Playing the ginger card

"I think most Australians desire leaders who are strong and tell us the truth.  But we should also want them to be flexible enough to adapt to a changing world."

"I think most Australians desire leaders who are strong and tell us the truth. But we should also want them to be flexible enough to adapt to a changing world."

Last week we cheered, wept, or gaped vacant-eyed as Rudd galloped across the proverbial drawbridge clutching Gillard’s severed head in his hand. Words and blood were aspilled on national and global news sites as scribblers debated who or what was to blame.

But to my mind, not one writer picked up one of the most obvious reasons for her downfall. No-one scrutinised the head or, more precisely, the hair on the head that Rudd was maniacally waving.

Gillard’s red hair wasn’t everything, and it wasn’t nothing. But it was something. And it’s time we started, as a nation, to work out what role her crimson mop played. And if we have the courage to do this, and to move forward together, then maybe it will be easier for the next ginger and the next one and the one after that. As a fellow ginger, I can only hope.

Gillard played the gender card because she was confronted with flagrant misogyny. And by playing the gender card, I mean she called out sexism where she saw it. But I think her biggest mistake was in not playing the ginger card. Gillard suffered the most foul orangaphobia (fear of gingers (not technical term)) that this nation has yet seen. By many definitions, it would constitute a hate crime.


Need proof? May I remind you of her ‘big red box’? Or how about the facebook groups: ‘Don’t you hate when you wake up and a ranga is ruining our country?’ Or ‘Julia Gillard/Ronald McDonald, can you tell the difference?’ In fact, I challenge anyone to scour the ungrammatical wastelands of the comments section on any article concerning Gillard and not find a reference to her as a ‘ranga b****’ or red whatever. Think of the most antiquated insults you can hurl at women like WITCH or SLUT, add a red in front, throw in some incorrect spelling and ill-placed commas and there you have Australian democracy in action.

Our first red-headed female PM (the first red-headed PM was James Scullin in the 1920s) was vilified purely on the basis that she has a bright blaze of hair. We wouldn’t accept it if the hatred was based on skin colour. On the whole, we tend to think that discrimination based on physical characteristics is unacceptable. Except if you are a redhead, in which case we will subject you to a childhood of sunscreen and social ostracism, and a lifetime of speculation about whether you’re a fantapants or not.

Sure, you can say that we now have Christina Hendricks and Homeland’s Damian Lewis. Hollywood has always embraced the auburn allure: from Rita Hayworth to Molly Ringwald to Jessica Rabbit to Nicole Kidman in her BMX Bandits days before she started freezing her face and bleaching her hair a whiter shade of boring. In fact, looking at this list, you could argue that gender has helped these gingers.

Lady redheads have been seen as having it a bit easier than their male counterparts because they at least could be seen as sexy. But the ability to be visually consumed by men as exotic sexual objects is hardly the definition of emancipation. If anything, ginger intersects with gender to place us in the curious position of being objects of lust and loathing, of desire and disgust.

The problem for Gillard was that she wasn’t there for our amusement or titillation. She was there to lead the country. And we simply have no model to draw on of ginger women appearing publically in positions of power and leadership outside of entertainment. Unable to cope with a flame-haired leader we reverted to the schoolyard playground. The nation behaved like a bunch of Heathers or blonde-haired bullies, while poor Gillard was forced to take her carrot top to the toilet to eat vegemite sandwiches ALONE.

When did society develop such hatred of those with strawberry tresses? And will there ever be a day when people cease to believe that redheads have no soul?

Well, redheads have always been a minority (at present we make up 1-2 per cent of the world’s population) and like most minorities we’ve suffered stigmatisation. Some historians trace it back to beliefs that Judas Iscariot was a redhead, others say that witches were believed to have red hair. But there is nothing timeless or inevitable about hating on gingers.

Australia’s hatred of redheads probably stems largely from our unfortunate English inheritance, our cultural roots in a bleak, muddy people who associated gingers with the rebellious Irish and recalcitrant Scots.

But like Shepherd’s Pie and Bubble and Squeak we can throw off the misfortunes of our English heritage. You can hate on Gillard for her approach to refugees or single mothers, but not her hair. And given that she is now widely seen as the most reformist PM in Australian history, she surely stands as proof that the stereotypes associated with redheads – as fiery, irrational and soulless – need to be discarded. EXCEPT the stereotype about intellectual superiority which Gillard seems to have confirmed as universally and objectively true.