Into The Woods

The notion that fairy tales are simple stories for simple minds is long out of fashion. It is now common academic practice to see the tales as models for, and mirrors of, cultural concerns, representing and commenting on social realities. Reading a scholarly take on a fairy tale, as an adult, is rather like looking at the ingredients list on a package of lunchables: it tasted fine when we were kids, but now that we know what’s inside, it’s hard to believe we ever got it down.

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, by Catherine Orenstein ’90, sounds so intriguing largely because it seems to offer us the chance to learn about ourselves. We come into the book good-humored but braced for the worst, fully prepared to be shocked and horrified by what our parents were really telling us those many years ago.

Though the book began as her senior thesis in folklore and mythology, Orenstein is not a scholar. She is a freelance writer specializing in women’s issues, and her task is not to engage contemporary critical theory (though Bettelheim, Fromm, Campbell and Rank get courteous, though cursory, nods). Her goal, rather, is to survey the tale through time and over oceans, noting changes in the text and structure of the story, and explicating the ways in which the different versions reflect the cultures that produced them.

Her approach aims for breadth and accessibility over in-depth analysis. At times her prose feels distinctly derivative, or else noncommittal to the point of tediousness. Sentences like “Or perhaps the transvestite wolf is not the ultimate representation of a categorical crisis” grow less illuminating with each re-reading. The book’s comprehensiveness, however, more than makes up for its analytical weaknesses. Uncloaked is ultimately valuable for its diligence in tracking the tale and its characters at every turn, showing how each version builds on and subverts its predecessors.

Orenstein locates the fairy tale’s earliest ancestor in a 17th-century oral folktale, “The Grandmother’s Tale,” and reproduces a version from the French countryside. Creepy and grotesque, the story is anything but a nursery rhyme. The wolf, waiting eagerly in bed, feeds the little girl (here, sans red riding hood) a jar of her grandmother’s blood and then coaxes her to perform a slow striptease. With each garment removed, he urges her, “Throw it on the fire, my child. You won’t be needing it anymore.” The girl rescues herself in the tale’s conclusion, in contrast to the later Grimm Brothers’ version, in which girl and granny are snipped out of the wolf’s stomach by a passing huntsman.

Later versions of the tale would draw more explicit morals from the story. The earliest, Charles Perrault’s “Le Petite Chaperon Rouge,” appeared in 1695 in his Tales of Times Past with Morals, the original Mother Goose tales. In this version, Red Riding Hood climbs into bed with the wolf—and is promptly devoured. Orenstein deftly shows us that the tale was intended as a morality fable for the decadent aristocracy under Louis XIV. In a society that both prized virginity and tolerated rampant sexual indiscretions, the tale cautioned ladies to “never trust a stranger-friend…wolves may lurk in every guise.”

Once the story gets to 20th-century America, the characters undergo some radical revisions. In 1943, the animator Tex Avery turned Little Red into “Red Hot Riding Hood,” a Hollywood stripper, and the wolf into a lusty club-goer who springs into a “full-body erection.” Throughout the 1970s, the story became a regular feminist tool for calling attention to female victimization, and women repeatedly rewrote the story to cast Red as a triumphant heroine (stabbing the wolf with a sewing knife and wearing his fur), the wolf as a slavering date-rapist, or both. Anne Sexton’s poetic version from Transformations gets a full printing and illuminating treatment. The discussion of fairy-tale porn is amusing, if rather ad hoc.

Some of Orenstein’s other forays, such as the chapter on the wolf’s cross-dressing, fare less well. This can perhaps be blamed on the good old academic microscope. Is the wolf’s donning of the grandmother’s clothes really rife with suggestions of the construction of gender roles—or are modern-day images of a pregnant wolf meant only to be funny? The humor factor is, strangely enough, something Orenstein never discusses. She seems to view all of the latter-day Riding Hoods as cultural “replacements” of the old Grimm damsel, rather than as sly referents that implicitly acknowledge the endurance of not only the essential structure of the tale, but the older versions themselves. Equally suspicious is that Orenstein never mentions—barely lets on that she knows—that the Grimms and Mother Goose versions of the tale are still read today, far away from the 16th-century or Victorian cultures from which they emerged.

Fuzzy methodology aside, the book is to be commended for its accessibility and wealth of archive-culled facts and anecdotes. Uncloaked works well as fair-minded introduction to the study of folktales and how gender and power work beneath the surface of a tale most people have seen before and will certainly see again.

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