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I don't think little good girls should... 
26th-Aug-2008 01:22 pm
red riding hood
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, but 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.
26th-Aug-2008 12:19 pm (UTC)
This is a really fantastic post!
26th-Aug-2008 12:26 pm (UTC)

There was actually lots more I wanted to ramble about, but I decided to stay focused - by my standards.
26th-Aug-2008 12:31 pm (UTC)
>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.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that women are placed on this scale in the first place. As soon as people stop treating other people as people, then the world is up to its ears in the dark brown stuff.

I suspect there is also an element of people only taking on what they feel they can handle in trying to right a situation - and the victim is so much easier, as she's a) not a nasty, scary criminal, and b) there.
26th-Aug-2008 12:38 pm (UTC)
Part of the problem, as I see it, is that women are placed on this scale in the first place
I think that is the problem. It's a scale that's everywhere in all media, and it seems to be how fictional women are created.
26th-Aug-2008 12:49 pm (UTC)
Something I read about a while ago, that I hadn't heard about before and found really interesting:

"In some versions, the wolf eats the girl after she gets into bed with him, and the story ends there. In others, she sees through his disguise and tries to escape, complaining to her "grandmother" that she needs to defecate and would not wish to do so in the bed. The wolf reluctantly lets her go, tied to a piece of string so she does not get away. However, the girl slips the string over something else and runs off." (from Wikipedia, as I don't have any better sources on hand this early)

So there's a version in which Red saves herself without any heroic woodsman, and without becoming a bitch, but it's one of the more obscure versions that doesn't get told as often, and our culture seems much more fond of the heroic man coming to save the girl.

Edited at 2008-08-26 12:53 (UTC)
26th-Aug-2008 01:16 pm (UTC)
Excellent post. Once again, you make me consider somehting that I hadn't previously given much thought to.

I'd always thought of the Little Red Riding Hood story as more of a warning tale about the dangers of non-conformity. If you stray from "the path", you're doomed. Of course you're right though, it's more explicitly aimed at women, and the message is clear - there are predators out here and if you stray, you can expect to be victimised.

I like Neil Jordan's take on it in The Company of Wolves. There, the wolf (or werewolf) represents a kind of sexual awakening rather than predation, and "straying from the path" really just means choosing freedom from sexual repression. At the end of that, Rosalie (the films Little Red) ends up being in control and the wolf turns out to be rather a pathetic figure. But then, the whole thing is part of her dream, so I'm not sure what spin that puts on things.
26th-Aug-2008 01:36 pm (UTC)
Not Neil Jordan's take, but Angela Carter's. The film is based on her short stories around the theme of Red Riding hood.

In fact she has a whole volume of fairy tales. 'The Bloody Chamber'
26th-Aug-2008 01:48 pm (UTC) - I may be adding nothing of value to the conversation here.
Red's one of the characters I like most in Into the Woods, and that's saying a lot because my god, I love Into the Woods. She questions things, from her mother's instructions ("Still, I suppose one small delay-- Granny might like a fresh bouquet") to... well, the entire concept of Cinderella (with that beautifully deadpan, "... You can talk to birds?") to the morality of killing the giant who's been rampaging about. She is presented as trusting the wrong people, that's true-- the Baker's intentions are relatively pure (he only wants her cloak so he can have a child, and means the girl herself no harm) although he comes off as the biggest goddamn weirdo ever, while the wolf, who comes off as quite charming (and at least in the origninal version, is doublecast using the actor who plays Prince Charming himself), gets a complete itenerary of where Red is going and how to get there.

But she learns. Bad things happen, and she learns. The mouth of a wolf's not the end of the world. The prettier the flower, the farther from the path. Nice is different than good. My granny made me this beautiful wolf-skin cape... and she also gave me this knife, for protection.

The trouble for me is, told a certain way, there's still a valuable lesson in the story-- Red's mistake has always looked to me like less 'straying from the path' than 'broadcasting her business to obviously unsavory characters.' She can see he is a wolf. She has been warned about wolves in the woods. And yet not only does she tell the wolf that she's bringing bread and sweets to her granny, who is feeling poorly, she tells the wolf that Granny lives in a little cottage at the end of this path under three large oak trees. She ignores common sense, apparently to be friendly.

I'd like to take the lesson that you don't have to be friendly, you don't have to help the person who makes your instincts go DANGER WILL ROBINSON, you don't have to smile and be nice and be honest in situations where you do know better. Red has to go through the woods to get where she's going; she's never told to stay out of the woods, just to use some common sense while she's there.

It's definitely a story with problems, to modern sensibilities-- Red usually is reduced to nothing more than irresistable bait. In Grimm's terms, she did something foolish despite knowing better, and bad things befell her because of it. (However, like most people whose infractions are minor (being friendly to the wrong people, rescuing their wicked brothers who are about to be hanged), Jakob and Wilhelm sent someone to save her anyway.) But women are ideally people instead of property, and it would be nice to see a Red who fought back. It's nice to see Sondheim's Red, who learns.

Pratchett's telling is a good one, too, where nobody can help what they're doing-- Red, Granny, or the Wolf-- because they're caught in a story, and it takes an outside agency or three to save all three of them. The Lancre Witches are their real Kindly Woodcutter (or Kindly Huntsman, as you prefer) not because they swoop in at the last possible moment to save the terrified women, but because they recognize a dangerous pattern of events or behavior and wade right into the story, fracturing the fairy tale.

I've read yet another version set in a postapocalyptic vision of the future where the wolf was actually a mutant beast-- and female, and out to kill because whatever had caused the whole postapocalyptic future full of mutant beasts had left the female beasts unable to lactate, so she fed her young on blood until they got their teeth in. Hell, not only was she sentient, she could speak, and when Red (a maybe-eleven year old girl) had the baby beast and Granny had shot the mother beast with her shotgun, the actual problem was explained. After years, at least Red's whole life, of humans being hunted by these creatures.

