Before Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, Red Riding Hood Was A Feminist Tale
The Brothers Grimm did a hatchet job on Red Riding Hood, but she was way more gutsy in the old folk tales. A feminist critique of retellings old and new.
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 done 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 which were considered civilised at the time.
Told as a type of parlour game, 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. Writing down stories passed by oral tradition transformed 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 women’s perspective of the original folk tales was often distorted. As a result, the original goddess-figure became an evil witch or stepmother and the active woman protagonist became an active male hero. Charles Perrault, often cited for his stories, normally preferred ‘heroines’ who were hard-working, mannerly and obedient. He liked the women in his folk and fairytales to be 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:
From this story one learns that children,
Especially young lasses,
Pretty, courteous and well-bred,
Do very wrong to listen to strangers,
And it is not an unheard thing
If the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner.
I say Wolf, for all wolves
Are not of the same sort;
There is one kind with an amenable disposition
Neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry,
But tame, obliging and gentle,
Following the young maids
In the streets, even into their homes.
Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves
Are of all such creatures the most dangerous!
- Click here for the original French version of Perrault’s tale of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge
Animals, due to their lack of reason and baser instincts, are often seen as symbolising the sexual drive in stories. In a carnivorous beast, such as a wolf, this metaphor can be extended to that of a sexual predator. Even in contemporary times, we refer to a certain predatory way of drawing a woman’s attention as a wolf-whistle.
Perrault makes it clear in his quaint little rhyme that certain wolves are mild and gentle, following young women 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 actions (getting into bed with a strange cross-dressing beast not being the least of them) were seen as transgressions that could be expected to result in death. And the manner of death itself is significant. In (symbolically) giving into her own sexual drives, Red 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!”
The Company of Wolves. Art by KatSaw.
The Brothers Grimm ending: “Be a good little girl or the wolf will get you.”
In the old folk tales, ‘well-behaved’ or idealised women have been associated with purity, or at least propriety. They are rendered passive and without agency by tales which force 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. Grim indeed, but 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 all be due to your own fault and childish ignorance.
Blaming the woman. Shaming the woman. Punishing the woman for the transgressions of another. It happens all to often, and the Brothers Grimm made sure it happened in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood too, and called it a happy ending.
The original tale of Little Red Riding Hood was a more feminist one.
This non-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”. 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.
The girl’s choice superficially does not affect the story much, but there is an innate symbolism in these small details. 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 tale that is still very relevant today. Adapted by advertising and pop culture, appropriated by artists and re-imagined 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. Make your own choices, dear one. Stay strong, keep a handy tool or two in your basket and keep your eye on that wolf.