Why does red flag sex? [Seeing Red: Part 2]

Why does red flag sex?

Red is also a sensual colour. There have been studies that link the colour red to the perceived attractiveness of partners. When men or women wear red, they appear more attractive to their partners.  While some connotations of red are socio-cultural, we find many shades of red in the animal world, from crustaceans to primates, function to attract partners.    As a result, the colour red is associated with status in the animal world, since higher status animals have more sexual contacts.   As a result, Red is associated in the wider animal world with testosterone.  Desmond Morris, in the Naked Ape, also points to the connection between primate colourings and sexual potency.  the natural  red colouring of faces and backsides advertise sexual maturity and status.  We still use red in very similar ways to primates in terms of overt and showy displays of success and status.

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The pleasure and erotic side of the colour are expressed in imagery of the moulin-rouge, red-light districts and the lady-in-red.   The OED puts the first literary use of the term red-light to a 1894 journalistic article from Ohio, though this is not a conclusive findings.  Gregory Mobley (2012:60) suggests that the story of Rahab, in the Old Testament (Joshua 2:1-7), as a known prostitute who identifies her home to invading spies with a scarlet rope; perhaps starting the bordello colour association.  This meaning might share deeper archetypal interpretation of folktales, such as Little-Red Riding Hood communicating the coming-of-age of a woman through this fertility coloured cloak.  This knitting-circle tale, documented by the Grimm Brothers, was shared and instructive amongst women, warning of the dangers that young women might face when they get their ‘red hood’ and are mature enough to leave home by themselves. Cautioning them to be aware of the attention of hairy men  (male puberty) that seek to draw them off the path of purity.  We can see this base story, retold in an animated 1943 Film, Red Hot Riding Hood, which was an inspiration for creator Gary Wolf’s Jessica Rabbit.  Jessica is the expression of the woman in red, linking the innocence and sensuality of Marilyn in her character.

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Nathanial Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1850) is the inverse of this story; rather than a woman in red, it’s the story of red on a woman. A woman marked with the letter A in a Puritan town to symbolize the Sin of Adam and the Fall from grace and exile from Eden.   A more contemporary telling of this was Emma Stone’s 2010 star-vehicle movie ‘Easy A’ .  In 2013, in Gangster Squad, Emma got to play the Lady in Red.

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Since all meaning is referential, the dominance of red can be shown to have influenced other colours in this context.  This strong association of red and fertility might have also influenced the evolution of how we perceive the colour pink.  Recalling in recent time, we show most of our princesses as ‘pretty in pink’ before they come of age. Although, this is a more recent understanding in colour symbolism since the 1940’s , which coincides with the use of ‘red light’ cultural imagery.  Before the 1940’s boys were also dressed in pink, and girls blue, which illustrates a cultural shift in meanings.  Part of this meaning-change between 1940-1980 might align with the more specific and gender targeted children’s marketing, where colour coding has become convention.  Perhaps an illustration of this Pink/Red shift in meaning is the ‘Red Hat Society’ that was started in 2000, where in rebellion, middle-age women wear red hats to celebrate friendship and fun in the second half of life.  The society encourages younger women to wear pink hats, until you turn 50 and have your ‘coronation’.  This was parodied in the Simpson episode (to the symbolism of red): “The Last of the Red Hat Mamas’, where Marge joins the  ‘The Cherry Red Tomatoes Group’.

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We can find the impact of the colour red on all our primal appetites of food, sex and power, as something that occurs in nature and that has cultural meanings.  In the second part of this observation, it’s interesting to look at the many different symbolic associations with the colour red.