The Edge was forced to abandon its annual Hug a Ginga Day when a father of two redheaded boys complained about their humiliating and bullying behaviour. The Edge instead changed their promotion to Give a Ginga the Day Off and encouraged listeners, if they wanted to hug, to “hug responsibly”. But radio host Dominic Harvey denied any wrongdoing, stating, “We did not invent the teasing of people with red hair, that’s been going on for centuries.”
Well, that’s all right then.
Meshel Laurie recently wrote, “As white people, we don’t get to decide what’s racist,” and I suggest that, while ‘ginger bashing’ is nowhere near as serious as the racism suffered by many, it can easily be applied to this situation. If you haven’t lived with the jokes, the bullying, the assumptions about your character, or even the physical assaults, you don’t get to decide that redheads just need to learn to take a joke.
I can’t hope to shield my daughter from the jokes, nor will I try to – although if anyone tries kicking her there will be trouble. I see this as a great opportunity to teach her resilience – and that her value and strength come from within.
Hopefully she will learn to empathise with people who have been marginalised for differences far greater than hers. Being ribbed for your red hair is not a patch on the challenges faced by children who live with a disability, or who are part of a racial or religious minority.
If a little bit of teasing teaches her to be a nicer person, that’s got to be a good thing, right?
Photos: Awesome redheads