Better dead than redhead

Hair color-based hatred - the last acceptable prejudice?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 16, 2009 7:17PM (EST)

You'd think that during this festive time of lights and colors, the warmest of hues would be enjoying popularity. You'd think that when children are leaving out spicy cookies in the shape of little men for Santa, ginger would be enjoying a golden moment. Well that's what I thought too, haters.

Instead, we carrot tops are experiencing a surprising surge of follicularly based vitriol of late – especially, and perhaps uncoincidentally, in a part of the world where they're plentiful.

Proving that the goodwill of the Ginger Spice era has long expired, The UK retail chain Tesco found itself red-faced this after launching a massive dud of a holiday card.  Depicting a red-haired child on St. Nick's lap, it reads, "Santa loves all kids. Even GINGER ones." The card enflamed the ire of Davinia Phillips, the British mother of three redheads, who took her case to the court of public opinion. Despite earning the nickname "ginger whinger" (okay, that's pretty funny), Tesco withdrew the cards. They did however helpfully explain that they were "intended to be humorous." 

In further flame-haired news, the British Advertising Standards Authority upheld its first ban based on offensiveness to a group's hair color today after pulling Virgin Media's ad for a dating show that asked, "How do you spot a ginger in the dark? Looks or personality, who wins?" Virgin explained that the campaign was meant to "challenge people's perceptions of attractiveness and encourage decisions based on personality as well as looks".

Coming so soon on the heels of last month's Facebook motivated "Kick a Ginger Day," which resulted in the schoolyard beating of a California child, well, it's enough to make one's Viking blood boil over.

Redheads have been feared and reviled since the Middle Ages, of course. Looking for a fall guy for your blighted crops? That dame with the devil hair looks pretty suspect, don't you think? But this new spate of gingerism – yes, there's a word for it -- seems to stem from an old episode of South Park that was a satire of the very thing it has become. In a classic, hate-speech filled half hour about people who look different, Cartman declared, "Ginger kids have no souls." Good one South Park! Flash-forward a few years, and I have yet another reason to get my ass kicked today by people with no sense of irony.

I don't take the red rage so personally, because I'm a ginger not by birth but by Clairol. But while I find it entertaining when South Park suggests a connection between red tresses and being "vile and disgusting," I also think it's pretty freaking sad that any corporation would get traction out of the notion that a) Santa has work harder to love us and b) that we represent some triumph of personality over looks. You tell that to Julianne Moore! Or David Caruso! We happen to be a thriving specialty porn genre, I will have you know.

There will always be those who judge a pale, freckled book by its auburn-tressed cover. And when there's nobody left to make fun without seeming politically incorrect, people will still make fun of redheads. Soon there may not even be redheads to make fun of – in 2007, National Geographic reported that natural born redheads – who represent only two percent of the world's population -- are dying out, and may be extinct within a few generations.  In the meantime, the Weasleys and Tori Amoses of the world will do their best to stand tall. Just watch out for those famous tempers. As one of literature's great gingers, Anne of Green Gables, said, "You'd find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair. People who haven't red hair don't know what trouble is."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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