Depending on whether or not you were concerned that you haven’t seen a redhead in awhile, or were perhaps preparing to throw a “Sorry About Your Looming Extinction, Gingers” festival, this news may affect you differently: Redheads are not, in fact, dying out.
Gingers, those genetically quirky individuals who make up only two percent of this planet’s population, are just fine. Sure, they’re rare, and their genetically recessive allele (a variant of a gene) that appears on their melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) is enough to make sure they always stay in the two percent minority. But according to Rick Sturm, an associate professor at the University of Queensland, whose research focuses on human pigmentation genetics, barring any major population bottlenecks — a disaster of some sort that reduces a population to a small handful, say — these miraculous humans will continue to exhaust the planet’s resources just like the rest of us.
“The biggest plague we know about would have been the Black Death in Europe, estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s total population at that time,” says Sturm. “Even this event wouldn’t have led to an ‘extinction’ of any hair color.”
So, Black Death yes; Red Death, no.
The extinction rumor, it should be noted, only began in August 2007, when a report in The Courier Mail — citing National Geographic and unnamed “geneticists” — claimed that by as early as 2060, there would be no more ginger-headed men and women among us. But: “It turns out that all those people were wrong. Redheads are here to stay and should be around well beyond 2060,” reports How Stuff Works.
Presently, thanks in large part to Ed Sheeran, all signs seem to further suggest that redheaded men will continue to procreate and fulfill their genetic duty to keep the fire burning. “More ginger men are having sex more often, and according to a new study it’s known as ‘The Ed Effect,’” Indy100 reported in 2017. A 175-person poll (admittedly, not a large sample size) of men between the ages of 25-34, commissioned by Casumo, found that 20 percent of redheaded men had received “more attention,” and therefore, were having more sex since Sheeran went big. “It also found that redheaded males were feeling more confident as a result of Sheeran’s cultural dominance,” per the same report.
Obviously, for ginger men in particular, this newfound confidence is in many ways still kindling after centuries of ginger hate. According to Jacky Colliss Harvey, author of RED: A History of the Redhead, those with red hair have historically always been perceived as “other.” “To an ancient Greek or Roman, my red hair would have meant I was everything they regarded as barbarian,” writes Harvey in an article for Aeon. “In medieval Europe, it would have meant I was Jewish. The Tudor chronicler Richard Stanyhurst would have seen it as proof-positive that somewhere in my past I had bastardly Scythian blood; while 19th-century anthropologists would have seen it as a sign that my ancestors had been Vikings.” And in more recent times, writes Harvey, men with red hair would often simply have been considered wimps.
All this could help explain why a 2014 study by Kevin O’Regan, a University College Cork student, found that “‘bullying of gingers’ is ‘one of the last socially accepted forms of prejudice against people for a trait they were born with,’” reports the BBC. O’Regan, a male redhead himself, concluded that, based on a survey of 1,742 people from 20 countries, 60.6 percent of males with red hair and 47.3 percent of women suffered from “some kind of discrimination in the past due to their hair color.” In other words, despite society mostly continuing in its hopeful quest to expel prejudice from all walks of life, including but not limited to racism and sexism, it has yet to undergo its come-to-Jesus moment as it pertains to hundreds and hundred of years of redhead scorn.
So why has it taken so long for us regular, genetically unremarkable folk, to acknowledge our ill will toward the gingers? Before we get into it, it’s important to note that while all discrimination is rooted in some form of ignorance, comparing prejudice against redheads to that of, say, bigotry against African Americans, women and other historically persecuted and/or marginalized groups, is a pretty huge false equivalence. Six different university professors I contacted, all of whom focus on the issue of discrimination, were essentially unable to comment on whether such prejudice even existed because they hadn’t studied it. “Sorry, I don’t know anything about that type of prejudice, so I don’t have anything to add,” Emily M. Zitek, an associate professor at Cornell who studies the sources and consequences of a person’s sense of entitlement, writes via email.
Perhaps that’s why, in the same Aeon article, Harvey felt compelled to set the record straight, since some reviewers of her book took the discussion of “difference” therein as implying that redheads have suffered the same kind of prejudice as, “say the gay, or the Jewish, or the black communities.” “As well as being a redhead I should say I am also white, middle class and university-educated,” writes Harvey. “Lucky me, discrimination or prejudice or stereotyping is not something I have really had to counter in my life at all.” So, yes — redheads complaining of the mockery they face are very aware that the prejudice toward them is, at most, beta-level bigotry.
Still, though, Marc Crouch — site administrator and founder of Hot for Ginger, a community/dating site for people with red hair — does think it’s one of the least punished forms of discrimination. “I think the reason is simply that people consider it ‘just a hair color,’ therefore it’s okay to make fun of, similarly to how blondes are made fun of,” says Crouch. “The difference is that it does go beyond hair color with gingers, as we’re mocked just as often for our pale skin and freckles as for our hair color, which puts it closer to the line of racism.”
Still, the redhead community isn’t overly interested in self-pity. Duncan Crary, founder of another dedicated ginger community, says he has “no interest in appealing to the social justice warrior mob to defend us.” “I didn’t found The League of Extraordinary Redheads to be a support group for people who feel sorry about themselves,” says Crary. Instead, he’s just on alert for when someone spews out “red-haired” as an insulting qualifier. “Like, why’d you have to go there with the red hair?” says Crary. “If you think a guy with red hair is an a**hole, just call him an a**hole.”
