Cryos International, the world’s largest sperm bank, recently announced that it will be turning away redheaded donors at the door.
The company’s red-haired sperm supply is full up, and not often called upon. Clinic director Ole Schou told a Danish newspaper that parents are inclined to select donors who are physically similar to themselves, and red’s rareness makes it an unpopular choice: “I do not think you choose a redhead, unless the partner – for example, the sterile male – has red hair, or because the lone woman has a preference for redheads. And that’s perhaps not so many, especially in the latter case.”
Wait – gentlewomen don’t prefer redheads? Maybe in England, where “gingerism,” discriminating against reds, is so endemic that, in 2003, a redhead was stabbed in the back in a West Yorkshire bar in an incident reported as a hate crime. Canada, home of Anne of Green Gables, doesn’t have the same cultural anti-red bias, but we are still no safe haven: In 2008, a 14-year-old in Courtenay, B.C., started a Kick a Ginger Day Facebook page, which led to several attacks on school children. Thirteen kids were suspended from a Calgary high school for beating a red-haired Grade 10 student after gym class. This lunacy stems from a 2005 South Park episode in which a jerky character’s denunciation of redheads – “They creep us out and make us sick to our stomachs!” – made for a satirical takedown of racial prejudice (while sleeping, the hater gets painted red and then becomes a Hitler-esque convert to the superiority of redheads). Somehow, as always, irony didn’t make it to the locker room.
Anyone who has faced Monday morning in eighth grade with a perm like a crumpled paper bag crapped on by a bird can attest: Hair matters. Hair sends out a complicated raft of signals that conform to or defy the social order. Sometimes red is a flat-out threat, a colour whose association with the devil led to redheads being tagged as witches and burned in the Spanish Inquisition. Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who refused to lie beneath her husband (“Are we not equal?”), gave the world the uppity redhead cliché.
But the hatred is perplexing. Along with simply being a beautiful colour, red hair should be coveted because it follows the economics of scarcity: The more rare the object and finite the supply, the greater the demand. In her book-length survey of red hair, The Roots of Desire, Marion Roach writes, “That redheads are untrustworthy, fiery, unstable, hot-tempered, highly sexed rare creatures is what passes for common knowledge today.” Your calm, undersexed, trustworthy redheaded friend may roll her eyes, but the feisty redhead has a long-standing literary tradition, from Pippi Longstocking to Lisbeth Salander. Being red means being outside the norm – less than 2 per cent of the world’s population is redheaded – and this allows the red haired woman to tweak the establishment. Red is the hair colour of the nutty iconoclast. In Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn’s character eventually falls for the lascivious, pocket-sized redhead played by Isla Fisher: “When that redhead starts getting kooky, there's something about me that feels alive inside!”
But as those guys who have been turned away from the sperm bank surely know already, redheaded men aren’t always regarded as quite so tigerish. In ancient Egypt, male reds were sacrificed to Osiris to help the corn crops, and today there’s no male babe equivalent to Christina Hendricks and Julianne Moore. Men don’t dye their hair to resemble Napoleon Dynamite and Ron Weasley. An entry by a redheaded guy on the website Redhedd fumes, “Ron Howard is probably the archetype of the non-threatening, un-sexy male with red hair….I have often felt that most females view males with red hair as nothing more than Opie.”
Somehow, red registers as power in women and weakness in men. Those stereotype-subscribers who revere pale female skin as dewy and virginal probably find pale male skin sickly and anemic – the opposite of conventional masculinity (Prince Harry is working hard to change this, one lager at a time). When redheaded quarterback Andy Dalton was ascending to the NFL this year, a blogger asked, “Will America tolerate a red-headed quarterback?” Or: Can sissy boy catch a ball?
So red-headed men get a taste of the absurdity that women have been force-fed for years: As bag-poop-perm here can attest, hair can matter too much. That’s why it was intriguing to note that London’s recent Fashion Week featured enough grey-haired models to prompt a reporter to ask, “Is grey the new blonde?”
Going grey is one way around the hair pigeonholes, bypassing the bimbo blonde, the brainy brunette and the uppity red. Hair colour, like much that we find beautiful, isn’t so much in the eye of the beholder as the belly of the culture. The director of the Cryos sperm bank admitted that there is one place where red is still hot: It’s “selling like hotcakes” in Ireland.