Granny saved the day with soy milk, of all things.

It was a weird version, but I liked it.

... I'm something of a sucker for fairy-tale retellings. It's what you're supposed to do with them, after all.
26th-Aug-2008 01:55 pm (UTC) - Re: I may be adding nothing of value to the conversation here.
Thank you very much for that analysis of Into the Woods. I've only seen it once, and I needed someone who knew it better to provide the information.
26th-Aug-2008 01:55 pm (UTC) - Man I'm an idiot sometimes.
I'd never thought to think of Red Riding Hood in that light before.
26th-Aug-2008 01:58 pm (UTC) - Re: Man I'm an idiot sometimes.

Maybe I just love the story more than I should.
26th-Aug-2008 02:37 pm (UTC)
I love this post. Shockingly, I also love Into the Woods! So I am just going to say, word, and then add to the ItW analysis a little: one of the things I also really love about Red's character arc (and I don't know if I'd even call her a secondary character, really; she might not be The Baker And His Wife, but hey, she's one of the Big Four who survive at the end) is the way that the moral is explicitly not, Don't talk to strangers, but "Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood - they will not protect you the way that they should." Magical things won't protect you; you will protect yourself. Knowledge will protect you. A knife will protect you.

I also really like that after the first story is over, the story continues to avoid slotting her into a predictable fairy-tale role. If you've survived little girl-hood, in a fairy tale, you also tend to become either the Bad Mother or the Good Mother, and ItW veers just close enough to avoid that:

Red: *nobly* I'll be your mother now.
Jack: I don't want another mother. I want a friend.

Growing up - as Red starts to do, after the wolf event - doesn't mean she has to subsume her individuality into parenthood, or taking care of a man (or a little boy). And even Granny isn't just a victim. She's a bloody-minded, wickedly vengeful old woman, and while her schemes for revenge are presented as funny, she's not vilified for it, either. Red loves her, and she's a protector-figure, the woman who gives Red the cape and the knife.
26th-Aug-2008 03:22 pm (UTC)
I've never actually seen it as a sexual story, but that may be because every story I've read with Red has her at a preteen age. I've always seen the moral as more of a 'Don't talk to strangers' or 'Listen to your parents' then anything to do with rape.

And, then again, in many versions, after red and granny are cut out of the wolfs belly, the two ladies gather up a good load of stones, before sewing his belly back up again, so the poor beast has to drag himself around weighted down by his own great hunger.
26th-Aug-2008 03:37 pm (UTC)
I don't have much to add, but I wanted to say that this is a very awesome post.
26th-Aug-2008 10:52 pm (UTC)

Dahl's take on the story is a little bit like Thurber's, in Fables for Our Time:

She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

Thurber's moral ("It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be") is clearly addressed to wolves, and his version of the story is wholly consonant with his view of the male as the weaker sex, or at least the perennial loser in Teh Battle of Teh Sexes (metathesis added for purposes of derision).

But Dahl's Red is clearly a boy in drag. "Whips a pistol from her knickers"? Come on. It's like this gag from The Duchess of Malfi II.ii:

First Servant: There was taken even now a Switzer in the duchess' bed-chamber—

Second Servant: A Switzer!

First Servant: With a pistol in his great cod-piece.

Bosola: Ha, ha, ha!

First Servant: The cod-piece was the case for't.

27th-Aug-2008 02:13 am (UTC)
Really? I always thought of Dahl's Red as being one of those Noir/Frank Miller ladies.
26th-Aug-2008 11:13 pm (UTC)
First of all, word.

But second of all, I think it's important to remember that fairytales are for the most part stories told by, and to, the socially powerless.

Throughout most of history, this was just a fact: you can't stop the wolf. And unless you're unbelievably lucky, no one is going to stop him for you. The only way you have any agency at all, the only way you can control what happens to you, is to think of those more powerful than you as a force of nature and behave accordingly -- "don't wander off in the woods or you'll get raped" is just common sense, like "don't wade across the river when it's in flood or you'll get drowned".

There's no lesson in here about "don't eat helpless little girls" -- or, conversely, about "it's okay to eat helpless little girls, that's just your nature" -- because these were not stories told to wolves.
27th-Aug-2008 02:57 am (UTC)
It kind of depends, though. Throughout most of history, maybe most fairy tales were stories your grandma told you that her grandma told her. These days, I think the vast majority of kids get most of what we call fairy tales from, for example, Disney, which is not exactly the socially powerless, and which is not marketed exclusively toward little girls.

It might be important to remember that if you're writing about the history of the story, but I don't think very many people today hear fairy tales that aren't filtered through people who are very far from socially powerless.
27th-Aug-2008 02:23 am (UTC)
Excellent post! It made me want to pick up my copy of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber again.

I've been meaning to ask you about your mood theme. Did you make it yourself and is it available to others?
27th-Aug-2008 07:35 am (UTC)
I did and it is! Uh, it's not zipped and uploaded, but the theme is here.
27th-Aug-2008 03:02 am (UTC)
I don't remember when I started paying attention to how often I see "so-and-so got raped" vs. how often I see "someone raped so-and-so," but yeah. It really does give the impression that rape is -- I don't know, a natural disaster, and not a crime.
27th-Aug-2008 11:22 am (UTC)
You're an entirely awesome person.
27th-Aug-2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
Holy cow . . . why didn't this ever occur to me before? Man, that would have made for a great master's thesis!
28th-Aug-2008 06:41 am (UTC)
Maybe it will for someone.
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