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Who’s afraid of Little Red Riding Hood?

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One upon a time fairy tales were quite literally old wives’ tales. Over hundreds of years, in many European peasant communities, the oral folk tale was a tradition that was shared among the matriarchy: between grandmother, mother and daughter. Through rich and imaginative tales womenfolk were able to impart valuable life lessons to young children – girls in particular – to guide them through the often harsh social conditions they lived in. It was only during the late seventeenth-century, particularly among the French bourgeoisie, that this oral tradition began to be adapted into a literary form. This shift in modality is usually accredited to the writer Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), however the vogue for the literary fairy tale was in actual fact pioneered by a host of female writers known as the conteuses.[1]

Quite why Perrault’s name has become legendary within the fairy tale canon while the names of the conteuses have all but disappeared is not a question that can be given a straightforward answer. On the one hand one has to consider the merit of Perrault’s tales as great works of the imagination. The author certainly did create a treasure trove of fairy tales and added a number of enchanting features to the older oral narratives he adapted – such as the glass slipper and pumpkin coach in Cinderella[2] – that seem to continue to captivate readers’ imagination even today. However fairy tales were not committed to text merely as sources of entertainment but also as models of behavior for both adults and children. These first fairy tale authors, both male and female, ‘purposely appropriated the oral folktale and converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values, and manner so that children and adults would become civilized according to the social code of that time.’[3] Perrault was a master at creating delightful tales that also included one of his postscript moralités that provided valuable lessons for the boys and girls of the French bourgeoisie. It is principally through Perrault that the fairy tale became ‘one of those sanctuaries of cultural-myth – the space where gender identity is constructed’[4] and it is this gendered space within the fairy tale, one that was formed within a patriarchal code of aristocratic civilité, that was left virtually unquestioned up until fairly recently.

The emergence of feminism as a cultural movement to be reckoned with during the twentieth-century is largely responsible for a complete reappraisal of the literary fairy tale tradition. Feminist critics such as Marcia R. Lieberman recognised that ‘millions of women […] have formed their psycho-sexual self-concepts […] in part from their favourite fairy tales.’[5] In consequence there arose the need to rewrite the classical fairy tales in order to break down the patriarchal gender models within them. Among those calling out for revisions of classical texts from a feminine viewpoint was highly influential Feminist writer Hélène Cixous. At the heart of a number of Cixous’ essays, such as Sorties and The Laugh of the Medusa, is the call for an écriture feminine where ‘woman must write woman.’[6] Cixous argues that patriarchal society is firmly rooted within a gender binary system that forever couples man against woman and sets these binaries into ‘hierarchical oppositions’[7]: man/woman, activity/passivity, superior/inferior. The outcome of such oppositions is that man with all his qualities is always put in a position of domination over woman: ‘ever her moon to the masculine sun, nature to culture, […] man is obviously the active, the upright, the productive.’[8] It is this system that forms our understanding of so many ‘myths, legends, books.’[9] Through a feminine rewriting of myth ‘all the history, all the stories would be there to retell differently’[10] and through this process of renewal there can finally be a true liberation of human sexuality from a confined patriarchal system of gender binaries.

By exploring the history and evolution of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, this essay will analyse how this classic tale was molded within a patriarchal gender binary system and put forward a strict model of behavior for girls to abide by. In context of the historical and cultural changes that fashioned the fairy tale, this essay will then go on to specifically analyse two feminine retellings of the Red Riding Hood narrative, namely Angela Carter’s 1979 tale The Company of Wolves and the Merseyside Fairy Tale Collective’s 1972 tale Red Riding Hood. These two retellings offer contrasting modes of rewriting and reevaluating the patriarchal codes embedded within the narrative and concretely illustrate different aspects of Hélène Cixous’ theoretical framework in practice with varying degrees of success.

Lying with Wolves

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A little girl in a red cloak and a wolf. Very few other fairy tales, indeed very few other myths, are as readily and fully recognisable by so few of their components. The potent imagery of Little Red Riding Hood appears to be limitless in its potential to be refashioned into countless new artistic portrayals in literature, cinema and painting. In a book titled The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood published in 1983, editor and leading fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes collected over thirty distinct literary variations and retellings of this one tale. What is perhaps most noteworthy about all these versions is that they are all directly descended from Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. Published in his 1697 collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé, it is considered to be the first literary telling of the tale. This is not to say that Perrault invented the story. The basic plot and characters of Little Red Riding Hood are of older vintage, having originated from ‘an oral tradition during the late Middle Ages’.[11] However Perrault’s unique – if rather corrupted – manipulation of the folktale has proven to be resilient and has all but eclipsed its preceding variants.

