My childhood was filled with books; therefore, it was filled with pages upon pages of red-haired heroines. From Anne of Green Gables to Aerin of The Hero and The Crown to Alanna of Tamora Pierce’s books, I voraciously read books about women who were different from the crowd. These weren’t swooning ladies looking for a rescue. They were misunderstood and often fiery. Like their hair.
And how I longed for red hair. Red hair would mark me as different, yet lovely. A beautiful force to be reckoned with. Red haired protagonists are teased about their hair, but everyone knows they’re actually beautiful and special.
I wish life were more like that. Kids would only be teased for qualities that are actually assets, and everyone would have beautiful red hair.
In reality, though, some kids are teased because their parents named them Apple, and other kids are teased because they picked the worst shirt in the mall. And most people have brown-ish hair of some sort, with redheads making up only about 2% of the world’s population.
As a reader, I’ve come to hate red-haired heroines partly because of the unrealistic expectations they promote. Their hair is so tied in with their character identity as fiery upstarts that the reader starts to feel bravery is unattainable for the brown-haired.
As a writer, I’ve come to hate red-haired heroines because they’re a physical shorthand for showing a character is special. Take, for example, the back cover copy of a book I actually very much enjoyed, Beth Revis’ Across the Universe. (Quick backstory: Amy, the red-haired heroine, is cryogenically frozen on a generation ship. She’s woken up early for mysterious reasons and forms a relationship with Elder, the teenage boy next in line to captain the ship.)
Elder is drawn to Amy because of…. well, here’s the cover copy:
It’s her hair that pulls me forward. It’s so red.
I reach out to touch the glass that traps her inside, and only then do I realize how cold it is. My breath is rising in little clouds of white. My fingertips stick to the glass.
By the way, the italics on the red were NOT added by me. That’s an original part of the book.
Can you imagine how ridiculous that cover copy would sound if it were about a brown-haired girl?
It’s her hair that pulls me forward. It’s so brown.
I reach out to touch the glass that traps her inside, and only then do I realize how cold it is. [etc etc]
I think we’d all see Elder as a touch off his rocker if he were drawn to brown hair that way.
And to be fair, it makes sense in the world of this book for Amy’s hair to be far from brown. But it’d be nice, as a general literary goal, to take away some of the emphasis from looks and focus it on areas more within our control, or more indicative of true character. Actions, feelings, words, thoughts, struggles, etc. The differences in those things make everyone unique and special, even the brown-haired among us.