“Red hair is a woman's game,” Tom Robbins writes in his 1998 GQ essay “Ode to Redheads.” “The harsh truth is, most red-haired men look like blonds who've spoiled from lack of refrigeration,” Robbins says. “They look like brown-haired men who've been composted. Yet that same pigmentation that on a man can resemble leaf mold or junk yard rust, a woman wears like a tiara of rubies.” That’s a grim view of redheaded men—and it was coming from a fellow ginger.
This month, British photographer Thomas Knights—also a redhead—hopes to turn that stereotype on its head with “Red Hot,” a photo exhibition featuring “a cast of high profile and good-looking red headed males,” shot giving torrid looks in topless poses. Male redheads “are completely emasculated and desexualised in popular culture,” Knights told the Guardian. “The main thing for me is the huge polarisation between the way our society perceives ginger men and ginger women.”
Why do we see redheaded women as rubies and redheaded men as rusted? Perhaps because the rarity of the shade—redheads benefit (or suffer) from two doses of a recessive gene that causes a mutation in the protein that regulates melanin—has inspired a historical association with difference and deviance. In the Middle Ages, red hair was taken as a sign of witchcraft and vampirism; Elizabethan actors portrayed Jewish characters with false noses and red wigs; and Judas is often painted with a long, fiery mane. For women, the perception of deviance is often eroticized. The sins attributed to women are largely sexual ones. And the expression of this sexual deviance is often rooted in the follicles. "Hair itself is symbolically fraught,” University of Texas myth scholar Betty Sue Flowers told the Washington Post in 2002. “Hair equals sex. Why do women have to cover their hair in churches? There are more rules about hair than anything else except covering the genitals. It's so connected with spiritual and religious taboos."
The result? Red is now the shade of choice for contemporary femme fatales, from Jessica Rabbit to Joan Holloway. Meanwhile, ginger boys are ridiculed and sexually marginalized; in 2011, a Danish-based international sperm bank stopped collecting donations from redheads, saying it was “drowning in semen” from unpopular ginger donors. Try to think of a famous redheaded man who isn’t Damian Lewis or a prince, and you get a lot of clowns: Conan O'Brien, Louis CK, Carrot Top.
The myth of the sexy redhead and her deviant brother was constructed by male apostles, playwrights, and painters. Some women buy that version of sexuality, too: Knights interviewed one woman who willingly dates a ginger man but still fears the consequences: "Of course I'm going to love it, but I don't want a ginger baby," she said. But projects like Knights' show how easy it is to revert that centuries-old idea by taking a few photos from a different perspective (and recruiting some exceptionally good-looking gingers to pose). “Someone recently asked me, ‘What’s so special about red hair?’ ” Knights told The Cut. “Well, nothing. It’s not special—it’s just equal. All I want is for ginger men to be on a level playing field.”