Perrault’s most striking addition to the tale is that he donned his heroine in a red riding-hood or cloak – red being a provocative colour that is laden with signification and commonly associated with sin, lust, and the Devil,[12] with Hélène Cixous going so far as to bring to our attention that ‘the “red riding hood” in question is a little clitoris.’[13] Perrault formulated his Little Red Riding Hood in order ‘to provide a model of behaviour for girls’ even if this is through ‘negative example’[14] and over the years the red cloak has become an emblem of (supposed) feminine nature that draws our attention to the young girl, her character and behaviour. This becomes increasingly significant in context of Perrault’s intentions in retelling the oral folktale.

In Perrault’s now all too familiar narrative, a little girl, ‘the prettiest you could wish to see’,[15] is asked by her mother to deliver some food to her sickly grandmother. Obediently, the girl sets off and on her way through the woods comes across Master Wolf. Master Wolf immediately wants to eat the girl up but dares not as there are woodcutters around, so he instead enquires about her destination and challenges Red Riding Hood to an innocent race to granny’s house. The girl, ‘who did not know that it is dangerous to stay and listen to a wolf,’[16] accepts. Master Wolf arrives first at granny’s and slyly tricks her in letting him inside before devouring her whole. Disguising himself in granny’s clothes, Master Wolf waits for his main prize under the bed sheets. Little Red Riding Hood arrives soon after and, not realising what has happened, naively accepts the wolf’s invitation to join him in bed. Once ‘undressed’[17] and in bed, the girl observes drastic changes in her granny’s features (‘What great big teeth you have!’[18]), before the Wolf suddenly ‘[flings] himself on Little Red Riding-Hood, and [eats] her up.’ [19] So much for happy every after.

In case the implied warning in his narrative was not clear enough, Perrault suffixes one of his moralités to the tale, explaining that ‘pretty girls with charm, do wrong and often come to harm, in letting those they do not know, stay talking to them when they meet.’[20] Stripping the metaphor away completely, he reveals the wolf to be any man, even those that are not ‘the savage kind’,[21] who will follow young girls back home, ‘upstairs to their rooms’, and who once there are ‘not as friendly as they might appear.’[22] Perhaps most concerning is his conclusion that ‘[i]t’s no surprise that some are caught by wolves who take them off to eat.’[23] Perrault shifts the blame onto the Red Riding Hood for being deceived by the wolf into talking to him. There is also a suggestion that it is the girl who is the guilty party as it was her prettiness and charm that lured the wolf to her. The damning implication being that the girl is complicit in her own downfall and that ‘[s]he is raped or punished because she is guilty of not controlling her natural inclinations.’[24]

Perrault’s contrived morality within the tale is at direct odds with its former oral narratives. In fact the girl’s ‘[g]uilt was never a question in the original folktale’[25] which is generally referred to as The Story of Grandmother. This tale appeared to have commonly served two functions among the peasantry, one of which was, as the title suggested, to discuss the relationship between grandmother, mother and child and a ‘woman-centered genealogy.’[26] At the end of the oral tale (discussed below) the young girl becomes fit to enter the matriarchy and can now be considered a woman. This particular theme served Perrault no purpose and was completely extracted in his 1697 version. The Story of Grandmother was also undoubtedly a cautionary tale. Originating at a time when there was a ‘virtual epidemic of trials against men accused of being werewolves’, men who were trialed for ‘having killed and eaten children’[27], the folktale acted as warning for children about sexual predators and it specifically used the figure of the werewolf (as opposed to a anthropomorphic wolf) as the antagonist.

As in Perrault’s tale, the narrative once again follows a young girl on her way to grandmother’s house and is similar in events up until the young girl arrives at the house. Once inside, the werewolf deceives the young girl into taking off all her clothes – a drawn out scene which sees the girl take off one item at a time and throwing each into the fire. However when she is then invited into bed with the werewolf, the young girl realises she is in danger. By insisting she must answer a call of nature and relieve herself outside, the girl artfully manages to elude the werewolf and escape unharmed.

With its original conclusion the tale ‘celebrat[ed] the self-reliance of a young peasant girl’[28] and illustrated how she had come of age. Perrault’s updated version of the tale casts the heroine down. Contrary to her former incarnation, Little Red Riding Hood is now notable not for her wits but for being ‘pretty, spoiled, gullible, and helpless’[29], all qualities that would in Cixous’ paradigm emphasise the female sex’s passivity in the gender binary where woman is put in a position of inferiority.[30] The young girl’s naivety in stopping and speaking to the wolf, her gullibility in believing the wolf’s challenge to a race is an innocent game, show her to be deceivable through inaction, a blank mind that can be influenced at will. Red Riding Hood’s passivity and inferiority as a member of the female sex are further emphasised when compared to Perrault’s only other child protagonist in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé, the young boy known as Tom Thumb. Tom who is the youngest of seven sons is described as being ‘the cleverest of all the brothers’[31] and it is his sharp intellect that allows him to outsmart an ogre, save his brothers, and gain a fortune to boot. Without fail, Perrault’s male ‘heroes are active, pursue their goals by using their minds, and exhibit a high degree of civility.’[32] His female protagonists, who include Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty, ‘must cloak [their] instinctual drives in polite speech, correct manners, and elegant clothes.’[33] As Cixous points out, Red Riding Hood is temporarily an exception to this rule. In entering the forest she ‘allows herself the forbidden … and pays dearly for it.’[34] If Perrault’s female characters fail to comply with the standards imposed by their social position, in any way, they are severely punished.

Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood also goes some way to illustrate what Simon de Beauvoir, in a chapter on myth in her seminal work The Second Sex, describes as being woman’s perceived ‘double and deceptive image’ where man projects paradoxical qualities onto the figure of woman: ‘she is the stuff of action and its obstacle’.[35] The female disposition in Perrault’s tale therefore becomes not only one that is easily corruptible, but also one that can easily corrupt. Little Red Riding-Hood ‘reflects men’s fear of women’s sexuality’[36] because it is not the wolf who is to blame for the sinful act but the temptress in red, the girl who is ‘ “naturally” both victim[] and seducer[]’[37].

These shifts in tone between the oral and literary versions of the tale are not surprising when taking into consideration the social and cultural changes that were happening at a time when the Catholic Church was increasingly concerned with women and their ‘potentially uncontrollable natural instincts.’[38] It was woman, through the figure of Eve and the temptation of the serpent, that led man astray and ever since man’s exile from Eden ‘the temptations of the earth, sex and the devil are incarnated in her.’[39]

The influence of the patriarchal Catholic Church had a direct effect upon those other highly influential fairy tale authors the Brothers Grimm. While Perrault did not write his fairy tales specifically for children but rather for ‘an educated upper-class audience’[40] that could include children, by the early nineteenth-century a literature specifically for children was well in development and it was believed that this form was integral to a process of socialization of children that would teach them proper morals and codes of ethics.[41] Therefore the Brothers Grimm felt the need to further sanitize their 1812 version of the tale titled Rotkäppchen (Little Red Cap) in order to make the story more ‘pure, truthful, and just.’[42] Removing Perrault’s sordid undertones of rape and sexual deviancy, they instead embedded the story with conspicuous Christian symbols. The girl is warned by her mother to not ‘stray from the path’[43], the wolf is labeled a ‘sinner’[44], and finally, by restoring a “happy ending” to the tale, granny and granddaughter are rescued from the belly of the beast by a huntsman, a ‘father figure devoid of sexuality’ who fulfills the ‘saviour and rebirth motif.’[45] The Brothers also included an additional end to the tale where Little Red Cap returns to grandmother on another occasion. On this journey, she is once again greeted by a wolf however now she is ‘on her guard.’[46] This time round grandmother and grandchild manage to outwit the wolf and send him to his doom. This supplementary ending suggests that since the two female characters were both reborn out of sin by a male saviour (metaphorically at least), they now have the strength to overcome evil.

These alterations fit the Brothers’ ‘more upright, nineteenth-century, middle-class perspective and sense of decency’[47] and in consequence the tale was shaped to fit within an even more stringent patriarchal system of meaning. The girl’s corruptibility is emphasised further through her being easily tempted to stray from the good path despite having been forewarned. Furthermore, redemption is delivered through a male protector. Such characteristics not only continue to stress the inferior and passive condition of the female sex, qualities that were already present in Perrault’s text, but here we are introduced to what Cixous defines as the ‘hierarchical opposition[]’[48], in this case the male figure whose active disposition brings forth salvation and positions him as superior: ‘[W]ithout me – the Absolute – Father […] you wouldn’t exist.’[49] The huntsman in the Grimm’s tale is integral to the salvation of the female characters and without him they would have remained devoured, incomplete, absent, as is the case in Perrault’s version.

With each successive retelling of the tale, the theme of sexuality was forcefully extracted and/or distorted. The older folktales included a drawn out scene of a young girl undressing herself and getting into bed with a werewolf. Perrault removes the sensuous “strip tease” but retains the girl’s undressing and addresses the sexual content latent in the tale head on in his moralité. In the Grimm’s version, the girl never undresses nor does she get into bed with the wolf. Little Red Cap is corruptible but this corruptibility is not necessarily linked to her sensuality. It is as if though here ‘all bodies must be regulated, contained, or rendered as unfeeling and sterile.’[50] Commenting on the evolution of meaning within the tale, Jack Zipes concluded that: ‘What had formerly been a frank oral tale about sexuality and actual dangers in the woods became, by the time the Grimms finished civilizing and refining Little Red Cap, a coded message about rationalizing bodies and sex.’[51]

