“Little Red Riding Hood” is one of the best-known fairy tales. Depending on who tells it, this is a feminist story, or a patriarchal one. Little Red Riding Hood is told to children, but probably features often as a sexual fantasy. Elle avait vu le loup – “She’d seen the wolf” in French means she’s lost her virginity. There are also links to ‘true crime’, with certain historical crimes reminding us of this story of a girl in the woods.
A HISTORY IN A NUTSHELL
The history of Little Red Riding Hood is summed up neatly by Angela Slatter:
It’s been an interesting journey for Little Red Riding Hood. She started life in a tribal tale about a girl who outsmarts a wolf – all on her own, no outside help. A few centuries later, she gets a red cap, loses about twenty IQ points and gets eaten by a transvestite wolf. Add another hundred or so years, the cap becomes a hood, she loses a few more brain credits, gets molested, and then eaten by the same cross-dressing wolf but is rescued by a big, strong man and learns never to disobey the rules again. Adding insult to injury, in the 40s Tex Avery turned her into a stripper. Bruno Bettelheim* looked at Gustave Dore’s 1867 Little Red Riding Hood illustrations and saw dirty pictures – Little Red in bed with the wolf, giving him the eye. A red leather-jacketed Reese Witherspoon (oh, puhleeez!) played her in an Eighties film version, Freeway, in which a friendly neighbourhood serial killer fulfils the role of the wolf. Just when you thought it was all over, Angela Carter came along, reclaimed her and set her free.
*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
In From The Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner traces fairytales back to much older stories, oftentimes Greek and Roman legend.
Verumnus, god of autumn fruitfulness, fell in love with Pomona, goddess of summer fruitfulness, of orchards and gardens, but found that she was very zealous to keep her chastity; so he disguised himself as an old woman. In this masquerade, as the first wolf in granny’s clothing, the god of autumn softens Pomona; when he changes back into his ‘undimmed manly radiance’, she puts up no further resistance.Marina Warner, From The Beast to the Blonde
THE ENDURING APPEAL OF LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
Why does “Little Red Riding Hood” continue to be so popular? Perry Nodelman uses Little Red Cap as an example to explain that it’s the repetitiousness of fairytales rather than the suspense that brings readers back for more:
If we explore ‘authentic’ versions of fairy tales, particularly those in the collection of the Grimm brothers, we discover that they tend to place particular emphasis on those central episodes that form the spine of the tale and to describe them in more detail. In the story called “Little Red Cap,” we hear a lot about the little girl’s conversation with the wolf but only a quick summary of her flower picking. Further attention is drawn to the spinal episodes because so many of them repeat each other…Red Riding Hood asks the wolf about a number of his physical characteristics. Furthermore, there often tend to be curious parallels and contrasts that relate even those spinal episodes that are not directly repetitive with each other and that focus our attention on them. In the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap,” for instance, the central moments are all conversations, and most of them involve somebody theoretically wiser telling Little Red Cap what to do—first her mother, then the wolf, then the wolf disguised.
As we read or hear a fairy tale, these patterns result in a rhythmic intensifying and lessening of interest as we move from central episode to less central episode and then back again; the effect is different from the gradual intensifying toward a climax that we get in other sorts of stories. And for those of us who already know the popular fairy tales we hear—and that surely is most of us at some point early in our childhoods—our pleasure in them must derive from repetition of that rhythmic pattern rather than from the suspense we usually enjoy in story; if we already know the story, there can be no suspense in it for us.Words About Pictures by Perry Nodelman
The following are notes largely from:
- The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood by Jack Zipes
- Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked by Catherine Orenstein
- Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan
A Man-Hating Story?
At this point I’ll offer an interpretation of Little Red-Cap by a man, only to show the many ways this fairy tale can be interpreted, depending on which sex you tend to identify with most readily. Erich Fromm’s interpretation completely ignores the fact that it was written down by two men (the Grimm Brothers), who presumably also identified more readily with the patriarchy than with young girls. (Also, does everything red and associated with women have to signify menstruation?)
Most of the symbolism in this fairy tale can be understood without difficulty. The “little cap of red velvet” is a symbol of menstruation. The little girl of whose adventures we hear has become a mature woman and is now confronted with the problem of sex.
The warning “not to run off the path” so as not “to fall and break the bottle” is clearly a warning against the danger of sex and of losing her virginity.
The wolf’s sexual appetite is aroused byt he sight of the girl and he tries to seduce her by suggesting that she “look around and hear how sweetly the birds are singing.” Little Red-Cap “raises her eyes” and following the wolf’s suggestion she gets “deeper and deeper into the wood.” She does so with a characteristic piece of rationalization: in order to convince herself that there is nothing wrong she reasons that grandmother would be happy with the flowers she might bring her.
But this deviation from the straight path of virtue is punished severely. The wolf, masquerading as the grandmother, swallows innocent Little Red-Cap. When he has appeased his appetite, he falls asleep.
So far the fairy tale seems to have one simple, moralistic theme, the danger of sex. But it is more complicated than that. What is the role of the man, and how is sex represented?
The male is portrayed as a ruthless and cunning animal, and the sexual act is described as a cannibalistic act in which the male devours the female. This view is not held by women who like men and enjoy sex. It is an expression of a deep antagonism against men and sex. But the hate and prejudice against men are even more clearly exhibited at the end of the story. Again, as in the Babylonian myth, we must remember that the woman’s superiority consists in her ability to bear children. How, then, is the wolf made ridiculous? By showing that he attempted to play the role of a pregnant woman, having living beings in his belly. Little Red-Cap puts stones, a symbol of sterility, into his belly, and the wolf collapses and dies. His deed, according to the primitive law of retaliation, is punished according to his crime: he is killed by the stones, the symbol of sterility, which mock his usurpation of the pregnant woman’s role.
This fairy tale, in which the main figures are three generations of women (the huntsman at the end is the conventional father figure without real weight), speaks of the male-female conflict; it is a story of triumph by man-hating women, ending with their victory, exactly the opposite of the Oedipus myth, which lets the male emerge victorious from this battle.Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language
Various Versions and Intended Audience
WHEN I was a child, I had recurring nightmares about wolves — beasts the size of skyscrapers that walked on their hind legs around New York City blocks, chasing and eventually devouring me. My mother says she made the mistake of bringing me to see a live performance of “Little Red Riding Hood” when I was a toddler, and that the man dressed as the wolf terrified me. I started having the dreams almost immediately after I saw the play, and they lasted into high school; I don’t remember when they stopped.
It was just a play, just a scary man, yet my young brain was indelibly affected by that one moment.What Does A Lifetime Of Leers Do To Us? from Jessica Valenti
LRRH wasn’t always a children’s story. It’s a truth seldom acknowledged that fairy tales used to be for everyone. It’s anachronistic to even speak of ‘the child’ before a certain point in history, because the concept did not exist. There were babies, then there were people, sent out to work at the earliest opportunity.
Continue reading “The Evolution Of Little Red Riding Hood”