There is a movie called “Red Riding Hood” coming out in March of 2011 (trailer here), and it looks to be quite sexy. One blogger has already touched on some of the traditional aspects of the tale–visiting grandma’s house, the dangers of the forest–but I thought I would provide a folklorist’s view on how the tale has evolved over time, including its connections to sex and sexuality, so that readers can see the movie and evaluate how they feel about its departures from tradition.
How old is the tale? Well, we don’t know, exactly. Part of the deal when you study folklore is that it’s frequently transmitted through oral tradition, or word-of-mouth tellings and retellings. So if nobody bothers to write down a tale, we don’t know when it was first told; we can only date it back to the oldest written version, and assume that it was probably in oral circulation before then (as with Homer’s Odyssey).
The oldest recognizable version of “Little Red Riding Hood” (LRRH for short) is Charles Perrault’s literary version of 1697, intended for the French nobles and intellectuals who frequented the salons. In Perrault’s version, LRRH is eaten up by the wolf who’s already consumed her grandmother–no rescue, no redemption. Perrault’s tongue-in-cheek style, along with the rhyming moral appended at the end of the tale, makes it clear that he’s not just talking about little girls and wolves, he’s also talking about sexual predators. Hence there’s an early precedent for interpreting LRRH metaphorically, as containing information about sexuality despite the fact that on the surface of the tale, it appears quite simple and innocent.
We have some leads on the tale’s age dating further back than Perrault’s 1697 version; there’s a rich history of werewolf folklore and warning tales aimed at children dating from the Middle Ages in Europe. Additionally, there’s an intriguing 11th-century Latin poem about a girl with a red hood who encounters a wolf but is not eaten. Analyzed by folklorist Jan Ziolkowski in chapter three of his book Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales, it appears that LRRH has a richer tradition in European tradition than its sparse literary recordings reveal.
There is also a French version, titled “The Grandmother,” which was collected in the 1800s but believed to be a reliable reconstruction of an oral tale that would’ve dated centuries before Perrault. This version is very earthy, with the girl using her wits to escape by pretending to have to defecate in bed in order to trick the wolf into letting her go outside so that she can run away. This version also includes cannibalism–the wolf disguised as grandmother tells the girl to eat some meat and drink some wine, which turn out to be parts of her dead grandmother (there is also cannibalism in this Italian/Austrian version of the tale, so it’s clearly become a part of oral folk tradition even if most of the literary, cleaned-up versions leave it out!). The girl essentially does a striptease for the wolf before getting into bed with him, throwing each item into the fire because he says she won’t need it anymore. Even in tamer versions like Perrault’s, the girl undresses before getting into bed with the wolf, adding another erotic element to the tale.
After Perrault, the next major development in the tale’s history was the version by the Brothers Grimm. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, affectionately known as the Brothers Grimm, first published their collection of fairy tales in 1812, with seven major revisions through 1857. It’s interesting to compare their 1812 version of “Little Red Cap” with their 1857 version; one notable difference is that in the later version, the brothers added a greater emphasis on obedience, with the mother’s warning to LRRH growing longer and more detailed. This tale, then, was clearly a morality tale aimed at children, with the purpose of instructing them (particularly girls) in the virtues of being obedient. While the girl and her grandmother are saved by a woodcutter, indicating a more optimistic attitude, LRRH is still punished for enjoying sensual pleasures (her time in the forest) and her femininity is intertwined with her helplessness.
The Perrault and Grimms versions of the tales have become the most paradigmatic in popular culture, leading to countless revisions of the tale in poetry, short story, novel, film, and other forms. Many of these revisions are just as conservative as their literary ancestors, urging young women to beware their own sexuality (or punishing them for exploring their sensual urges), suggesting that they need men to rescue them, and enforcing the notion that they were “asking for it” when they are attacked (why else would she be wearing such a bold color? why else would she climb into bed with the wolf?). On the other hand, feminist revisions of LRRH have used the tale to interrogate patriarchal power, to imagine other ways for girls to navigate the dangerous forests of sexuality.
In short, LRRH is a fairy tale fraught with sexuality, and with judgments about which kinds of sexuality are proper and which kinds will get you punished. The tale can be read as an allegory for rape, or as a coming-of-age story whereby a young girl ingests the blood of an older female relative in order to come into her own as a mature (i.e., bloody, as in menstruating) adult female. The sexiness inherent in the tale is obvious when you look at all of the sexy LRRH costumes and artwork available. The tale may be aimed at children in some of its guises, but certainly not all!
To get a glimpse of the myriad versions of LRRH out there, as well as some critical analysis on the tale’s meaning(s), check out The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood by folklorist Jack Zipes. And if you see the movie when it comes out, let me know what you think of it!
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