Red Goes to Bed

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Red Riding Hood features prominently in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a project which saw Carter take ‘traditional fairy tales and [use] them to write new ones.’[52] Among the ten fairy tales in the collection Carter included three stories based upon the tradition of the Little Red Riding Hood narrative(s); The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, and Wolf-Alice. Three stories showing different sides to one tale, each with notably different outcomes. The very inclusion of more than one tale based on the same myth gives a sense of multi-vocality, a signature of Cixous’ écriture feminine where a ‘feminine text starts on all sides at once, starts twenty times, thirty times, over.’[53] Furthermore the titles of each of the three stories are also suggestive, with Carter immediately drawing the reader’s focus away from the traditional leading girl to the wolf. More specifically, in two of the titles, Carter makes explicit reference to the hybrid figure of human and beast, the werewolf, that ‘human being who can dissolve the boundary between civilization and wilderness in himself and is capable of crossing over the fence which separates his “civilized side” from his “wild side.”’ [54] Within context of the rich and ever evolving tradition of Red Riding Hood, the werewolf figure also harkens back to the older oral folktales. Some critics have argued that Carter ‘cast[s] the wolf as masculine threat and danger, a force to be fought on its own terms of violence and dominance.’[55] However such readings of Carter’s treatment of the figure of the wolf are entirely misleading. Never one to distill her motifs to common held expectation or assumption, Carter does not necessarily always equate werewolf to evil or to the male sex for that matter. Instead she continuously ‘circl[es] the figures of the werewolf, the old woman and the young girl’[56] and in doing do she blurs the divide between Cixous’ definition of the gender binary system of man/woman.[57]

The reader does not have to dig deep in order to witness Carter’s playful dissidence at work. In The Werewolf, the diabolical lycanthrope turns out to be the heroine’s grandmother. This is not “wolf in granny’s clothing” but a disturbing reversal, a savage beastly nana that ‘went for [the girl’s] throat’[58] and who in the end is ‘pelted […] with stones until she fell dead.’[59] Wolf-Alice on the other hand portrays a girl who was ‘suckled by wolves.’ [60] Here Carter places the wolf in position of mother of the girl and the nature of these beasts, their wolfishness, becomes the heroine’s nature through nurture. Although “rescued” by a group of nuns and encouraged to integrate within society, it is this feral girl-wolf that proves to be the saviour of the story. Even in such stripped-down summaries, Carter’s techniques and style are immediately apparent. She makes a topsy-turvy world out of stable and sanitized codified myths, and as critic Lorna Sage argues Carter draws the traditional fairy tales ‘out of their set shapes, out of the separate space of “children’s stories” or “folk art” and into the world of change’[61].

Carter has received both praise and criticism for her portrayals of her female characters, especially in context of their sexuality. Some feminist movements took issue with how Carter ‘dared to look at women’s waywardness, and especially their attraction to the Beast in the very midst of repulsion.’[62] This theme is central to her Beauty and the Beast retelling The Tiger’s Bride and is also prevalent in her other Red Riding Hood story, The Company of Wolves. This tale is arguably her most “faithful” adaptation of the traditional Red Riding Hood narrative and yet it completely subverts and destabalises the patriarchal codes within. Carter’s narrative becomes an ‘act[] of fairy-tale archaeology’[63] where she pulls the carpet out from underneath Perrault and his standards for sexuality, topples the Grimm’s tower of sanctity and piety, and restores elements of the older, more primal, oral tale, all the while creating a narrative that has something new to say about women and their sexuality to a contemporary audience.

The Company of Wolves is a story in two parts. The first section establishes the world the reader is in where the wolf is ‘carnivore incarnate’[64] who terrorizes the hostile countryside. One does not even need to venture into the threatening woods to fear being attacked as ‘the wolves have ways of arriving at your own hearthside’.[65] The Red Riding Hood narrative begins proper in the second part of the tale. Once again we find a young, though ‘strong-minded’[66], girl on her way to visit her ailing grandmother who lives a ‘two hours’ trudge through the winter woods’[67]. In the forest the girl comes across not a wolf, but a handsome young man in a ‘green coat and wideawake hat of a hunter, laden with carcasses of game birds.’[68] The pair gets talking and are soon ‘laughing and joking like old friends.’ [69] Then comes the proposed race to granny’s house with the young man requesting a kiss should he win. The girl accepts and ‘dawdle[s] on her way to make sure the handsome gentlemen would win his wager.’[70] The young man does arrive at granny’s house first and ensues to turn into a wolf and gobble granny up. When the girl arrives and enters, the now clothed man-wolf blocks the door so she cannot escape. The girl quickly realises what is to become of her and soon a company of wolves arrives outside and begins to howl. She ceases to be afraid. She asks the wolf what she should do with her red shawl. In a nod to The Story of Grandmother the wolf replies, ‘Throw it on the fire.’[71] And one item at a time, all of her clothes go directly into the fire until she is left stark naked. When the wolf utters his iconic line, ‘All the better to eat you with,’[72] the girl ‘burst[s] out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’[73] The story ends with an image of the girl in her dead grandmother’s bed ‘between the paws of the tender wolf.’[74]

