Romance Trope: The Redheaded Heroine

We here at Olivia Waite love a good discussion of tropes almost as much as we love not being sick—but we're only going to get one of those today, and it's not the second one. Lately both Smart Bitches and Dear Author (though I can't find the exact citation on the latter, sorry) have mentioned the prevalence of redheaded heroines in romance. It's true the statistical probability of women with red hair is much higher in romance than in the dull and tawdry realm known as "real life"—but then, Romancelandia is also populated with an immoderate number of heroes with Mighty Wangs, so let's not pretend that a strict adherence to probability is our first and greatest concern.

Someday perhaps I'll combine those two tropes and write about a well-endowed, redheaded hero, like this handsome dude:

A muscular, lantern-jawed, slightly bearded young man with shoulder-length red hair. He stands in a sunny forest, wearing a grey t-shirt, and holding a fishing rod in his right hand.

In fact, the high number of redheaded heroines makes total sense if you know where to look.

We talk a lot in the romance community about Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet as foundational heroines of the genre, and their descendents are indeed legion. But there's a third figure, not often cited but always present, whose influence has yet to be fully articulated.

Of course I'm talking about Anne of Green Gables.

Anne Blythe, née Shirley, is the unsung proto-heroine of many a romance novelist (as this post from Heroes and Heartbreakers bears out). She's bright, strange, lonely, and almost terminally optimistic. She constantly spars with über-beta-hero Gilbert Blythe right up until the moment where she thinks he's died and suddenly realizes he's the love of her life. {Author's note: swoon!}

She also, famously, has red hair. It is not simply a happenstance of appearance, but a defining signal of her character, as she explains:

You'd find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair... People who haven't red hair don't know what trouble is.

Anne's red hair is a mark of difference—of her orphan status, her dangerous imagination, and her unquenchable passion. It's remarked on by others—especially Civilization's Bitch-Queen, Mrs. Lynde—and fought against even by Anne herself, desperate to dye her hair Cordelia-black in a failed attempt at self-reinvention.

If we accept Anne's statement about her hair color as true, then we must also accept the reverse proposition: that people who have red hair do know what trouble is. This may in part explain the proliferation of redheads within sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal romance. These are also the genres that most benefit from a visible mark of difference to set the heroine apart from her society—whether that society is normal non-magical people or a futuristic race of space vampires engaged in political skulduggery. Red hair always has been culturally linked to the supernatural. (For instance: according to legend, redheads can spontaneously become vampires when they die! No fangs required.)

And to use hair color as a visible difference marker sits much more comfortably with authors and readers nowadays than if we used, oh, skin color as the same kind of tool. (I'm looking at you, Tolkien, with your dark dirty orcs and pure white shining elves.) So the prevalence of red hair could also be seen as a symptom of genre fiction's general and deplorable tendency to whiteness: we want our heroine to look different and special—but still, you know, white. So not that different after all.

To indicate that the prevalence of red hair in the book world is not simply in our imaginations, here is a highly unscientific Google Ngram search for the word 'redhead' from 1880 up until 2000.

Google Ngram for the word 'redhead' between the years of 1880 and 2000.You'll notice the bump around 1900—and how the graph starts to rise after that. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908. My off-the-cuff explanations for the sharp rise in the 1930s and 40s are: Judy Garland and other redheaded starlets of Hollywood's golden years, plus Alberto Vargas' slew of redheaded cheesecake illustrations. Then there's a bit of a downturn—and then a huge and continuing surge, suggestively concurrent with the rise of romance and later paranormal romance in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

But it isn't just the paranormal heroines who follow in L. M. Montgomery's footsteps: there's a little something of Anne's story in the small-town romance narrative as well, where a heroine arrives in a tiny place and upsets it socially. The orphan or outsider who forces change while also adapting themselves, all while finding love in an unexpected place and suffering just enough heartbreak on the way. These heroines are usually a peculiar blend of stubborn and vulnerable, a combination which is easier to comprehend once Anne Shirley is seen as part of the pattern.

There's an Anne-type redheaded heroine in one of my favorite Regencies, as well: Eleanor Lyndon from Julia Quinn's Brighter Than the Sun. Ellie is a humble vicar's daughter who clashes with her domineering, too-correct stepmother. There's a bit of Cinderella mixed in (evil stepmother, a prince looking for a wife) but much of the romance plot is developed by discussing the color of her hair. For instance:

She'd always wanted her hair to be something more exotic than just plain red. It was an unexpected gift from some long-forgotten Irish ancestor. The only good thing about it had been that it was a constant source of irritation to her father, who had been known to develop nausea at the merest intimation that there might be a Catholic somewhere in his family tree.

Ellie had always rather liked the idea of a rogue Catholic hiding out in her family tree. She had always liked the idea of anything out of the ordinary, anything to break up the monotony of her humdrum life. (Brighter Than the Sun, 42)

Personal Agendas: I Have One

To be perfectly honest, however, one of the reasons I am always glad to see redheads in romance is that I am a redhead myself. A good, solid, enviable strawberry blonde. It's lovely, but it's not a comfortable hair color for someone who preferred to stay quietly in the background as a kid, though having to step up and speak out more than I liked has probably been healthy for me in the long run.

(And no, I've never tried to dye my hair black—but I would have, if Anne Shirley hadn't shown me the folly of it while I was still an impressionable youth. A redheaded friend in college was not so lucky—and the results were indeed disastrous. Every redhead I've ever met has craved dark hair at some point in their lives.)

This may be a significant fault of mine as a person, but it's still hard for me to remember sometimes that I'm the main character in my own life. And outside of romance, we redheads don't get very many starring roles. We're usually sidekicks and secondary characters. For every Lucille Ball there's a dozen Christina Hendrickses; for every Pippi Longstocking there's a hundred Weasleys. (Admittedly, I'm over the moon about Christina Hendricks and the Weasleys.) So there's a very deep, very personal satisfaction I get from seeing redheads working toward their own happily ever after.

So bring on your your Anne Shirleys, your Ellie Lyndons, and your Gemma Murphys—this is one trope I'm never going to see too much of.

{BONUS for those who are still with me: The complete e-text of Anne of Green Gables is available here and at Project Gutenberg. Happy reading!}