Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale
Catherine Orenstein
New York: Basic Books, 2002.
$25.00, 289 pages, ISBN 0465041256.

Rebecca Munford
University of Exeter


"Little Red Riding Hood has never enjoyed an easy life. She began her career by being gobbled up by the wicked wolf [...]. She has suffered abuse after abuse, and it is time that the true story of this seductively innocent girl be revealed" [Zipes, pp. 1-2]. In Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, freelance writer Catherine Orenstein unravels the knotty trajectory of one of the most popular fairy tales and its heroine. Focusing on questions of gender and generation, sexual and social politics--across a variety of genres (including literature, film, advertising, music, cartoons, poetry and pornography)--Orenstein's intelligent, witty and, for the most part, insightful, study is "an exploration of society's 'vested' interest in Little Red Riding Hood--in the messages she wears, and those she covers up" [p. 13].

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked is concerned less with defining the fairy tale than with interrogating the diverse ways in which "the fairy tale defines us" [p. 10]. From bawdy seventeenth-century morality tale, to porn movie, Max Factor ad, and feminist poem, the various incarnations of "Little Red Riding Hood" under examination here draw the fairy tale forth "from her literary crypt"--not in search of "universal truths" but "as evidence of how human truths change" [p. 15]. Thus while each of the ten chapters centres on one key cultural inflection of "Little Red Riding Hood,"also offer a broader survey of the diverse and ambiguous pathways taken by the tale passed on from generation to generation. It is from these multifarious forays into centuries of cultural woodland that the ill-fated chaste maiden reappears as femme fatale, "Riot Grrrl," she-wolf and bitch, while her lupine assailant variously takes the form of lecherous courtier, pool hall city slicker and drag queen.

The first two chapters are devoted to analyses of the two best-known literary incarnations of "Little Red Riding Hood:" Charles Perrault's "Le Petit Chaperon rouge" [1697], the first publication of the tale; and the Grimm Brothers' "Little Red Cap" [1812]. Chapter One, "Little Red Riding Hood: To Be Chaste--or Chased?," deals with Perrault's playful and sexually suggestive morality tale and highlights the long journey travelled by the literary version of the fairy tale from Louis XIV's licentious court to the contemporary nursery anthology. In order to foreground the fairy tale's "buried meaning as a sexual parable" [p. 23], Orenstein opens this chapter with a discussion of Gustave Doré's 1862 illustration of the (not so) "innocent" Little Red Riding Hood in bed with the wolf--and its embellishment by the Freudian analyst Bruno Bettelheim (who added a telling blush to the heroine's cheek) for the frontispiece of The Uses of Enchantment [1976]. Positioning Perrault's fairy tale firmly within the context of the Versailles court--where "sexual indiscretions were notoriously indulged" [24], yet where the aristocratic mariage de raison required female virginity--Orenstein highlights the "erotic paradox" [p. 36] of "Le petit chaperon rouge." While Perrault's wolf represented the "dapper charmer of Parisian high society" and "deflowerer" of young women, the fate of his heroine, "cloaked ... in red, the colour of harlots, scandal and blood" [p. 36], she argues, warned of the dangers of female promiscuity for both young girls and noble women. However, although locating the origins of the literary fairy tale in the intellectual salon culture of seventeenth-century Paris, and acknowledging the presence of salon hostesses such as Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy and the Comtesse de La Fayette, this chapter underplays the role and politics of the female story-teller and collector (in particular the success and influence of d'Aulnoy). Moreover, by focusing on Perrault's position in relation to the Versailles court, it offers a narrow view of his stylization and transformation of the folkloric origins of "Little Red Riding Hood"--further discussion of which would have provided a more compelling context for subsequent reworkings of the fairy tale.