On an initial reading it is easy to understand why author and critic Patricia Duncker criticizes Carter for ‘re-writing the tales within the straight-jacket of their original structures’[75], or why critic Avis Lewallen felt the need to warn female readers that Carter’s ‘irony and playfulness can manipulate us into sympathizing with masochism or choosing “between rape and death”’.[76] Carter’s ending is certainly contentious especially if one is looking for a message or moral. Does the tale advocate surrendering to the wolf, to a domineering masculinity? Is accepting such a fate with a rather suspect laugh and a shrug enough of a victory given the circumstance? Admittedly not. However on closer reading, the story does seem to suggest that there is more at play here than just the controversial coming together of a girl and a wolf. In context of the portrayal of feminine sexuality, the figures of the werewolf and the grandmother and finally the treatment of the red shawl are all key to understanding how The Company of Wolves is in actual fact an ‘assault on Myth’[77] and a powerfully subversive attack on patriarchal codes of meaning.

As with her other two Red Riding Hood stories, the wolf in The Company of Wolves is a werewolf. Unlike the other two stories however, the werewolf is consistently gendered as male and yet it most definitely is not representative of patriarchy. Instead the werewolf appears to be a symbol that reflects women’s mixed desire and revulsion for the male sex. In the story the lycanthrope must strip naked in order to turn into a wolf: ‘If you spy a naked man among the pines, you must run as if the Devil were after you.’[78] Later, this fear of a naked man is manifested through the grandmother who, in the safety of her own bed, is confronted with the metamorphosing wolf, ‘naked as a stone,’ ‘his genitals, huge. Ah! Huge.’[79] This scene is described rather elaborately from the grandmother’s point of view and she seems to be almost entranced by the naked body of the man-wolf approaching her with a combination of fear and lust. Carter uses the figure of the werewolf to poke fun at and make a mockery of how women have been made to fear and be ashamed of their own natural curiosities towards the male sex. This is the same fear instilled by Perrault in his Little Red Riding Hood, warning girls to suppress their instinctual drives or face punishment. In a passage from Cixous’ essay Castration or Decapitation? the feminist critic discusses the need for a release of the feminine libido from the unconscious of a ‘repressed culture’[80] within literary texts. She advocates a writing that ‘goes beyond the bounds of censorship’ through ‘that cheeky risk taking women can get into when they set out into the unknown to look for themselves.’[81] In this light, the controversial final scene of The Company of Wolves shows a girl who is finally in union with her untamed sexuality as represented through the image of the werewolf. The girl, herself stark naked, is not fleeing away from the werewolf or cowering in fear, but facing him directly, ‘ripp[ing] off his shirt for him and fling[ing] it into the fire.’[82] This becomes a playful act of revolt against Perrault and his ilk, a declaration of emancipation from the rules and regulations that have been imposed on women in order that they tame and suppress their own sexuality.

The appearance of the werewolf is also significant here. This is not a Disney-fied Beast in a navy-blue dinner jacket with his mane tied up in a bow, the object of affection in the eyes of a Belle. Carter’s werewolf is a frightful image of wildness with his streams of ragged hair infested with lice. Through confronting the werewolf ‘the little girl sees the animal side of herself’ which allows her to ‘move forward as a whole person. She is wo/man, self-aware, and ready to integrate herself in society with awareness.’ [83]

In a similar fashion, Carter uses the figure of the grandmother to undermine the Brothers Grimm’s themes of Christianity rooted in their Rotkäppchen. As the werewolf is not meant to be a signifier for some form of oppressive patriarchy, the grandmother here is not representative of a general definition of matriarchy. The grandmother can be said to stand for a womanhood that over the centuries has been indoctrinated with patriarchy’s codes and systems of meaning. The grandmother is described as being a ‘pious old woman’ who keeps ‘her Bible for company.’[84] Widowed now, she sits in bed alone while ‘the grandfather clock ticks away her eroding time.’[85] It does not take a great leap of the imagination to see how Carter uses the images of the Bible and the grandfather clock to suggest that this is a woman governed by male authority. This is the same ‘Law of the Father’ that Cixous describes as being that which will set women right and teach them the right ways.[86] Carter also includes a droll image of the fireplace in granny’s room, a fireplace that has ‘two china spaniels’[87] sitting on either side of it; two lifeless statues of domesticated canines keeping watch over granny’s furnace. A metaphor for sexual repression if ever there was one. The endearing-ness of the spaniel is pitted directly against the sheer terror of that other savage canine lurking outside granny’s house. When the beast bursts into her house, granny’s first defence is her Bible, which she hurls at him. She then ‘call[s] on Christ and his mother and all the angels in heaven to protect [her] but it won’t do [her] any good.’[88] She is eaten up and the werewolf hides her bones under the bed. Unlike the Brothers Grimm tale, where the huntsman acts as saviour, here grandmother faces no salvation or rebirth but complete and utter extinction. But Carter isn’t done with granny just yet. In the same scene where the granddaughter confronts the wolf, Carter brings granny’s pious voice back one more time through the image of: ‘the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.’[89] The figure of grandmother becomes a ghost of the past, a relic of a bygone era when women were meant to govern their sexuality and keep in accordance with patriarchal law. Now it is the girl and the wild wolf who sleep in granny’s bed.

