Red Head Redemption

Given that red hair occurs naturally in 1-2% of the population, it makes sense the MC1R protein mutation enjoys a mystique denied its arguably more prosaic cousins. Triss (The Witcher series), Ellie (The Last of Us), Black Widow (Avengers)—within comics and videogames especially, red-headed women are even more disproportionately prevalent. It could be argued that their perilous roles to blame, given those with the genes for red hair are proven to have higher pain thresholds across a number of stimuli. But these works’ appropriation and refinement of the follicular “other” might also be a little more nuanced and significant than that.

Triss Merigold, aforementioned tritagonist of forthcoming grimdark fantasy videogame The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, is emblematic of the good work videogames are doing in recasting geeky redheads in a still feisty but more balanced light. It’s a representation that’s come a long way since the earliest records of red hair, dating back to c. 1500. At this time—the twilight of the Middle Ages—Mary Magdalene, the apostle of apostles, was occasionally depicted more as a repentant prostitute with long red hair, than one of Jesus’ most influential advisors. Judas too was supposedly of light red hair—adding deceitfulness and bad luck to the list of traits those of the copper locks had attributed to them.

Jessica Rabbit, of course, became a vibrator

From the outset of popular culture, then, redheads were thought of as wantonly sensuous and audacious. Hundreds of years later, in the ostensibly straight-laced society of the Victorians, when even revealing your wrist was seen as an incorrigible tease, red hair became an even clearer signal of unbounded female sexuality. In fact, period fiction author Emma Jameson notes “referring to a lady as ‘red-haired’ was tantamount to her social assassination.”

Fast-forward to The Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most enduring icons of the silver screen was a Latina woman by the name of Rita Hayworth, whose performance as Gilda in the eponymous film cemented public perception of redheads as femme fatales, and spitfires. Evolving from Hayworth’s legacy were two animated women: Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989) and Jessica Rabbit (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, 1988)—both heavily sexualised icons inextricably bound up with patriarchal/consumerist values. Take, for example, Ariel’s Faustian pact made to be with a man, and also when she sings, “You want thing-a-mabobs? I’ve got twenty, but who cares? No big deal. I want more!” Jessica Rabbit, of course, became a vibrator.

The Golden Age of comics (1930-50) often elevated otherness into full-blown super-powers, but it was not yet red-haired women’s turn in the inky spotlight. At least as far as cartoons and the nascent industry was concerned, the ideal woman for any male hero was a redhead. Charlie Brown pined for an “off-screen” red-headed girl, and Mary-Jane Watson became better known (unfairly) as Spiderman’s love interest.

More recently, the redhead-as-object has finally ascended into a full-fledged heroine. To name but a few topical leading (or significant supporting) ladies of the printed page: Red Sonja, Hawkgirl, Poison Ivy, Jean Grey/Phoenix, Barbara Gordon/Batwoman, Black Widow, Rogue and Mystique (X-Men) Angela (Spawn), Rose Red (Fables), and Rori from the excellent new series Wayward. They’re all powerful women, though sadly often depicted wearing little more than a flimsy shred of material, or forced to act as sirens, attempting to lure male characters into lustful liaison and/or their doom.

Perhaps, then, people playing videogames feel a kindred outsider or underdog status, an untapped otherness that has led to this love affair with red hair? Yet while comics glamorized, popularized and exploited redheads, videogames have helped, in part because of and the the heightened empathy created by control.

Though not playable, The Witcher’s powerful sorceress Triss has a key part to play. Ironically allergic to magic, Triss’s agency encompasses becoming one of King Foltest’s key advisors, playing foster parent to half-Witcher Ciri and nursing Geralt (the series’ main protagonist) back to health. Her lore is fleshed out further in the series of books the games are based on by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski; suffice to say, she transcends a simple love interest.

the player understands that Nariko is not an object of ridicule

While they’ve not had the same room to expand into, Ninja Theory’s protagonists Nariko and Tripp (of action-fantasy Heavenly Sword and the post-apocalyptic parkour sim Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, respectively) are also iconic redheads of recent years. Both women bear the cultural hangovers of their hair colour: Nariko is a pariah, born the wrong gender to fulfill her clan’s prophecy, and Trip ensures power over the playable character named Monkey through a mind-control circlet. Yet players experience two brilliant character arcs as they help Trip overcome her past demons (and killer robots), and control Nariko as she confronts her cursed destiny. Both become positive, nuanced, anti-establishment role-models.

Indeed, speaking of the red-headed siren call, the melodramatically evil King Bohan of Heavenly Sword seems to self-reflexively acknowledge the male fear of emasculation at the hands of strong women, when he exclaims: “We must destroy that female hellhag, that demi-devil, who lures me ever towards her, waiting, waiting for the moment when she can sink her slavering jaws … into my … sacred … GENITALS!’

Such a line in hands clumsier than those of Ninja Theory would betray the satire, but by having direct control of Nariko, the player understands that Nariko is not an object of ridicule, but a subject, their subject, and her revenge and empowerment is theirs, too. It will be fascinating to see if Celtic-inspired Senua, the female protagonist of Ninja Theory’s forthcoming Hellblade, is also a redhead of the same mold. 

Happily, similarly strong characters positively correlate to the quality of their games.  Further highlights of recent years include Ellie (The Last of Us), Nilin (Remember Me) Lightning and Vanille of Final Fantasy XIII, Claire Redfield (Resident Evil), Leliana (Dragon Age), FemShep (Mass Effect), Meryl Silverburgh (Metal Gear Solid), Lilith (Borderlands) and Transistor‘s player-character known only as Red. You’ll find that despite the occasional overly exposed midriff, these women are flying high the flag for redheads possessed of but not defined by their sexuality and whose actions and their games, are nearly uniformly borne from ideological opposition to mindless consumerism (Metal Gear, Resident Evil, Borderlands, etc) or to societal confines (Mass Effect, Transistor, The Last of Us). 

As representations of femininity in comics and games become increasingly complex, we may see redheads fall from favour. Or, perhaps, like the visual signposting of your ideal route in Mirror’s Edge, the colour red is just an easy visual shortcut, a way to draw the player’s eye. Either way, our future icons deserve to be defined by inner flames, not the ones on top of their heads.