Little Red Riding Hood Gets Feminist

little red riding hood
| Feminism > UK Feminism

How the Brothers Grimm did a hatchet job on Red Riding Hood. She was way more gutsy in the old folk tales…

Fairytales originated from folk tales told by peasants, generally women, usually to amuse themselves while engaging in those tedious tasks that consumed a large portion of their lives. This is why motifs of women’s work was so often included in the stories, as with Sleeping Beauty’s soporific spindle, the spinning of straw into gold in Rumplestilskin, and the sewing of shirts from nettle-flax in “The Wild Swans”.

Fairytales – no longer for everyone to enjoy. They’re for rich people, actually.

Despite these stories being seen as lower-class (and we can head off the forest path to talk about feminism, poverty and class if you happen to be doing a women’s studies paper on the topic), fairytales were later appropriated by the French aristocracy and adapted to reflect the sort of value system and manners that considered civilised at the time. Told as a type of parlourgame by both men and women, folk tales were a chance for women to exercise their creativity and intelligence while challenging patriarchal values. The result of these little parties was the transcription of tales into written form, transforming what was once inclusive storytelling available for all with ears to hear into an exclusive, private experience for the literate nobility alone – and their children.

The Fairytale Goddess becomes the Wicked Witch

To suit the social constraints of the time, the female-based point of view of the original folk tales was often distorted. Hence the original goddess-figure became an evil witch or stepmother and the active female heroine became an active male. Charles Perrault, often cited for his stories, normally preferred ‘heroines’ who were hard-working, mannerly and obedient, passive and virtuous and self-controlled at all times.

So where does Little Red Riding Hood come into it?

The Little Red Riding Hood fable was very different from the ideal, and her story functions as a cautionary tale to children. Although Red dutifully goes on an errand for her mother, she stops along her way to chat with “Gaffer Wolf” and this somehow dooms her to be punished. So she halts in her errand for a moment and talks to a stranger, what of it? She gets eaten up, that’s what; for Perrault offers no nearby woodsman with convenient surgical skills.

The Grimm brothers allow her a second chance at redemption, but make the point that she has learnt her lesson. Is there a lesson to be learned? Well, yes; to the code of the time there was indeed something immoral about talking to strange wolves, which Perrault makes clear in the little rhyming moral he includes at the end of his story. Animals, due to their lack of reason and baser instincts, are often seen as symbolising the sexual drive. In a carnivorous beast such as a wolf this metaphor can be extended to that of a sexual predator. Even in contemporary times a lascivious way of calling attention to a woman’s – er, more desirable attributes – is known as a wolf-whistle.

Perrault makes it clear in his quaint little rhyme that certain wolves are mild and gentle, following pretty young ladies into their very homes and bedrooms; and these are the most dangerous wolves all. This is what the story is meant to convey – women should not stop to talk to strange men lest they get themselves into some kind of trouble.

The moral code of the time was that knowledge of sexual matters was dangerous, and could lead to a similarly fraught society. Ms. Hood’s transgressions (getting into bed with a strange cross-dressing beast not being the least of them) were indeed punishable by death. And the manner of death itself is significant – in (symbolically) giving into her own sexual drives she is consumed by sexuality itself; literally swallowed whole. Looking a little closer, one can see an oral motif emerge. Red stops to speak to the wolf whilst delivering edible goodies, and is eaten herself. And of course there are the final, iconic last words: “Grandmother, what big teeth you have!”

feminist little red riding hood

The Company of Wolves. Art by KatSaw.

The yucky, anti-feminist Brothers Grimm ending to Little Red Riding Hood

OR: “Be a good little girl or the wolf will get you…”

A somewhat more disturbing facet of this interpretation can be reached when one equates this undesirable physical consumption with that of a different sort – rape. In ‘ideal’ circumstances, women have been associated with purity, or at least propriety. In leaving the heroines passively powerless the tales allow them to become not only physically compromised but blamed for it afterwards. In the Grimms’ version, Ms. Red and her grandmother are cut from the wolf’s belly and saved (to the Grimms, violence was not an issue as long as it had a moralising value).

On a different occasion she happens to meet another wolf, who greets her politely. This time she recognises the wicked look in his eyes and outwits him with the help of her grandmother. So the lesson has been learned – do not walk alone in the forest, do not talk to strangers, and do not under any circumstances allow yourself to be consumed. Because it will be all due to your own fault and childish ignorance.

The original fairytale has a happy (feminist) ending. Hurrah!

This anti-feminist Brothers Grimm ending is entirely different to the original folk tale, or the versions that survive anyway. It is often distributed under variations of the title “The Grandmothers’ Tale”, and although being an oral-based tale and having the opportunity to be freely altered by the teller, in many versions the girl saves herself by virtue of her own wit, and sexuality is dealt with in a more natural way. In some versions the wolf will ask her which path she wishes to take; the one of needles or the one of pins (another connection to ‘women’s work’ in these stories). In some the girl chooses for herself, in others the wolf might choose for her. It does not affect the story much, but there is an innate symbolism in these small tools. According to seamstress lore, the pin has connotations of chastity, while the needle (due to the ability of the eye to be threaded) is a sign of sexual maturity. So if the girl chooses the path of needles it is understood that she is ready to embrace her own sexuality. The metaphor of a girl encountering a male admirer is still present, but the girl is given a sexual choice from the onset.

Angela Carter‘s wonderful take on the fable aside, in all its various incarnations Little Red Riding Hood is a layered, allusive tale that is still very relevant today. Adapted by advertising and pop culture, appropriated by artists and reimagined by multiple authors and screenwriters, the story continues to be relevant in our culture despite its humble beginnings, as well as being a staple for children at bedtime.

Long live Little Red Riding Hood. Keep it strong, keep it feminist, keep a handy tool or two in your basket and keep your eye on that wolf.


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