It?s Such Fun Out Here In The Wood!
Little Red Riding Hood?s Wild Ride from
Curious Girl to Highway Hellion and Beyond . . .
By Diane J. Reed
(Author of the novel Twixt ? A modern, magical fairy tale)
?It?s such fun out here in the wood,? the Wolf famously remarks to Little Red Cape in the popular Brothers Grimm version of the tale published in 1812. Little did the writers know that these words would ignite a controversy that has continued to blaze for centuries, filling libraries to the brim with scholarly treatments. But if one could wave a magic literary wand, all of those fiery arguments might well be distilled into one compelling sentence: What exactly does the Wolf mean by fun?
Is he inviting Little Red Cape to explore the freedom of the forest, encouraging her natural curiosity to blossom for a while? (Before he eats her, of course!)
Or is he flat-out seducing her for a sexual romp in the woods before he makes her his next meal?
And even more importantly, what does Little Red Cape hope to gain from her amusing side journey? Fun, exploration, sex - or ALL of the above?
To answer such questions, it?s perhaps best to look at one of the oldest versions of the story on record. It?s called ?The Grandmother,? and it?s based on oral folktales that were passed around in Europe long before Charles Perrault first published the story in 1697 as ?Little Red Riding Hood? (the title we know it as today). Prior to that date, folklorists believe ?The Grandmother? was a more archaic wive?s tale told by peasant women to encourage discernment in their daughters?particularly as they matured and needed skills to navigate physical desire (both within themselves and from men).
Yet in ?The Grandmother? version (which probably developed in the 14th century), several surprising elements stand out:
1. The girl in the story is unnamed.
2. There?s no mention of the color red, or a cap, or a ?riding hood? whatsoever.
3. The girl meets a bzou (a werewolf!) ? not a wolf.
4. There isn?t even a forest. There are two paths ? the path of pins and of needles that eventually cross, where the girl meets the bzou like the proverbial Devil at the crossroads. (Pins and needles may be references to the seamstress work of many peasant women, making the story a possible rite of passage before a girl accepts adult responsibilities).
5. There?s cannibalism! (Yes, you heard right.). When the girl arrives at her grandmother?s house, the bzou has already eaten the old woman and left some of her flesh in the pantry and blood in a bottle, which the girl unknowingly consumes. (This may point to a ?swallowing? of her new adult role before she can transform into an adult herself.)
6. There?s a ?strip? scene! At the bzou?s request to ?Get undressed...and come to bed with me? (after he ate her grandmother), the girl removes items of her clothing one by one and tosses them into a fire.
7. There?s no ?rescuer? (male or otherwise!). When it becomes clear to the girl that this imposter is sinister, she?s forced to survive by her own wits and cleverly escapes the bzou.
8. There?s also no ?moral.? Each of the story?s details is presented in a peculiarly objective manner, so that listeners are left to decide the story?s ?meaning? for themselves.
(For a full version of ?The Grandmother,? originally collected by folklorist Achille Millien circa 1870 in France, follow this link http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0333.html#millien).
So how does a bizarre tale about a girl who cannibalizes her grandmother, strips her clothes, and barely escapes being eaten by a werewolf become such a catalyst for arguments about female promiscuity and liberation in modern times?
The answer lies in precisely how much fun the audience believes she?s having.
And as the story has evolved over centuries to the present day, modern audiences now appear to believe that Little Red Riding Hood is having the time of her life ?
But before this current trend came into vogue, several profound changes took place (that may reflect forms of female repression until well into the twentieth century).
First, Frenchman Charles Perrault refashioned ?The Grandmother? in the 17th century for entertainment in King Louis the XIV?s court, calling it ?Little Red Riding Hood.? He added a jaunty red cloak (that reflected French fashion) to the girl's clothing and in doing so introduced a whole new element of transgression to the story? because it doesn?t take much effort to associate red with sexual desire or with a girl?s first menses and maturation into womanhood, implying that the little girl will soon not be a "girl" at all. Unfortunately, the character of Little Red Riding Hood pays dearly for this change. No longer is she the admirable girl who demonstrates her readiness for adult challenges by outwitting the werewolf. Perrault?s girl becomes a ninny who falls right into the Wolf?s trap (and stomach) with no hope of survival. Perrault then inserts a heavy-handed moral at the end that clearly lays blame for the outcome at Little Red Riding Hood?s dead feet, stating, ?Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers.?
So, the underlying message of the tale has essentially been reduced to this: if a girl happens to be pretty, naturally curious, and remotely tempted to interact with a wolf (or the opposite sex?) while straying a bit from the conventional path, she must die - Ouch.
Certainly, Little Red Riding Hood isn?t having a whole lot of fun in this particular rendition.
