Little Red Riding Hood UNCLOAKED

Little Red Riding Hood UNCLOAKED: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale by Catherine Orenstein. Basic Books. 2003 ISBN-10: 0465041264 ISBN-13: 978-0465041268

At the recent Calgary Conference, sex and morality attracted my attention. Not that the topics were part of the primary agenda but rather a secondary benefit of a trip to McNally Robinson Bookstore.

As the concept of leaving a bookstore empty handed is al- ien to my acquisitive nature, a book with the secondary title of Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale caught my attention. This intriguing perspective is used to reveal the personae of that perennially popular lady: Little Riding Hood.

The tale of the little lady in red and the wolf of definitive badness is viewed by Catherine Orenstein not only as a story but also as an account of the sexual ambiguities and moral mores of different societies in different eras.

To her understanding, Orenstein brings her erudition: a magna cum laude degree in Folklore and Mythology from Harvard and a Master of International Affairs from Colum- bia University. To these, she added journalistic skills.

As her“obsession”ranges through many motifs, she corrals them by their historical occurrence, from past to present, giving each period a chapter. Each chapter begins with the version particular to that period. In addition, each chapter is entitled with a contrary comment. For example, Little Red Riding Hood: To Be Chaste – or Chased?; The Grandmother’s Tale: To Come of Age; The Company of Wolves: She-Wolf or Bitch?

Orenstein begins her romp through sexual ambiguities of societies with Charles Perrault’s version of 1697. Written when the phrase “she had seen the wolf” meant the lady had lost her virginity, the story relates more to adult behaviour than to nursery bedtime.

And who better to give the wisdom than an old woman? Thus, Perrault entitled his collection of fairy tales as “Tales of My Mother Goose” but the tales are allegories for the social and sexual concerns of the indulgent 17th Century the indulgent 17th Century French Court of the Sun King.

By the early 1800s, Little Red Riding Hood is reflecting the concerns of the German middle class superimposed on peasant folklore by the redoubtable Grimm Brothers.

By the late 1800s, the focus shifted to the grandmother. French and Italian folklore have a collection of Grand- mother Tales characterised by the shift from the heroine passively awaiting rescue to the heroine actively constructing her escape. This “global sisterhood of oral tales” offers techniques to survive desperate circumstances such as hunger, abandonment and infanticide. Thus, fairy tales depict “a rite of passage.”

The wolf also comes under scrutiny. In places where the wolf was a natural predator, it becomes “in legend and in law a beast of ill repute” and thus at the edge of social order and decency. In other traditions, however, it is seen as heroic and one to be revered for its powers of courage, as in Native Indian traditions, or its capacity to nurture, as in Latin beliefs.

By 1940s, Hollywood transformed Red Riding Hood into a red hot sexpot. At times, the tale softened to the courtship story of Miss Riding Hood and she joined the ranks of other female protagonists, such as Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, who make decisions driving the plot forward while the men feature only as princely rewards or wolfish fiends.

The advertising blitz of the1990s saw Red Riding Hood move from centre stage of Hollywood to the centre page of glossies. She is revamped to sell lipstick, cars, etc. The femme fatale for advertising revenue reveals her animal instincts are covert but profitable.

Moving forward to the present, I found this book to be provocative, stimulating and worthy of a second reading.

Mary Gavan

1st published in Le Raconteur
Vol 10: 02 pt 2:23 Winter

Mot de passe oublié?