Crary also points out the fact that redheaded men and women face different kinds of discrimination, with men, perhaps, coming in for the brunt of the abuse. Redheaded women, according to Crary, are stereotyped to be hypersexual — “Think Jessica Rabbit,” he says — adding that ginger women are often harassed with the, “Do the carpets match the drapes?” line. The negative stereotype often associated with redheaded men, meanwhile, “is that they’re dorks.” Crary cites the South Park episode “Ginger Kids,” which provoked real violence against redheaded boys that, according to Crary, would qualify as a hate crime if it were directed against an officially protected class. “So that’s something to consider,” he says.
The founder and administrator of redhead blog Ginger Parrot, Emma Kelly, agrees with Crary, adding that for ginger boys especially, the bullying is often violent. “It can be a lot more physical for ginger boys, as bullying tends to be more physical than [with] girls,” says Kelly. Additionally, she says that while she was bullied and told she was ugly until age 18, she thinks that for guys, the ugly connotation tends to last longer.
Mark Elgar, who authored a study on the genetic rarity of redheads with blue eyes, tells me that after discussing the issue of prejudice against gingers with his daughter, who has red hair and is still in high school, he too was able to confirm the disproportionate amount of bullying that redheaded men experience. “Her view is that red-headed boys are teased and bullied far more than red-headed girls,” he says.
Even amongst redheads, though, not all gingers are created equal. Crouch believes that there’s definitely a difference in how men with red hair are treated, depending on the potency of said hair. “The more bright the hair, the more pale and freckly the skin, the more bullying they seem to experience, and that’s across both genders, unfortunately,” says Crouch. “I was much brighter orange as a kid and became darker as I got older, which corresponded with fewer instances of being singled out as a ginger.”
Crary agrees. “Let’s face it: Even if everyone had red hair, people would create hierarchies along the spectrum, from deep auburn to Cheez-Doodle orange, and between those with the fewest freckles to those with the most, and so on,” says Crary. “People can be pretty mean.”
Crouch goes on to tell me that while he, like others, does feel somewhat luckier for the darkening of his red hair, within the ginger community, the feeling is more commonly reversed: Those with darker red hair often express regret at losing some of their ginger identity, coming to envy those with the brighter orange coloring. “I’ve even seen animosity (quickly quashed) from more ‘ginger’ people toward the more ‘auburn’ ones,” he says. “I myself have also sometimes been accused of being a ‘ginger wannabe.’ It’s a little harsh, as darker redheads often don’t look red at all under certain lights.”
As is often the case with characteristics that make people feel different, as they grow older, redheads’ uniqueness can become a source of pride. Case in point, Thomas Knight, the photographer behind “Red Hot,” a photography exhibit meant to “rebrand the ginger male stereotype by showcasing ginger men as sexy and desirable.”
“What makes you different when you’re younger, what you feel uncomfortable about as a young person, ends up being your calling card as an adult,” he says. Knight decided to focus his project on redheaded men for two reasons: First, after years of dying his own hair blonde, he finally embraced his red hair. “After doing so, I started to receive loads of compliments about my natural ginger hair, so after this, I felt empowered myself and decided to begin with Red Hot,” he explains.
Second and more importantly, Knight wanted to highlight how sexy and desirable ginger men can be — a sentiment that, by and large, had been ignored by the community of redhead fetishists (technically referred to as Rutiluphiles) who focused solely on women with red hair. “It amazed me how our Western culture holds redheaded women to such high regard, almost the ‘ultimate’ female, and redheaded males in such low esteem; emasculated and de-sexualized in film and TV and literature,” says Knight. “I don’t think any other hair color has this polarized of an opinion between genders.”
At least one redheaded redditor shares Knight’s opinion. “Some women seem to really go crazy for it,” they write. “Most seem indifferent, and a slightly higher number than normal seem to find it a turn off. It is kind of disheartening that you almost never hear women say their ideal man has red hair, though.”
Support continues to grow, though. Crouch tells me that while Hot For Ginger initially began as a dating site for women who have a ginger fetish, it quickly developed into a community promoting self love. “Specifically, we regularly publish articles about redheads that either promote positivity or defend against negativity — we post photos of our male members to our channels so they can receive adulation,” says Crouch. “Most importantly, we give them a sense of belonging with a group of people who either have a common experience with them — other ginger males — or simply love them for the very thing others have bullied them over.”
Kelly and Crary both cite the proliferation of powerful redheads in pop culture as yet another sign that things are moving in the right direction for men with red hair. “There have been a number of totally badass red-haired men with a rising pop-culture profile who have helped make ginger men hot in mainstream culture — Damien Lewis as Sgt. Brodie in Homeland; Prince Harry; and Tormund Giantsbane in Game of Thrones (played by Kristofer Hivju) is an all-around great guy who you don’t want to mess with,” says Crary.
While it’s fair to assume that the shifting culture surrounding male gingers only applies to famous men with red hair, according to a 2006 study on hair color stereotyping and CEO selection in the U.K., there’s hope for the average redhead, too. Marilyn Helms, the study’s author, tells me that based on her research, not only does having red hair not seem to hurt a person’s career progress, she found that there were more redheaded CEOs in the U.K. than were expected, based on their presence in the general population. “Sometimes, people are drawn to them because of this factor alone, and it could be the reason for the advantage,” says Helms.
Crary sees it the same way. “Redheads always stand out — we can never hide in a crowd or at the back of the classroom,” he says.
After centuries of being maligned, then, it seems gingers really might finally be having their moment. Red is so hot right now.