The world is not always kind to redheads, as we know from the early travails of orphan Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. And it is not always kind to stepchildren, as we know from reading of Cinderella's mistreatment by her new family.
At some point, someone rolled the two ingredients into one phrase - "red-headed stepchild" - and used it as the ultimate description of a put-upon person or project. The precise origin of the expression is a mystery, yet the phrase pops up with the regularity of toast.
On July 26, The Denver Post wrote that the United States' community-college system, "the proverbial red-headed stepchild of education, is poised to become a favoured child." On July 23, filmmaker Todd Phillips was quoted in these pages as saying, "I just enjoy comedy so much. I don't see it as the red-headed stepchild of the movies." On July 18, again in The Globe, sportswriter Bruce Dowbiggin referred to mixed martial arts as "the red-headed stepchild of contact sports." On July 11, The Gazette in Colorado Springs said the "often stigmatized" disease hepatitis C "is often considered the red-headed stepchild of maladies."
Most reference books are silent on the phrase, but the massive Dictionary of American Regional English finds a citation in 1941, when the journal American Speech defined "like a red-headed stepchild" as "unjustly, unkindly." The regional dictionary adds this definition: "someone or something that is unwanted or badly treated - figuring in [the]phrase 'beat like a red-headed stepchild,' to beat severely; to best definitively (in a game or contest)."
That last variation is distinctly unpleasant, but it's surprising how easily such unpleasant expressions lodge in the language. Some people still refer casually to a ribbed, sleeveless undershirt as a "wife-beater," because it has a reputation as the kind of shirt worn by jerks who assault their wives.
The red-headed stepchild has largely escaped such associations, but the "beating" phrase was still in the inventory used in 2002 by Paul Begala, then co-host of the CNN show Crossfire: "After taking a week of tasteless cheap shots about his age, the old lion [former U.S. vice-president Walter Mondale]climbed into the ring with former Democrat, now turncoat Republican, Norm Coleman, and beat him like a bad piece of meat, beat him like a barn mule, beat him like a red-headed stepchild."
Despite a long list of famous and admired redheads, from Elizabeth I and George Washington to Winston Churchill, Lucille Ball and Tori Amos, there is a history of demonizing red hair. It was said to have been the colour of Judas Iscariot's hair, such that in Shakespeare's As You Like It, when Rosalind remarks that someone's "very hair is of the dissembling colour," Celia replies, "Something browner than Judas's." Wordsmith Robert Hendrickson says redheads were once thought "to be so deceitful that the fat of dead red-haired men was used as an ingredient in poisons and fish baits."
Even so, why would red hair make the stepchild more vulnerable than the general child, or the neighbour? Speculation is rife on the Internet. Some suggest that a father who married a woman with a redheaded child might have resented the fact that the child looked nothing like him. But if a father was sadistic enough to beat a child because he didn't father him, wouldn't any excuse do - blond hair, dark hair, different eyes?
One notion is that there might be an ethnic component, a backlash against early Irish immigrants, one of whom might have fathered a child that his widow brought into the new marriage. Others suggest that if a dark-haired husband suspected his dark-haired wife had had an affair, he might see the birth of a red-headed child as proof, however wrong-headed, that the child was not his own, but a "stepchild."
Clearly the expression started somewhere. Why it continues to be used, divorced from its origins, is as much a mystery as how the phrase appeared in the first place.