There is a certain word going around nowadays. A word that I’d previously never heard in this context outside of obscure British slang (by obscure, I mean obscure in the States) but at some point within the past two or three years became a common term. A word that a lot of people throw around, perhaps without thinking exactly what it implies, or what the connotations associated with it may be. A word that, personally, rubs me quite the wrong way. And that word is:
Admit it, when you think of the word “ginger”, the image that most likely pops into your mind is similar to the one above. Nearly gone are the days when people use the term “redhead” or “carrot-top” (thankfully) or, heaven forbid, “people with red hair”. No, for whatever reason, the term du jour to refer to this particular segment of the population has become “ginger”. And let me tell you, it’s become a little bee in my bonnet. Every time I hear the phrase used to refer to a person with auburn-y hair, it gets my hackles up. But why should a simple descriptive term cause me any stress at all? The answer is simple: the problem with the word is that it’s got a certain connotation associated with it that has never been a positive one. It’s a slur, pure and simple. And I think that most people who use it fall into two categories: those that don’t think it’s a slur, and those who don’t think slurs are offensive. (I guess there’s a third group: those who really are deliberately trying to offend, but I’m not even going to make the effort to address them, for obvious reasons.)
To the first group, those who don’t think it’s a slur, I’m here to say: yes, it is. Every time I’ve heard it used it has been in a negatively discriminatory way, even if it’s been used in a joking way, like the Christmas card with a redhead kid on Santa’s lap that says, “Santa loves all kids. Even ginger ones.” Ha ha ha bite me. The word conjures up the image of some poor schmuck who bursts into flame at the first ray of sun and is generally doomed to be either a goofball, a hick, a sassy firebrand who is never satisfied with anything, or extremely angry, but always, always somebody who stands out for all the wrong reasons. And the strange thing about what being a “ginger” means is that it runs the gamut of personality traits, even if they are all negative ones. This sets it apart from other similar stereotypes like blondes being dumb or Asians being good at math or black dudes being scary rappers or whatever in the sense that there’s not really anything else unifying the group other than hair color. When somebody tells a dumb blonde joke, the punchline is that the person does something stupid. When somebody tells a ginger joke, the punchline is that they’re a ginger! Like that is inherently hilarious! Ha ha! Redheaded kids get beaten more often! For some reason! Why? Who knows? They have red hair! Isn’t that funny?
I guess when somebody’s called a ginger, it also means they look funny. The odd thing is, that’s almost always a double-standard. Sure, there are a lot of frumpy redheaded girls out there, but when most guys think of a redheaded woman it’s usually someone who’s quite attractive; a Kirsten Dunst, or an Amy Adams, or a Julianne Moore, or maybe a Felicia Day for all the nerds. But when you ask girls to think of a redheaded guy, some may think of Conan O’Brien (whose attractiveness is debatable), or perhaps Ron Howard (whose unattractiveness is not debatable), but most nowadays think of, well…
At a recent FHE activity in my singles’ ward, the subject of “attractive redheaded men in the media” came up, and out of all the girls there only one could think of anyone at all (Conan), while a few liked Rupert Grint despite his looks and another few went for Neil Patrick Harris (but come on, he doesn’t really count; that hair is waay too light to be truly red). And even all those examples are more attractive due to their goofy charm than their actual physical attractiveness. None have been viewed generally on the same level as your Brad Pitts or Matthew McConaugheys.