The final blow dealt to the patriarchal codes that have been forcefully embedded into the Red Riding Hood narrative is through Carter’s use of the eponymous red riding hood. As has been discussed, ever since Perrault’s tale, this sartorial piece has become laden with signification and has been held up as an emblem of a corruptible and corruptive feminine nature. As in Perrault’s tale, Carter introduces the scarlet cloak by mentioning that the grandmother knitted it and gave it to the girl as a gift. However in context of the signification of the grandmother within Carter’s tale, this riding hood therefore becomes an extension of the grandmother’s patriarchal definition of femininity. The red of the girl’s cloak also contrasts with the green coat the wolf wears; her stop, for his go. It is this shawl that the girl immediately turns to for comfort when first confronted by the teeth-baring wolf. In her fear the girl pulls the shawl ‘more closely round herself as if it could protect her’[90]. The shawl offers comfort because it is safe, it represents the only way of life she has ever known: ‘Her scarlet shawl, the colour of poppies, the colour of sacrifices, the colour of her menses.’[91] The poppy traditionally symbolises sleep and death. The taboo menstrual blood has inspired horror in both men and women, that which in the book of Leviticus marks the woman as ‘unclean.’[92] These symbols can be taken to represent the perceived passivity and inferiority of women. This shawl, this state of being, cannot protect the young girl. Just like granny’s Bible and prayers, the red cloak is rendered meaningless when faced with the primitive nature of the wolf. When the girl asks the wolf what she should do with her red shawl, he replies, ‘Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won’t need it again.’[93] That particular emblem of femininity goes up in flames, is burnt to ashes, another relic of a bygone era demolished. This young girl, ‘clothed only in her untouched integument of flesh’[94], becomes a new woman, a woman who has shed all significations imposed on her through phallocentric gender binaries. No more active/passive. No more superior/inferior. Thus the Red Riding Hood figure in The Company of Wolves becomes a consummate example of an Angela Carter heroine who, contrary to the arguments of Duncker and Lewallen, is in fact ‘struggling out of the strait-jackets of history and ideology and biological essentialism.’[95] Carter’s Red Riding Hood ‘allows herself the forbidden’[96] and in doing so she becomes a woman defined on her own terms.

Down with the Wolf

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In light of Angela Carter’s subversive feminist take on the Red Riding Hood narrative, other more directly combatant feminist retellings feel less impactful and somewhat naive in scope. Perhaps the most obvious alteration one could think of making to the Red Riding Hood in order to destabalise its patriarchal codes of meaning, is create female characters who not only fend for themselves but who can also overthrow the powerful masculine forces within the narrative. This would create an explorative text concerning a matriarchy conquering patriarchy. This is definitely the variety of retelling that the Merseyside Fairy Story Collective had in mind when they wrote their 1972 version of the tale titled simply Red Riding Hood. This Liverpudlian women’s liberation movement, formed by a group of committed feminists, made fairy tales their main agenda. The collective were publically forthright in expressing their intention to rewrite the classic fairy tales in a way where ‘the emphasis will be away from wealth, beauty, and youth, and men and women will be shown to have equal opportunities.’[97]

In Red Riding Hood the heroine is ‘a quiet and shy little girl’[98] named Nadia, but known as Red Riding hood because she always wears a thick red cloak. Nadia loves her great-grandmother above all but she never visits her alone as she is ‘frightened to walk through the forest.’ Inevitably, the girl is finally forced to venture into the woods alone to visit her great-granny and while on her journey she spots a wolf rushing towards the cottage. On entering the cottage, the girl is confronted by the traditional wolf in granny’s clothing. However when the wolf attacks, the great-grandmother comes through the door and survival instinct kicks in as she pulls a ‘blazing branch from the stove.’[99] Combining forces, the great-grandmother and great-granddaughter kill the wolf and use its skin as lining to repair Nadia’s well-worn red cloak. The tale ends with a morality of sorts delivered through the figure of the great-grandmother. She tells Nadia, ‘this cloak now has special powers. Whenever you meet another child who is shy and timid, lend that child the cloak [..] and then, like you, they will grow brave.’[100]

The tale is heartening and inspires young children, young girls in particular, to muster the courage to face the menacing wolves they will assuredly come across in their lives. Unlike Perrault’s tale, this is one of good winning over evil, of the innocent coming out on top. The red riding hood becomes ‘a symbol of courage’[101] and in the end there is a suggestion that Nadia ‘take[s] destiny in [her] own hands with a new political consciousness.’ [102] Moreover the tale establishes the great-grandmother as the protector that the young girl can turn to. This is a definite positive modification to the usual wicked mother figure that looms large in most classic fairy tales.

