Where Have All The Red-Headed Heroines Gone?

10th Nov 2014

Where Have All The Red-Headed Heroines Gone?
Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and eat men like air - Sylvia Plath

Where have all the red-heads gone? Where are the ginger heroines of yesteryear? The Nancy Drews and Anne Shirleys? YA and children's literature are both inordinately fond of fiery red-heads but in recent years our favourite hair colour seems to be dropping out of mainstream fiction...

Considering how few gingers there are in the general population (1-2% at the last count) it shouldn’t be surprising that the 21st century is seeing a surprisingly low number of red-headed literary heroines.

But it wasn’t always this way! For the first half of the 20th century red-heads reigned supreme and very few of us got through childhood without developing massive crushes on one, if not multiple, ginger adventurers.

Dawn of The Red-Heads

It started with Anne Shirley, a red-headed reader who is constantly lead astray by her fiery temper and ardent love of Tennyson. Although she may have declared that “red hair is my lifelong sorrow” readers can’t get enough of Anne of Green Gables (AOGG). L.M. Montgomery started her best selling AOGG series back in 1908 but Anne wasn’t alone for long…

In 1922 Richmal Crompton created her own ginger scamp. Just William is the darling of naughty schoolboys and girls across the land (let’s just ignore the fact that he probably grew up to become a member of the Bullingdon Club), but he’s incomplete without his ginger partner in crime Ginger.

Ginger’s willingness to enter into William’s ill-fated adventures identifies him as a natural forbearer of Harry Potter‘s sidekick Ron Weasley

Through Anne and Ginger we can trace the fortunes and futures of ginger boys and girls. While the ginger gentlemen of literature were mainly confined to the role of sidekick, the girls were striking out ahead.

1930 brought us Nancy Drew, another ginger teenager with a slightly wayward temper to match her hair. As Nancy raced around solving crimes, Anne was still going strong; bemoaning her red hair and losing her temper at anyone who tampered with it in equal measure.

Nancy Drew

[Image Credit: Troy Goode on Flickr]

In 1945 a new redhead barrelled into town and completed their unholy trinity; Pippi Longstockings! Despite being younger than Anne and Nancy, Pippi outstriped them when it came to going against the grain.

With her superhuman strength, Pippi contrives to live on her own and have adventures on her own terms; the literary trope of rebellious red-headed hero was here to stay!

For decades this trio of red-heads ruled supreme, Anne, Nancy and Pippi were the archetypal ginger heroes. Readers loved them and writers were constantly creating flame-haired variations (see also Mallory Pike in The Babysitter’s Club, the Cam Jansen series, my own heartthrob; Anastasia and Amelia Bedleia to name a few).

The Decline of Hot-Headed Heroines

In recent years, however, there appears to have been a shift away from the literary staple of the firey redhead kicking arse and saving the day. New editions of both Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables have seen both girls given a blonde makeover.

Red-headed girls seemed to be fading into sidekicks; following the trend of making ginger boys the loveable best friend rather than the adventurous hero (poor Ron Weasley, the man even his creator wished she’d left single!)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying red-heads have ever been underrepresented in fiction – they get a helluva showing in comparison to BAME girls, differently-abled girls, fat girls, trans girls or queer girls. But the way they were represented in children’s and YA lit was changing and that change tended to be to the detriment of those madcap ginger heroes.

By making a character have red-hair women writers were able to evoke a short-hand for all those things people worried about girls reading.The reason for this decline lies in the incredibly heartening fact that authors no longer have to used red-hair as a catch all term for empowered, independent, kick-arse women.

Just as women were struggling to have adventures in the first half of the 20th century, women authors were struggling to write about those adventures as well. By making a character have red hair, women writers were able to evoke a short-hand for all those things people worried about girls reading.

If Nancy, Anne, Pippi et al had been presented to parents as a group of independent women; unshackled by parents, full of youth and ready for anything it would have been a much harder sell for publishers.

The very fact that these classics can be re-read in so many ways shows how truly subversive they were. Anne and Diana from AOGG as lesbians; Nancy Drew as a front for a militant feminist; Pippi as liberator of oppressed children (and considering how oppressed girls were, and are, this is an incredibly powerful statement).

By associating red-hair with independence of spirit writers had a quick and easy way to appeal to the riot grrrl in all of us, without causing undue alarm at the rebels they were creating. And thank god they don’t have to do that any more!

Further Reading

For those still aching for red-headed heroines here are some recent publications to keep you going: Thirst by Kerry Hudson and My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (for details of both their ginger heroes click the links for our reviews).

For children’s books there’s The Redheaded Princess by Ann Rinaldi, My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother by Patricia Polacco and Scarlet Ibis by Gill Lewis, while YA authors are getting in on the act with Graceling by Kristin Cashoe and The Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray. Phew!


Thanks for inspiring this list @epmk and Jen Doll

[Title Image via Eddy Van 3000]