Redhead Women Are ‘Sexpots,’ Ginger Men Are ‘Awkward.’ Why the Double Standard?

Royal Ballet dancer Edward Watson is sick of being called out for his hair color. (Photo: Getty Images)

Edward Watson is a gorgeous principal dancer with the Royal Ballet of London. But this week he’s feeling a bit worn down by a critic who, according to Watson, has harped repeatedly on one of the dancer’s physical characteristics: his red hair.

“There’s one particular twat who still writes, ‘Oh, he’s still there with his horrible ginger hair and his horrible pale skin’ and you just think, is it really relevant to talk about someone’s skin and hair in a review? I find that kind of ridiculous,” he told the Times in an interview this week. “I think it was quite hard for a while for people to imagine me as like this kind of strong leading man with great looks and build and lots of dark hair. I’m never going to be that,” he added. “… I’m not going to feel bad about it, although there are some people that like to make me feel bad about it.”

Watson did not name the reviewer, though it was assumed to be Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times, who has twice referred to Watson’s “pale skin” and “auburn hair” in negative reviews and has called the dancer’s stage persona “freakish.” But he responded to Watson’s complaint by noting that he liked “hair colors and skin colors of all kinds and enjoy mentioning them.”

Watson offstage. (Photo: AP Photos)

So why was Watson so worked up about the mere mention of his being ginger? Likely thanks to some heavy baggage he and many other redheaded men carry due to the unequal way men vs. women are perceived when they have red hair.

“I didn’t really notice the gender split until my 20’s — that was then I could see there was a double standard,” ginger London photographer Thomas Knights tells Yahoo Beauty.  “Redhead females were put on a pedestal — the ultimate woman — and redhead men were emasculated and desexualized in popular culture and on the streets. It became very clear something had to be done.”

To that end, Knights set out on a sort of rebranding effort in the form of “Red Hot,” a traveling solo exhibition and photo book (Red Hot 100) featuring damn sexy photos of redheaded men. He’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter for Red Hot II, a coffee table book, which will feature Watson among its models.

“Pale skin is seen as fragile, and red hair (on women) is seen as a beacon of a fiery, passionate sexuality. These things combine to make men find redhead women more feminine, perhaps,” Knights opines. “Maybe the same is true for the men — pale skin and red hair is seen as more feminine, as opposed to the dark skin and brown hair of the traditional masculine man.”

Shots from the “Red Hot” photo exhibit. (Photo: Red Hot/Thomas Knights)

He’s not far off in his theory, according to Jacky Colliss Harvey, author of RED: A History of the Redhead. “Women are seen as sexpots,” she tells Yahoo Beauty — noting that the association goes back to medieval art portrayals of Mary Magdalene sporting a bright auburn mane. “Judas is her male corollary,” she adds, and he is also portrayed as having red hair. “So the bad associations go back at least that far.”

Meanwhile, Harvey adds, “The pale skin that goes along with red hair has been an attribute of female beauty for centuries — but in a man it is seen as effeminate. Then, at the same time, red hair in men is associated with Vikings for those in northern Europe.” In Serbia and Romania, having red hair meant you turned into a vampire when you died, she says. So the negative connotations run the gamut from weaklings to barbarians to folks who have “no souls” (thanks, South Park!). “It’s really unfortunate that male redheads have always run really bad notes,” Harvey says. “And some are very ingrained.”

“Gingers have no souls!” (Photo: South Park/YouTube)

The documentary “Being Ginger,” about “one man’s quest to find a woman who likes men who have red hair,” illustrates beautifully just how ingrained these beliefs are. In a scene (below) posted on his YouTube channel, the (adorable) red-haired host confronts various groups of young women and asks them to share some thoughts on ginger men. They say things like, “uglier than women with red hair,” “fat,” “broody,” “awkward,” “a bit nerdy — unless you’re Prince Harry.” When he asks young men the same question regarding ginger women, they say, “hot,” “I’d do her,” “fiery,” “quite attractive,” and “frisky.”

It’s worth noting that the documentary is from the UK — as are Watson, Knights, and Harvey — and that anti-ginger sentiments run particularly high across the pond. “Redheads can mean something slightly different in the US, as most came from across the Atlantic as immigrants,” says Harvey. “And if you carried it across the Atlantic, it became a proud badge of cultural identity.” Still, she notes, her recent essay for Aeon, “Myths About Red Hair Are Rooted in Fear of Difference,” commenters from both the UK and the US shared stories of red-hair-based bullying. 

All that said, though, more and more redheads are embracing their signature locks as something worth celebrating, with a growing trend of festivals, cultural gatherings, Facebook groups, and, thanks to folks like Knights, art. As Harvey says, “We’re having a real redhead moment.”

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