Despite all this Red Riding Hood does little to destabalise the patriarchal codes within it and ultimately it ends up feeding back into the very same binary system it aims to confront. The victors here are different, however in the context of Cixous’ framework the tale still operates as ‘a universal battlefield’ where ‘[d]eath is always at work.’ Cixous argues that ‘ “victory” always comes down to […] things get[ting] hierarchical’ and it is this hierarchical structure which ‘makes all conceptual organization subject to man.’[103] The killing in Red Riding Hood is merely reversed not abolished or subverted as in Carter’s tale. The figure of the huntsman as protector is only substituted to another protector in the great-grandmother. More significantly there is no real internal development in the identity of the girl. She essentially remains a frightened little girl. It is an external object, the red cloak, which is posited as a token to inspire courage. The red cloak therefore becomes the equivalent of brandishing a Catholic cross in front of a vampire; it is an instrument of superstition that upholds a binary of good versus evil, of one universal truth. Unlike Carter’s The Company of Wolves, where the girl is finally able to shed the red shawl and its entire signification, the Merseyside Fairy Tale Collective ironically reinforces the necessity for the girl to define herself through the cloak.

It is perhaps an unfair criticism to make of the Merseyside Fairy Tale Collective to say that they did not do enough to destabalise patriarchy in their tales when the aim was clearly to draw ‘parallels to actual social conflicts in British society’ of the late 60s and early 70s as well as foster a spirit of change by ‘point[ing] to new beginnings.’[104] Their retelling of Red Riding Hood, among their many other stories, is a step in the right direction in that it portrays stronger female characters and instills an awareness of gender inequality by playing off the traditional gender roles within the fairy tale canon. While honourable in intent, their step is however not big enough to shake off the shackles of patriarchy. Red Riding Hood remains firmly rooted within a patriarchal system of control that functions to keep certain ideologies and definitions well in their place. While it would be presumptuous and misleading to make a case out of one example, such an analysis of the Collective’s Red Riding Hood would suggest that a direct attack on patriarchy within a retelling, one that places matriarchy in direct opposition to patriarchy, may not always deliver the desired outcome. Angela Carter’s more subversive attack on patriarchy within her Red Riding Hood retellings is a more powerful and thought-provoking tactic. Carter’s method completely redefines the traditional fairy tale signifiers – the werewolf, the grandmother, the red riding hood – so much so that on initial readings her reconfiguration feels somewhat alien to its audience and even, as some have argued, downright unsettling in its implications. Carter herself was fully aware of what she was up against. In her non-fiction book The Sadeian Woman, itself a controversial feminist appraisal of the work of the Marquis de Sade, Carter asserted that ‘a free woman in an unfree society will be a monster’.[105] It is an acute observation and is indicative of why Carter’s depictions of female sexuality have come under fire even from certain feminist camps. Through her rewritings Carter attempts to liberate an unfree mythology, one built on patriarchal gender binaries, and moving closer towards what Cixous posits as ‘a real liberation of sexuality’ where through a process of transformation, in which feminine writing plays a pivotal role, ‘[w]hat today appears to be “feminine” or “masculine” would no longer amount to the same thing. No longer would the common logic of difference be organised with the opposition that remains dominant. Difference would be a bunch of new differences.’[106] The rewriting of fairy tales, and any other classic myths for that matter, from a feminine viewpoint becomes integral in this movement towards liberation. When done well such rewritings can help reshape and restructure a world that too readily takes for granted the social and gender norms that have been fortified through centuries of patriarchal tradition.

