Anne of Green Gables is back on the small screen – a made-for-TV movie will air on YTV in February and CBC has just announced a new miniseries to be shot later in the year. Both adaptations promise to provide a fresh take on the plucky, freckle-faced orphan and, judging by the creative choices, a darker one.
The TV movie has Martin Sheen (star of Apocalpyse Now, father of Charlie) in the role of Matthew Cuthbert (thankfully, Lindsay Lohan was unavailable to play Anne). The CBC series will be penned by a writer from Breaking Bad and co-produced by Miranda de Pencier, who played the villainous Josie Pye in the original Sullivan Entertainment TV adaptation of the 1980s.
Given that Anne is getting a new lease on her fictional life, it's important to ask: What will it mean for her people? Back when Megan Follows played her in 1985, we didn't have gay marriage or lobby groups for overweight people or a prime minister who liked greeting refugees at the airport. Back then, we were an ignorant, unenlightened bunch.
Today, there are activists urging us to recognize that Anne is part of a minority that only accounts for a fraction of the population of Canada and yet takes an undue share of mockery and abuse. No, I'm not talking about the good citizens of Prince Edward Island, proud and noble tribe though they are (thanks for the spuds, guys). I'm talking about members of the bullied and beleaguered minority historically maligned with an unmentionable word.
Are you feeling confused? Perhaps that's because you are a good, colour-blind Canadian and have never noticed that our dear Anne is actually – I'm just going to put it out there – a ginger. There, I've said it.
I have been advised that the term "redhead" is more politically correct, while "carrots," Gilbert Blythe's schoolboy nickname for his future wife, Anne, is utterly unconscionable. Let's hope the new adaptations address the pressing issue of why any proud, fiery-headed young woman would eventually submit to the attentions of an unrepentant gingerist, handsome and twinkly-eyed as he was (RIP, Jonathan Crombie).
You think I'm joking, don't you? And I am. But for many people, the issue of gingerism is a very real one.
In the past, redheads have been burned at the stake as witches. More recently, the satirical TV show South Park popularized anti-redhead sentiment with its Kick a Ginger campaign in 2008. Here in Britain, where the red-haired gene is much more predominant than in other parts of the world (all of Asia and Africa pop to mind), you'd expect there to be less gingerism, not more. In fact, the opposite is true.
In the very British Penguin Guide to Superstitions, gingerism is identified as a "general prejudice that red-haired people are devious, cruel, lascivious, unlucky and generally untrustworthy." And violent attacks on redheads, if not a common occurrence, still happen with unfortunate regularity. In 2012, 23-year-old redhead Alex Kosuth-Phillips was brutally beaten outside a Birmingham pizza shop on his birthday for the colour of his hair, causing national soul-searching on the topic in the press. This included the argument that gingerism should be enshrined in law as a hate crime like any other, made very seriously in the New Statesman by the redheaded writer Nelson Jones.
"Anti-ginger bullying may be a particular problem in schools, but few schools make it a priority, guided by the law and codes of practice to concentrate their efforts on tackling racism, homophobia and disability prejudice," Jones wrote. "Indeed, unlike hatred based on race or sexuality, however, there is no legal recognition that anti-ginger prejudice exists …"
In Canada, my redheaded friends agree they are still teased at school or in the office, but the issue of enshrining their protection in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms hasn't yet been seriously raised. I suspect that this, in large part, is because we are just a saner, calmer culture with fewer drunken louts throwing sucker punches outside pizza shops.
But I also think it's at least a little bit because of Anne.
I had two fictional idols as a child: Anne of Green Gables and Little Orphan Annie. Both were poor, misbehaved orphans with bright red hair and freckles. As soon as I was old enough to go to the drugstore and buy a box of Flirt, I dyed my hair Christmas-ball red to match my idols. It looked terrible, of course.
To my mind, growing up in culturally tolerant Canada, red hair was synonymous with a kind of spunky, outspoken chutzpah that I sought to emulate rather than mock or disparage. I wanted to be different and test the boundaries of acceptable girl-child behaviour like Anne, and in this I latterly succeeded, though let's just say it wasn't by floating myself down the river and reciting The Lady of Shalott.
The point is, Anne Shirley is a role model of difference in a society where difference is largely respected and less often persecuted. This is Canada, a country where carrot tops rule.