But even taking the double standard into account there are certain redheaded girls who’d probably be more secure with themselves if they had been born a brunette or whatever. Like a girl in my singles’ ward whose looks I would describe as “nice”, but insists on the “ginger” moniker, to the point that she’s bringing up the fact that she’s a ginger in the most irrelevant of situations: “You like my sweater? It matches my hair, ’cause I’m a ginger” or “Yeah, I’m in college now, but I used to be in high school, where my nickname was ‘The Ginger'”, or “These are good cookies. Hey, that makes me think of gingersnaps! Like me! A ginger!” (ok, that last one was fudged a bit, but it wasn’t far from the truth.) The point is, it seemed to me like she was trying a little too hard, like she was pre-emptively bringing up the word to show that, “Hey, I’m just like you guys! I call redheads gingers too! I can make fun of myself too! I’m just like everyone else! Self-deprecation makes everything better!” Methinks she doth protest her gingerosity too much. But you see, that’s the point! That need wouldn’t exist if “ginger” were just a descriptive term. But it’s not. It’s a slur.
As for the second group of people, those who don’t think that slurs should be offensive, it’s a little trickier, as this problem goes far beyond the “ginger” label. There is a certain trope on TV Tropes called Acceptable Targets that describes this phenomenon pretty well. Basically, an acceptable target is a person or group of people that society thinks it’s still OK to make fun of and hold prejudices about. Obviously the particulars vary based on the society and time period involved, but basically it means that you can perpetuate whatever stereotypes you want about a certain group of people, usually in the name of comedy, and it’s considered OK to laugh at it, no matter how offensive it may have been otherwise. And while it can be argued that certain groups may have it coming to them or are deliberate lifestyle choices (such as becoming a lawyer, or watching Star Trek) that can be easily left behind, others are ethnically-based or otherwise based on some aspect that is difficult or impossible to change. This has especially become prevalent lately as a backlash to political correctness, and perpetuated by TV shows where nothing is sacred (your South Parks and your Family Guys, for example), to the point where, if somebody cracks a joke about an Acceptable Target, and you don’t laugh or you find it offensive, it’s you that has the problem and needs to lighten up, not the creator or the comedian.
This is where the self-deprecation comes in, as with the girl in my ward I described earlier. Lately it’s been applied more and more to members of the Church as well, such as Mormons who liked the Book of Mormon musical. Sure, there are bits that are funny (like the missionary who keeps confusing details of the Book of Mormon story with The Lord of the Rings), but there is so much offensive material that I believe it’s impossible for an active member of the Church to see it and not come away feeling at least a little offended. And while some may express that sentiment, there are plenty who laugh right along with it, because “Ha ha! See? Mormons are cool! We laugh at the same things as everyone else! We’re totally into the self-deprecation thing, because we’re just like you! There’s nothing wrong at all with associating the Church with baby rape jokes!” Not to mention the comedians that still make the polygamy jokes. “Oh that’s not us, that’s the Fundamentalist splinter groups! And it’s a good thing it’s not us, ’cause that means I can laugh at the joke too! Ha ha! What a bunch of weirdos!” And that’s sad.
The funny thing about the Acceptable Targets thing is that people don’t even think about it most of the time. Most people just accept the jokes without a second thought, unless that joke is either unacceptable by society’s standards (like making fun of veterans), or applies to them personally, or possibly a close friend, and even then there might be an excuse of, “No, it’s OK. My friend makes fun of himself more than I do,” to which I reply, see the example about the girl in my ward again. There’s probably a segment of people who read this post who, when going through the ginger parts, thought, “Oh, come on, Jeff. You just need to lighten up. Life’s too short to be offended by something as dumb as the word ‘ginger’.” who then felt a little more uncomfortable when I brought up the same idea with regards to Mormons (assuming said reader is a member of the Church). It’s never a big deal unless it applies to you. And then you can either let it pass without comment, indulge in some self-deprecation so people think you’re cool with it, or actually get up in arms about it and get the additional label of someone who just needs to “lighten up.” But whatever the reaction on your part, the term is still offensive, and it still hurts.
In conclusion, be careful of what you say and who you’re saying it about. Don’t call people with red hair “gingers”. No matter what you or anyone else says, ginger still means this:
And that’s sad.
To end this post on a completely unrelated note: here’s a comic that I found that describes about a third of the posts on this blog (but ironically not this one). I don’t know why it’s transparent, but I’m too lazy to fix it: