FilmsFolded

Essays on cinematic narrative. The focus is a set of dynamics collected under the concept of folding, a related system of techniques to model agency and causality.

Redheads

Published: 15 Mar 2014

Redheads in film fascinate me. The interest applies to folding only in the loosest sense, that some flows in society at large are abstracted into cinematic devices. Here are some reasons they seem to be handled uniquely.

The Disney Character Lab

My first exposure to this was through a DARPA project. For reasons that do not matter here, I was given unprecedented access to a few Hollywood operations. One of these was a character lab at a major studio, serviced by what was then one of the largest non-government applied AI labs in the world. Most of the work at the lab was based on broadbased statistical studies of responses to character traits. A deliberate categorization of stereotypical traits was underway to serve the science of entertainment.

Most of what they shared was diffuse. Much was associated with racial characteristics, and even then this was thought unbankable because these change so readily. The strongest results they had concerned features of women: language tropes, body movements and hair. And of those, the most well understood were redheads. For some reason, the science of cinematic measurement said that ticketbuyers responded to redhaired women in specific roles.

Some of those roles were heroines. Others in contrast were wilder protagonists or secondary characters, and in every case easily read by audiences. The natural pool of redheads in the US is about 6%, and it is easy to see that natural redheads are overrepresented in films.

Technicolor

One reason is clear: our reproduction technologies are friendly to redheads. The most striking example was Technicolor, known for its brilliant reds. Many actresses contractually became redheads for Technicolor films and others who were naturally red were pulled from the lower ranks and made stars. The technology simply made them more appealing. This may have also been the period where because of the vast numbers, simple appeal was substituted for the previous stereotype of the wild, impulsive or vengeful woman.

Prior to that, black and white was what we had. Movies were more of a pastime than they are now, and though the celebrity magazines seem numerous today, they were relatively more popular then. Actresses would have been seen on screen in black and white, but everyone would have seen them in natural colors in these magazines. For some of the same reasons as with Technicolor, the preferred tones included a garish orange-red. Some of the most appealing actresses were naturally red, some red just for the magazines, and others not red at all but colored so in retouched photos.

Clara Bow

So I started looking at what it really means to be a redheaded woman in films, what is conveys in shorthand. So much of what we get through the medium is a barrage of shorthand to (ideally) set up a long form development. Clara Bow was where I started and I immediately saw that things worked both ways. Women fed the associations while taking advantage of them. Clara was the ‘It’ girl, the first overtly marketed sex symbol in film, though famous redheaded stage actresses paved the way.

Possibly, some of what we inherited comes from England, and the deep hatred of ‘gingers’ that grew out of the ‘Irish Troubles.’ Red hair meant you were Irish and therefore unruly, promiscuous and fertile, though Queen Elizabeth was red.

The Study

My interest thus piqued, I started paying attention. I was already looking at how cinematic stereotypes influenced my life and those around me, especially in matters of national and sexual narrative. So in the course of my folding study, I watched for redheads. I build a rather impressive database, stopping at 600 actresses (with photos, character traits and contextual contribution). Here, over time I will report my results.

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© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014