Reading Resolution: “ Red: A History of the Redhead” by Jacky Colliss Harvey

10. A book written in Europe: Red: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey

List Progress: 18/30

As someone engaged to a redheaded woman, I did not hesitate for a moment when I saw Red: A History of the Redhead on a library shelf. This 2015 non-fiction book by Jacky Colliss Harvey traces the genetic and social history of red hair around the globe and its depictions in art and media. This is just about one of the most frivolous and inessential world history books I’ve come across, containing far more of Harvey’s own feelings about growing up with red hair than academic rigor. But as one of the history professors in college used to say, opinions are what make reading history fun, even as they make the work itself more biased. Red is a cute book that shines in the art history sections, but I would not come to it when looking for a serious take on global history.

Red jumps around in time and history, tracing the perceptions of red hair all the way from ancient Thracians to Southpark, and isolating some themes along the way. The one topic that gets the most room to shine is the gendered aspect of how redheads are seen. Redheaded men tend to either be bunched into barbaric wildman tropes or the other end of the spectrum, desexualized Napoleon Dynamite wimps. Redheaded girls get spunky and precocious (Anne Shirley, Pippi Longstocking) while redheaded women are fiery vamps. Harvey goes into detail in the cases of Renaissance artists who made their careers on painting redheads, and Harvey’s own background as an artist model gave this section a nice personal perspective. She takes care to go into the stories of the redheaded models themselves, not just the men who painted and occasionally fetishized them.

The sections of genetic ancestry and modern day pop culture are not as well-sketched, feeling a bit outside of Harvey’s area of expertise and existing in broad strokes more than individual stories. And her talk about modern discrimination against redheads can raise some eyebrows. She acknowledges that it is not on par with racism (saving the periods of time when red hair in Europe was closely associated with Jewish heritage), but one does have to feel that she is overstating her case a bit when talking about a trait that is almost exclusively shared among those of white European background.

Red: A History of the Redhead is cute and has some fun trivia in it (perfume apparently smells different on redheads and I feel the need to test this with my fiance immediately). But if you don’t already have some sort of opinion and fond feelings about red hair, this book will not do much for you.

Would I Recommend It: Eh, if you think red hair is interesting, yes, but you need that outside interest to get anything out of it.

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