“It’s quite offensive,” says my flatmate, Freya. We are reassessing some of our favourite children’s films and television programmes: The Rugrats, Cheaper by the Dozen, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dexter’s Laboratory, and The Wild Thornberrys. We have realised that all of these titles have in common, other than relatively low ratings, is their use of an infamous stereotype: the redhead.
Freya, who also has red hair, is remembering anxious, spectacle-wearing Chuckie Finster. Chuckie is of course an amusing character from The Rugrats. However, when looking at the wider spectrum of children’s television, it is hard to disassociate an overwhelming connection between red hair and lameness, studiousness, or idiosyncrasy.
While anti red-haired prejudice is by no means a priority in a world that is increasingly saturated by homophobia, racism, and gender inequality, it is still important to consider where such discrimination stems from.
Moreover, such consideration is even more compelling when it appears that previous front runners of children’s entertainment have seemingly been advocates in representing these negative stereotypes. The Rugrats was an endearing part of childhood, however it does spark an unlikely question: have we been somewhat conditioned from childhood to associate these negative connotations with red hair?
Most survivors of the British schooling system can probably remember the ruthless targeting of their redheaded or “ginger” classmates. This trend was aided by Southpark’s “Ginger Kids” episode in 2005. “Ginger Kids” was written in accordance with Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s usual biting satire; the idea was in fact taken from a billboard that they had seen in Britain that read “Only you can prevent ginger”. However, the episode helped to unintentionally inspire numerous hate crimes across British schools such as an unofficial “Kick a Ginger Day”.
Whether you would view these attacks as hate crimes or simply as a childish misunderstanding of satire, the fact of the matter is that Stone and Parker were addressing something that already existed. A study from a student at the University of Cork showed that redheaded women and 60% of men are more likely to be discriminated or bullied due to their hair colour, and likewise, Nelson Jones outlined a worrying list of attacks, murders, and suicides linked to anti red-haired prejudice for the NewStatesman in 2013.
Ally Fogg, writing for The Guardian, addresses these attacks, commenting on the idea of gingerism as a form of racism that derives from “anti-Celtic, specifically anti-Irish, prejudice”. Indeed, Ireland has the highest per capita percentage in the world of red hair. Yet, Fogg is also crucial to mention that her hair colour, also red, has never inspired someone to deny her a job, or allowed her to be unfairly presumed a criminal or a terrorist, and therefore can no way be directly attributed with racism.
Is anti red-haired prejudice then a tenuous echo of anti-Irish sentiment? Or does it simply play up to our childish tendency to tease and berate what is different to us? My conversation with Freya was sparked from our recent obsession with Riverdale, a new, expensive-trash series based on the characters from the Archie Comics.
Archie Andrews in 2017 has kept his red hair from the comics, but he has also been improved with the abs and teen-girl following of actor K. J. Apa. Likewise, the red hair theme continues with beautiful power-twins Jason and Cheryl Blossom. While Riverdale doesn’t depict Archie or Cheryl with the comic madness of Dexter or the pathetic cowardice of Chuckie, the characters have still been set apart.
It seems that red hair, despite the ambiguity of its connotations, is a device used by the entertainment industry to provoke specific reactions in an audience. While not all prejudices are equal to one another, it is certainly important to consider the problematic use of hair colour that still dictates the behaviour of society today, and most importantly, the effect that this underlying conditioning has on the pliable minds of children.