Mother said, "Straight ahead;"
Not to delay or be misled.
I should have heeded her advice,
But he seemed so nice.
I Know Things Now from Into the Woods
by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
The analogy in Little Red Riding Hood
is so universally well known that it's impossible to find a take on it that isn't loaded with the implications: Girl talks to strangers, strays from her path; girl is raped in the literary guise of being eaten by a wolf. Everyone knows the wolf = sexual predator, you can't get away from it.
One thing that's interesting about the story in the way I was told it, and I imagine most were, was that in that form it's victim blaming at its worst. It's not a story about the Wolf the rapist, but about the girl who gets
raped. I hate the verb 'get' in that context, but the connotations I hate about it are part and parcel of the Riding Hood Story - all the choices - which path to take, whether to talk to the wolf, which questions to ask - those are all made by the girl. She deviates from what her mother told her, she takes the wrong path and as a result, she is eaten. Not:
the wolf eats the girl
the girl gets eaten
. The one time a woman classically becomes the subject of the verb, and it's so she can be given responsibility and blame for what happens to her. It's a classic response to rape: and I don't just mean "She was asking for it"; I also mean "she was out too late/walked home alone and got raped". It's pervasive throughout everything; even I, the most privileged rape victim in the world
, had to field questions about quite how much I'd had to drink, and why
I dared to walk home on my own down that road at that time of night.
The wolf, of course, has no agency; no choice in the matter. He eats little girls, that's part of his nature, and he can't change it. He's not a villain who makes choices that lead him down a dark path; he's a monster with no free will, something that happens to Little Red. In some modern takes he's repainted as a sympathetic figure: we're supposed to identify
with him and the terrible temptation of the girl. Sam Sham and the Pharaohs don't take all the blame for this, but they can damn well share it: Li'l Red Riding Hood is a temptress, and the wolf can hardly help himself against her beauty. Bill Willingham's Bigby Wolf is completely unapologetic about his crimes: even the other Fables dismiss them by saying "oh, that was years ago, the amnesty means we're not allowed to talk about it any more". It's not exactly surprising that something created by Willingham doesn't hold up under feminist analysis, but the way in which Bigby's past is painted as - to borrow a phrase from Kryten - 'a bit dodgy' is one of the things that I find hardest to get past with liking the characters. However, I can in this case put it down to sloppy writing- characterisation is not exactly Willingham's strong point. Still, I offer it as an example - the Big Bad Wolf is the character we're supposed to like, and Red Riding Hood is a non-entity, despite technically being queen of Haven right now: she is certainly not given the chance to confront her past, thanks to the amnesty.
The sexualisation of Red Riding Hood, while widespread, is problematic, because it once again reinforces the victim blaming of the whole story - because as we all know, if a woman is raped while dressing 'sexy', it's her own fault. Or rather, the way in which a woman presents her sexuality means that she has to take responsibility when someone rapes her: the rapist doesn't rape her, she gets herself raped. And because everyone knows that Red is a victim and the Wolf is a sexual predator, fetishising Red is another way of sympathising with the wolf; another way of spreading the idea that sexual predation is OK, 'natural', or any other aspect of justifying the act.
Takes on the Red Riding Hood story seem to be eternally tied up in the virgin/whore dichotomy: the little girl bringing bread to Grandmother's house is a virgin, and the choices she makes, the amount of agency she's given, the way she's dressed/described by the author in question, push her over to the 'whore' end of the scale.
It's not uncommon, these days, for Red to fight back. My favourite version of the story when I was a child, was Roald Dahl's famous subversion in Revolting Rhymes
The small girl smiles, one eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
from Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, by Roald Dahl.
It's great, on the surface: Red, for once, has control over what happens to her: she shoots the wolf before he can eat her. She's empowered and strong and I for one, loved her.
The trouble that I noticed more recently though, is that Dahl's Red is no longer a nice person. She goes beyond self defence and becomes a hardlined, selfish untrustworthy person who later kills the third little pig for his skin. She crosses the line to 'whore', and while you still think 'wow, she's cool', she's not exactly heroic. Dahl populated his stories with delightfully nasty characters, so this isn't unique, but it does present a dilemma common among women in fiction: the second the victim fights back, she loses all the reader's sympathy and becomes a bitch. Fictional women can either be feeble or they can be 'strong'. They can't be in between, and when these two sides are juxtaposed, it's in order to emphasise the dilemma, not the balance. Ellen Page's red hood wearing character in Hard Candy
is another, more subtle example: she's mostly in control, and has a motivation, but she's clearly unhinged and not a good guy.
In Sondheim's Into the Woods
, the Red Riding Hood story goes through as normal- the girl is eaten and rescued by a woodcutter. Then, as with the other stories in the musical, we see what happens after, in which Red does develop her own agency, learning not to be afraid and to deal with what's happened to her without dwelling on it. She's a secondary character, that Red, but she's also one of the most realistic. I'd just like to see more Red Riding Hoods who are people. Not victims, not sexual objects, not bitches.
We learn about predation from the story, so it would be nice if the storytellers realised what they wanted to say.