Chapter Two moves on to examine the Grimm Brothers' reworking--and sanitization--of the cruel and sexual undercurrents of Perrault's "Le petit chaperon rouge." What is vital to the Grimms' "Little Red Cap," of course, is the addition of the saviour-hunter who rescues Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf's belly: this more overtly pedagogic rendering of the fairy tale is framed as a "patriarchal lesson in female obedience" [p. 60] emphasizing punishment and admonition; the heroine is reconfigured as the embodiment of "both the new nineteenth-century child and the new Victorian woman--two concepts that, it turns out, were in some ways indistinguishable" [p. 49]. Highlighting the emergence of an urban middle class, a new Victorian family and the industrial printing press, this chapter demonstrates how "the red riding hood adorned a heroine not only of a different age, but of a different social class, with a different set of moral and social concerns" [p. 58]. Indeed, the puritanical "Little Red Cap" is at a far remove from the werewolf stories in which scholars such as Marianne Rumpf and Jack Zipes have identified the roots of the literary fairy tale. As Orenstein highlights, the Grimms' claims to a faithful link to the oral tradition have been discredited by late twentieth-century folklorists: the source of many of their collected tales was not the romanticized story-teller of the German countryside, but Marie Hassenpflug, a middle-class educated friend, and neighbour.

Having uncloaked the Grimms' claims to an "authentic" rendering of the fairy tale, the subsequent two chapters look back on the tale's oral inheritance--locating "premodern antecedents" for both the heroine and the wolf. The first of these chapters offers a brief overview of folkloric methodology and the literary adaptation of fairy tales by way of a discussion of an oral precedent for "Little Red Riding Hood" involving a girl who eats her grandmother--formally collected as "The Grandmother's Tale"circa1885. Identifying the conventional fairy tale paradigm as a passive rite of passage narrative for the fairy tale heroine, Orenstein highlights an alternative model of female agency in this oral version. She pertinently argues that while variously deploying the figure of the female story-teller--"Mother Goose, Frauen and the ugliest old crones around" [p. 83]--as the source of their tales, male collectors such as Perrault, the Grimms and Giambattista Basile nevertheless erased "the sense of female authorship--literally, female authority" [p. 83] from them. While offering a very cursory reference to the link between tale-telling and yarn-spinning that has been developed by feminist fairy tale scholars such as Marina Warner and Karen E. Rowe, this discussion of the gendering of the genre, and the tension between the figure of the female story-teller and the male collector, could have been explored further--especially given the gendering of fairy tale vs. myth and folkloric criticism earlier in the chapter.

Chapter Four returns to the werewolf trials of old Europe, and especially that of Stubbe Peeter in Germany in 1589, to trace the resonances of the bzou and occultist beliefs in Perrault's characterisation of the wolf. Although the two chapters are fascinating, this chronological shift is slightly disorientating--and is at odds with Orenstein's own proposition that "the revelation about Little Red Riding Hood's oral sisters delivers two lessons: the danger of interpreting a tale without knowing its history; and the importance of examining its broader folkloric patterns" [p. 75].

Opening with the lyrics of "Lil' Red Riding Hood," written by Robert Blackwell and performed by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs in 1966, Chapter Five is one of Orenstein's wittiest chapters. Here we are introduced to Red as a Hollywood stripper in Tex Avery's 1943 animation Red Hot Riding Hood. For Avery, Orenstein asserts, "the showgirl and her lascivious pursuer were not just a girl and a wolf, but the characters and symbols of the human sexual drama. His heroine is a sex object. His wolf, stiffening and levitating at the sight of her, is the penis personified" [p. 115]. At the same time, as Orenstein shows, Avery's subversions of fairy tale motifs and paradigms capture a "new street-smart quality of American womanhood" [p. 118]. This incarnation of the fairy tale heroine is a cross between Rita Hayworth and Mae West--with her famous quip: "I used to be Snow White... but I drifted" [p. 119]. Crucially, this repositioning of Red as femme fatale represents the growing demographic [sic] of the "single girl" (and consumer)--applying her Max factor "riding hood red" lipstick and speeding to Grandma's in her "little red Hertz" [p. 126]. But, as Orenstein warns, she is also an archetypal pin-up heroine--"an icon of feminine availability: the image of woman as man desires her, distinguished by her ability to turn his head (or make him levitate, steam, and lose his eyeballs) and always desirous of a romantic romp" [p. 128].