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If you are interested in exploring the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale further, then these books are a great place to start.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Andersen, Hans Christian, Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Bacchilega, Cristina, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997)
  • Bartky, Sandra Lee, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 1990)
  • Carter, Angela, Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories (London: Vintage, 2010)
  • Carter, Angela, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 2006)
  • Cixous, Hélène, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 7 (1981), 41-55
  • Cixous, Hélène, ‘Sorties’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), pp. 578-584
  • Cixous, Hélène, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1 (1976), 875-893
  • de Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex (London: Vintage, 2011)
  • Fowl, Melinda G., ‘Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” revisited’, Ciritcal Survery, 3 (1991), 71-79
  • Grimm, Brothers, The Complete Fairy Tales (London: Vintage, 2007)
  • Haase, Donald, Fairy Tales and Feminism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004)
  • Harries, Elizabeth Wanning, Twice Upon A Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)
  • Jung, Carl Gustav, Aspects of the Feminine (London: Routledge, 2003)
  • Lau, Kimberly J., ‘Erotic Infidelities: Angela Carter’s Wolf Trilogy’, Marvels & Tales, 22 (2008) 77-94
  • Manley, Cathleen E. B., ‘Women in Process in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”’, Marvels & Tales, 12 (1998) 71-81
  • Moss, Betty ‘Desire and the Female Grotesque in Angela Carter’s “Peter and the Wolf”’, Marvels & Tales, 12 (1998), 175-191
  • Perrault, Charles, The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Warner, Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995)
  • Warner, Marina, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Zipes, Jack, Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (Hampshire: Gower, 1986)
  • Zipes, Jack, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (London: Routledge, 2012)
  • Zipes, Jack, The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context (London: Heinemann, 1983)

 

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[1] Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (London: Routledge, 2012) p. 31.

[2] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995) p. xiii.

[3] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 3.

[4] Donald Haase, Fairy Tales and Feminism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004) p. 22.

[5] Haase, p. 3.

[6] Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1 (1976), 875-893 (p. 877).

[7] Hélène Cixous, ‘Sorties’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 578-584 (p.  579).

[8] Hélène Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 7 (1981), 41-55 (p. 44).

[9] Ibid. p.  578.

[10] Ibid. p.  580.

[11] Jack Zipes, The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context (London: Heinemann, 1983) p. 2.

[12] Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 9.

[13] Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, p. 43.

[14] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 39.

[15] Charles Perrault, The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 99.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 101.

[18] Ibid., p. 103.

[19] Ibid., p. 101.

[20] Ibid., p. 103.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Perrault, p. 103.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 44.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) p. 56.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 8.

[29] Ibid., p. 9.

[30] Cixous, ‘Sorties’, p. 578

[31] Perrault, p. 151.

[32] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 42.

[33] Ibid., p. 40.

[34] Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, p. 43.

[35] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: Vintage, 2011) p. 219.

[36] Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 57.

[37] Bacchilega, p. 57.

[38] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 38.

[39] de Beauvoir, p. 191.

[40] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 64.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., p. 61.

[43] Brothers Grimm, The Complete Fairy Tales (London: Vintage, 2007) p. 125.

[44] Ibid., p. 127.

[45] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 64.

[46] Grimm, p. 128.

[47] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 63.

[48] Cixous, ‘Sorties’, p. 578.

[49] Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, p. 46.

[50] Bacchilega, p. 58.

[51] Zipes, Trials and Tribulations ,p. 17.

[52] Helen Simpson, ‘Introduction’, The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter (London: Vintage, 2006) p. ix.

[53] Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, p. 53.

[54] Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 47.

[55] Betty Moss, ‘Desire and the Female Grotesque in Angela Carter’s “Peter and the Wolf”’, Marvels & Tales, 12 (1998), 175-191 (p. 175).

[56] Simpson, p. xvii.

[57] Cixous, ‘Sorties’, p.  578.

[58] Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 2006) p. 127.

[59] Ibid., p. 128.

[60] Ibid., p. 140.

[61] Warner, p. 309.

[62] Ibid., p. 308.

[63] Bacchilega, p. 59.

[64] Carter, p. 129.

[65] Ibid., p. 130.

[66] Carter, p. 132.

[67] Ibid., p. 133.

[68] Ibid., p. 134.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid., p. 135.

[71] Ibid., p. 138.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid., p. 139.

[75] Bacchilega, p. 50.

[76] Ibid., p. 51.

[77] Warner, p. 309.

[78] Carter, p. 132.

[79] Ibid., p. 136.

[80] Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, p. 52.

[81] Ibid., p. 53.

[82] Carter, p. 138.

[83] Zipes, Art of Subversion, p. 45

[84] Carter, p. 135.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, p. 46.

[87] Carter, p. 135.

[88] Ibid., p. 136.

[89] Carter, p. 138.

[90] Ibid., p. 138.

[91] Ibid.

[92] de Beauvoir, p. 172.

[93] Carter, p. 138.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Simpson, p. xii.

[96] Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, p. 43.

[97] http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/feb/11/women-feminism-gender-fairy-tales [accessed 5 June 2015].

[98] Merseyside Fairy Tale Collective, ‘Red Riding Hood’, in The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, ed. by Jack Zipes (London: Heinemann, 1983), pp. 239-244 (p. 240).

[99] Merseyside, p. 243.

[100] Ibid., p. 244.

[101] Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 39.

[102] Jack Zipes, Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (Hampshire: Gower, 1986) p. 19.

[103] Cixous, ‘Sorties’, p.  579.

[104] Zipes, Don’t Bet on the Prince, p. 19.

[105] Bacchilega, p. 52.

[106] Cixous, ‘Sorties’, p.  581.

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