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Little Red Riding Hood UncloakedReview - Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked
Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale
by Catherine Orenstein
Basic Books, 2002
Review by Su Terry
Dec 10th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 50)

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale by Catherine Orenstein is an engrossing study of the evolving role that the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale plays in historic and contemporary cultures. The study reaches into the tale’s misty past, across exotic cultures, and even into the realms of modern advertising and media to explore the social messages that the fairy tale promotes to different cultures.

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked is a distillation of the author’s research for her senior thesis at Harvard University. Orenstein’s thesis is that Little Red Riding Hood plays an important role in communicating cultural norms. She posits that fairy tales, like Art, communicates in “symbolic” terms that address our deepest and most primitive hopes and fears, and are used as programming vehicles for culturally ingrained sociological and psychological messages. The message imparted, however, is ever evolving through oral transmission and reflects the changing nature of society. The author studied the tale’s written incarnations in order to examine it within a particular historical context and to assess its intended audience, implied message, and social impact.

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked is organized into ten chapters. Each chapter begins with artwork, then a story, poem, song, or joke that epitomizes the era and the message that is the focus of that particular chapter. Chapter 1 explores the first written record of the tale by Charles Perrault in France in 1697. Perrault addressed his message to young aristocratic ladies in the promiscuous era of the French salon. His symbolic tale detailed the fate of young ladies who surrendered their virginity to the suave male wolves at the French court of Louis XIV. His message was very clear - young unmarried ladies who do not remain chaste while being chased will come to a horrible end. Chapter 2 looks at the second written incarnation of the tale by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The Brothers Grimm wrote for a much younger audience. The tale was used to instruct children to be obedient to their parents. Disobedience or straying off the “straight and narrow” path of parental dictates was dangerous and might lead to injury or even death. Adding the woodcutter to the story conveys an additional message to girls. Beyond the parental home, a girl needs a dominant “alpha male” to be her savior and protector. Chapter 3 explores the history of a French folk story called “The Grandmother’s Tale”. The story was addressed to young girls that ventured forth from the relative safety of the family farm and the familiarity of the rural village to pave their future in the urban forest of mill factories. Unlike the previous version of this tale, there is no male woodcutter lurking in the background to save her. The heroine must use her own wit as well as her sewing tools in order to survive. Chapter 4 looks at “Stubbe Peeter, Werewolf” a 1589 pamphlet about the murders, trial, and execution of a German werewolf. Like witchcraft trials, werewolf trials were common in the sixteenth century. Werewolves represented a threat to those that lived outside the physical and social boundaries of rural society. It was a strong message of fear for controlling a peasant population in an era of social uprisings. Chapter 5 looks at the tales occurrence in the popular media of the mid-twentieth century, especially in the 1940s cartoons of Tex Avery and the lyrics of a 1969 song. This chapter represents a turning point in the book as the traditional storyline of the fairytale is turned on its ear. The heroines of these versions are the new independent woman of the twentieth century. She is a “scarlet lady” and “Rosy the riveter” out to seduce the wolf, in some cases, as many wolves as she can. Red is now in control and the wolf is her willing victim. It is an expression of the feared fate of Male dominance in a post-WWII world filled with sexually expressive working women. Chapter 6 looks at the poetry of Gwen Strauss and Anne Sexton and explores the tales message for the post-1970s liberated woman. The fairytale is now viewed as a parable about the historic abuse and rape of women. It is a poignant social outcry against past crimes against women and a rallying cry for modern women to fight back against the wolves of patriarchy. Chapter 7 looks at the fairy tale updated by Roald Dahl in 1983. It explores what it terms “beast feminism” or the philosophy for “women who run with wolves.” Fur is viewed as a transforming fashion statement in which the modern “grrrrl” may demonstrate her victory over the wolf by the wearing of its pelt. Chapter 8 looks at the feminization of men. As women were earlier encouraged to fight against the wiles of the male beast, men are now encouraged to seek their feminine side by taking and being filled by the feminine. Chapter 9 looks at the roles fairy tales play in pornography. It explores the usage of sexually explicit fairy tales in order to tap into the symbolic depths of sexual desire. The fairy tale is viewed as both a heterosexual and homosexual fantasy. Chapter 10, the final chapter, looks at the 1996 film “Freeway” and the tales messages for those living in the world of the modern ‘hood. Red is now a streetwise urban miss and the wolf is a male sexual predator. Unfortunate the wolf has the protection of society while Red is viewed as a social outcast “crying wolf”. In a return to the moral of the “Grandmother’s Tale” Red abandoned by the society that is supposed to protect her and lacking an alpha male must battle the wolf herself in order to survive.

Catherine Orenstein is “a free-lance writer who specializes in women’s issues, Latin America, and Haiti. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and has a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, San Francisco Examiner Sunday Magazine, Ms, In These Times and other publications. She lives in New York City.” Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (2002) is her first book.

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale is VERY thought provoking book. Written for the layperson it presents an eye-opener social history of modern and post-modern Anglo-European culture as distilled into the heady concoction of fairytale symbolism. It is easy to read, filled with verbal and artistic illustrations, and quite engrossing. It has one frustrating drawback. If the concepts within this thin, but potent book are taken to heart the reader may find it hard to ever look at advertising and media story plotlines quite the same again. Having just finished reading this book, I watched The Wizard of Oz back-to-back twice and continued to wax probably less than poetically at 1am about the symbolic nature of the fairy tale, its social commentary and implications for pre-WWIII culture. While the author might have been impressed by my adaptation of her principles to a new tale, my husband who may never forgive me for disturbing his sleep was impressed only to pull his pillow tighter over his ears. I assure you, Orenstein's book deserves a place next to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. I highly recommend this book.

 

© 2002 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.


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