Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale

by Catherine Orenstein

Published by Basic Books

289 pages, 2002









Not Before Bed, Please

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


Have you ever heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the bzou?

What's a bzou?, you may ask. It's a werewolf. The fairy tale we tell our innocent little children was originally a much more gruesome European folk-tale about a half-man, half-wolf who murders Granny, grinds her up into hamburger and feeds her to the unwitting Little Red Riding Hood. As she eats, a talking cat taunts her, "She is a slut who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her granny!"

But the next line is even more chilling: "Undress, my child," said the bzou, "and come to bed beside me." He then demands she do a slow, item-by-item striptease, throwing each article of her clothing into the fire: "You won't be needing them any more."

Some fairy tale.

In Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Story, women's issues journalist Catherine Orenstein has hit the mother lode of Mother Goose, peeling back layers of literary embroidery to reveal the raw, primal tale within. Judging by the countless pop-culture spinoffs we see in advertising, film, music and cartoons, Red's story still reverberates with sexual danger and the irresistible lure of the forbidden.

It's a feminist writer's dream because it plays around with gender roles, all that potent male-female power stuff, which in this case is strangely subverted. For is not our old friend the wolf really just a transvestite in an elderly woman's clothing, his bulging belly suggestive of an advanced pregnancy?

The deeper you dig into this tale, the stranger it gets. Versions of the story crop up, eerily, "on every continent, in every major language," Orenstein tells us. "But most people don't know the tale as well as they think."

Indeed. Did you know, for example, that this wasn't originally a children's story at all? The first published version was called Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, with its intended audience the pampered, jaded denizens of Louis XIV's Court of Versailles. Charles Perrault amused himself by fashioning a titillating morality-tale out of the old folk legend in 1697. It fairly drips with sexual nuance: "Little Red Riding Hood undressed and climbed into bed, where she was quite astonished to see the way the grandmother looked undressed."

Red is gobbled up whole in this ruthless version, without anyone coming to her aid. Perrault's cynically cute rhyming epilogue serves as a warning to tender young maidens about the perils of seduction: "Never trust a stranger-friend; no one knows how it will end. As you're pretty so be wise; wolves may lurk in every guise." Things get even juicier when Orenstein reveals that in the popular slang of the day, "when a girl lost her virginity it was said that elle avoit vu le loup -- 'she'd seen the wolf'."

The Grimm brothers desexualized the tale considerably in their 1812 retelling, which is closer to the treatment we read today. Not only that: they tacked on a much brighter ending, in which Red and Granny are rescued by a hunter who cuts them out of the wolf's belly. But already the tale had evolved considerably to reflect the moral imperatives of the times. In the Victorian era, it suddenly became necessary to include a male rescuer to protect vulnerable women from evil predators.

What makes Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked so intriguing is that Orenstein keeps going deeper and deeper into the story, uncovering that shiveringly awful bzou version in which an innocent little girl is nearly ravished by a naked man with fur and fangs. Interestingly enough, Red doesn't need a rescuer in this earliest story, but tricks the wolf by claiming she has to move her bowels ("Do it in the bed!" he commands, but she refuses), then running off into the woods. (And how did the crucial detail of her clever and courageous self-rescue get so lost?)

All this creepiness is the stuff that fairy tales were often originally made of, full of "sex, cannibalism, rape, incest, shitting, pissing, sodomy, cheating the Devil and tricking God." As Orenstein exclaims, "Just imagine reading that at bedtime!"

Though these literary explorations are fascinating, the book is less effective in analyzing modern pop-culture versions of Red's odyssey. Orenstein goes on at great length about the social significance of Tex Avery's 1940s cartoon version (which I remember as being downright silly), the 1966 song by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (even sillier), Max Factor lipstick ads for a shade called Riding Hood Red and Pepsi commercials featuring Sex and the City bombshell Kim Cattrall.

Feminist retellings can get a little tedious, too. Orenstein points out that they often feature Red wearing the wolf's pelt: "Rather than besting the beast, the heroine incorporates it." It's all too Jungian for words. Then there are the lesbian porn versions, in which Red is hung up on a hook and tortured: "These films make explicit the fairy tale's obsession -- and our fascination -- with rules, obedience and punishment."

I have no argument with Orenstein's basic thesis that fairy tales "run through us like a current," that they are "passed down, like cultural DNA, from one generation to the next." And it is interesting to see how many ways this twisted little tale can be wrenched around even further to suit modern morals (or the lack of them). But some of her interpretations seem a little over the top, such as the theory that the wolf really represents Red's grandfather.

Then there are statements like this: "The wolf takes gender-bending to its symbolic extreme .... Or perhaps the transvestite wolf is not the ultimate representation of a categorical crisis." Writing like this suffers from the kind of academic earnestness that makes potentially fascinating material strain at the seams. Is putting on Granny's old housedress really so laden with psychosocial significance, or is it just part of the story?

Orenstein is determined to see archetypes even in the unlikeliest places. She claims the wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City "repeatedly recycles fairy-tale themes" -- which seems unlikely, given the high level of sexual and worldly power the four women characters wield. She gives as an example Carrie running to catch a ferry, "losing her glittering Jimmy Choo designer slipper along the way." Throwing a shoe doesn't exactly turn the oh-so-urban, hardly-virgin Carrie into Cinderella -- though Mr. Big does resemble something like a toad.

Having said all that, I think Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked is worth a look just for the creepy thrill of that ancient, bloodthirsty bzou story. But I hereby warn you: read this book, and you'll think twice before telling Red's story to your kiddies when tucking them into bed for the night. | October 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.