She does, however, get to enjoy herself a little more in the Brothers Grimm version, published in Germany in 1812 as ?Little Red Cap? (perhaps the world?s most popular version). Here the Wolf utters his famous invitation to stay in the woods and explore, and Little Red Cap takes him up on it, delighting in the forest and picking handfuls of flowers. But once again, she is forced to pay dearly for this urge by being duped and swallowed by the Wolf. To make the story less tragic (and perhaps more palatable to Georgian/Victorian audiences), the Grimms provide the tale with a huntsman to later rescue her. Unfortunately, this merely reinforces the idea that the girl cannot trust her own instincts or succeed at self-defense, and her character has now been rendered completely dependent on men.
There are literally dozens of variations of Little Red Riding Hood that sprung up in the nineteenth century, but most of them continue to perpetuate the idea that Little Red Cape/Riding Hood is at ?fault? for her foolishness and requires a man (or her grandmother) to help save her from her own stupidity and from the Wolf (to read more versions, follow this link: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0333.html#millien). Though each rendition offers fascinating details, what?s even more curious is how very constant the theme of her dependence remains (so very different from the smart girl audiences were introduced to in ?The Grandmother?!).
Such dependency is clearly evident even in the early twentieth century in a black and white Disney animation feature. In 1922, Walt Disney produced a six-minute film titled Little Red Riding Hood (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vslDLzrrvEc) that includes a jazzy soundtrack, which was probably meant to appeal to flappers of that era. But with their short bobs and short skirts, everyone knows that flapper women were considered rather ?loose? for their time, and in this very fascinating clip, Little Red Riding Hood is about to suffer the consequences. Walt Disney modernized the tale by supplying Little Red Riding Hood with a go cart (powered by her dog) for her journey, and her rescuer is a dashing aviator instead of a huntsman. However, her predator this time is not a wolf, but a very dapper man driving a racy Ford Flivver who comes across her out on the road.
Unable to succeed in distracting her there, he races to her grandmother?s house (who happens to be out) and lies in wait while Little Red Riding Hood stops to collect flowers. When Little Red Riding Hood arrives at the house, the man is waiting inside - so there?s little doubt that sexual molestation is what?s at stake here. Audiences see the house shake and can read her cries for ?Help!? on the screen (it?s hard not to be on the edge of your seat!). Fortunately, Little Red Riding Hood?s dog saves the day by locating the aviator and leading him to rescue Little Red Riding Hood (because as we all know by now, she?s incapable of defending herself).
Similarly, Betty Boop?s dog also enters the scene to ?rescue? her in Dizzy Red Riding Hood in an animated feature created in 1931 by Fleischer Studios (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj-LDzzs-Wg&feature=related ). Only now, Little Red Riding Hood?s skirt has gotten as short as physically possible, and in a very alluring scene, her garters keep slipping from her exposed thighs and she lifts them up, only to have them drop again repeatedly (much to the delight of the salacious Wolf).
Unbeknownst to Dizzy, while she?s having fun picking flowers, her dog has followed from behind her and killed the Wolf to ?protect? her, but he then dons the Wolf?s pelt and rushes to the grandmother?s house so he can make advances on Dizzy himself! In a quantum leap from earlier versions, Little Red Riding Hood has now transformed into a completely sexual object, desired by all, but unfortunately Betty Boop?s Dizzy is so dumb that she doesn?t see ANY of this coming, but the male characters in the story can?t help falling for her outrageously sexy charms.
Suddenly, ?outrageously sexy? have become the bywords for Little Red Riding Hood?s appeal (this was only 1931, remember!), and no film could demonstrate this fact more clearly than Tex Avery?s Red Hot Riding Hood created by MGM in 1943 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaVc8S-kjfg&feature=related).
In this gorgeous and hilariously funny color feature, suddenly it?s Little Red Riding Hood?s sexy transformation and very desire for FUN that take center stage! In fact, early in the feature, while she?s skipping through the forest in the classic children?s tale attire, Little Red Riding Hood and the other characters actually stage a revolt against their boring fairy tale roles! In keeping with her wish, Little Red Riding Hood is changed into ?Red Hot Riding Hood,? the hottest nightclub singer on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, complete with a skin-tight red dress and curves that could stop traffic. And ?traffic? certainly does come her way in the form of a sleek black car bearing a tuxedo-clad Wolf. He heads to her nightclub and promptly offers her diamonds and furs to go with him to the Riviera. But this time (holy smokes!), Little Red Riding Hood is way too smart for him, stating ?You wolves are all alike!? No longer is she a dumb sex object but a very streetwise showgirl who apparently finds her grandmother?s ritzy penthouse a whole lot more entertaining than a sleazy, groping Wolf. When the Wolf continues to paw her, Red Hot Riding Hood screams ?My answer is NO!? and promptly cracks a lamp over his head.
All of a sudden, we are back in the original story territory where the heroine can look after herself, thank you very much!
And in a total reversal, it is the Wolf who now plays the fool in the story, for he races after Red to the Grandmother?s apartment, only to discover that the cigarette-smoking, evening-gown draped granny is far more sexually aggressive than he is! This isn?t a mere children?s story anymore?by 1943, Little Red Riding Hood has clearly made a full transition to the province of adult entertainment with its risqué characters and constant (and very amusing!) sexual innuendo.