Why Red has Always Been Hot

There is one in every class and friendship group. The one who is ridiculed for being ugly, weak, odd or soul-less (according to the American TV show South Park at least). And people can get away with such ‘banter’ because the victim’s flaw is not based on his race, faith or any acceptable disorder. He is…the Ginger One.

It is the last of the prejudices that has not been deemed unacceptable. Anyone who has red hair is fair game to being the butt of jokes and cast as the undesirable or stupid character in films and TV – and definitely not the one who gets the girl.  While women are praised and admired for their unique locks, men, by contrast, are not thought to be in the attractive department.

Fashion photographer and video director, Thomas Knights, claims that he grew up with negative attitudes to his colouring. There were no male role-models to challenge his perception and he grew up feeling ashamed of his gingerness. Some of the modelling agencies he worked with had no red haired men at all on their books. He has taken on a project to show that the red haired man as ‘the ultimate alpha-male’. He put on an exhibition of photographs and videos of handsome redheads in London last year and the success of this has led to Red Hot, an exhibition in New York City which opens today (http://www.bosicontemporary.com). There is also a book of hot ginger men that includes actors, sportsmen and models.

Knights aims to show the gingers as beautiful, chiselled and proud men. But, as an historian, I wondered how this peculiar attitude came about. Is it because the redheads are a non-racial minority, perhaps? Or is it the fault of Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver?

There has been some debate among scholars about whether Judas Iscariot actually did have red hair or if the many paintings of him in medieval art were simply trying to distinguish him from the rest of the apostles. Why they chose red instead of, say, yellow, is another matter.  However, an Aramaic translation of Iscariot is ‘red’, so perhaps he was a ginger after all. In any case, records have shown that redheads have been accused of witchcraft throughout the witch hunting era and whether they linked that to the Judas gene is unknown. Being different was enough.

Despite these definitely dodgy beginnings, there have been some powerful, noble and (allegedly) handsome gingers. One of the most famous is, of course, King Henry VIII of England. He was big, strong, sporty and the epitome of masculinity. There are many portraits he himself commissioned that display his flaming red locks. As king he would have served as the perfect role model and his effect on the ladies is legendary.

Another perfect English king was Richard the Lionheart, who reigned from 1157 to 1199 and his birthday is on 8 September. The Victorians had a statue made to remind everyone what the standard of the perfect Englishman should aspire to. Honourable, fair, brave and highly cultured, Richard wrote poetry and music as well . His skills as a military leader were used as a force for good during the Crusades as England fought for Christianity and tried to win back the Holy Land.  Richard the Lionheart was described as having hair that was reddish-gold and was his mother’s favourite in spite of having a bad temper.

Ah, the temper. The idea that red, flame-haired people also have a hot temper endures today. Throughout history the stories of fiery ginger monarchs have persisted.  William II, also known as Rufus, meaning red, was one, along with most of the Plantagenet kings such as Henry II who was said to be very handsome. Forty per cent of Scottish people carry the gene, and this adds to the stereotype of bad tempered redheads as well as Scots. Scary stuff.

Evidence suggests that the ancient Thracians were blue-eyed redheads: this means that the legendary Spartacus was also a ginger. Maybe that temper was the thing that drove him to rebel against the Romans. Mostly though, gingers are to be found in Western Europe with variations from golden reds in Scandinavia to coppery reds in Celtic peoples.

But does the word ‘hot’ only refer to their temper? I think not. As in today’s modern English slang, ‘hot’ has lustful connotations. Always has done, apparently. Jonathan Swift in his novel Gulliver’s Travels says “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.” The idea that redheads are highly sexed is backed up by a study in the nineteenth century by Lombrosso and Ferrero. They said that red hair was associated with crimes of lust and 48% of ‘criminal women’ were redheads. Make of that what you will.

One of my favourite gods, Thor (Thunor in Anglo-Saxon) was traditionally a fiery ginger. And as my spouse has the red persuasion, although, like Thor, not so ginger any more, I shall say no more about it other than red is hot and history provides the proof!

Picture is of actor Michael Fassbender,source Fassinatingfassbender.com default permission.


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