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 tales 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.
Red Riding Hood Uncloaked is a distillation of the authors research for
her senior thesis at Harvard University. Orensteins 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 tales written
incarnations in order to examine it within a particular historical context and to
assess its intended audience, implied message, and social impact.
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 Grandmothers 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 Grandmothers 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.
Orenstein is a free-lance writer who specializes in womens 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 ExaminerSunday 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
BettelheimsThe Uses of Enchantment. I highly
recommend this book.
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
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