The following chapter, "The Waiting Wolf: In the Belly of the Beast," is perhaps the most troubling section of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked. While it offers an absorbing discussion of the ways in which twentieth-century women writers, in particular Anne Sexton, have rewritten the literary fairy tale as a paradigm of domestic imprisonment and abuse, its contextual account of feminist history is oversimplified--as the reference to second-wave bra-burning perpetuates another twentieth-century mythology. The inclusion of a brief gloss of Angela Carter's feminist revision of "Bluebeard" alongside discussions of Andrea Dworkin's and Susan Brownmiller's critiques of the fairy tale as inextricably caught up in predatory patriarchal structures, although redressed in the next chapter, is also misleading. Not only do Carter's powerful reworkings of traditional fairy tales emphasise the fluidity and complex social and sexual politics of the form, but they have received vehement criticism from many feminist critics.

Chapter Seven, "The Company of Wolves: She-Wolf or Bitch?," opens with an excerpt from Roald Dahl's "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf" in which Red appears as a feisty, fur-loving heroine. Orenstein uses this motif to introduce fashion as a barometer of shifts in the fairy tale's meanings and, centrally, the recasting of Little Red Riding Hood as a brave, resourceful and quick-witted heroine who appropriates--rather than surrenders to--the powerful, animalistic sexuality conventionally symbolised by the wolf. From these representations Orenstein derives the rather ambiguous notion of "beast feminism," which she identifies with the emergent/insurgent--and divergent--feminisms of the Riot Grrrls, the Wolf Girls of Vassar, Pinkola Esté's Women Who Run With the Wolves [1992], the Guerrilla Girls, Elizabeth Wurtzel's Bitch [1998] and the girlie zine, Bitch: Feminist Responses to Popular Culture. Although Orenstein argues that whether the redeployment of the term "bitch" is "an appropriation of the language of the oppressor or an internalization of patriarchy's term is moot" [p. 174], the various (and often conflicting) ways in which young women are drawing on the fairy tale to negotiate and reconfigure feminist identities could have been developed more persuasively in relation to postfeminist and third-wave feminist positions.

In Chapter Eight, "Red Riding Hood Redux: The Cross-Dressing Wolf," Orenstein turns her attention from Little Red Riding Hood's (in)famous cloak and fur stole to the wolf's wardrobe. Drawing on Marjorie Garber's seminal work on transvestism in Vested Interests [1997], she highlights how the conventionally predatory and virile wolf's transvestism has "become fodder for drag theatre and gender-bending literature" [p. 193]--reflecting changing ideas not only about "the duties and roles of men but our understanding of masculinity itself" [p. 196]. Again, this section makes some rather broad strokes: statements such as "cross-dressing is by definition subversive" [p. 194] call out for further qualification and elaboration. Similarly, while Orenstein highlights another powerful crisis of representation in interpretations of the wolf pregnant with Little Red Riding Hood in his belly (in Sexton's poem and Barbara Swan's & Beni Montressor's illustrations), the social and sexual politics of this "fantasy of male motherhood" [p. 197] is underdeveloped.

The tension between conformity and transgression underlying the fairy tale is elaborated in Chapter Nine. Here Red makes her appearance as a lesbian S&M porn star in The Punishment of Red Riding Hood [1996] as Orenstein interrogates the interrelationship between two of the most culturally pervasive fantasy genres: the fairy tale and pornography. Asserting pornography's magnification of the sadomasochistic undercurrents of traditional fairy tales, Orenstein pertinently argues that both genres reflect social and sexual mores, at once informing and reflecting our understanding and definitions of sexuality. This is a germane argument and, unfortunately, one that cannot be fully tackled given the brevity of this eleven-page chapter.

The last rendering of "Little Red Riding Hood" examined by Orenstein is Matthew Bright's 1996 screen adaptation, Freeway.Over ten chapters the fairy tale has travelled from "the luxurious, indulgent French Court of the Sun King" [p. 23] to "the underprivileged neighbourhoods and byways of southern California" [p. 224]. Yet, Orenstein argues--drawing on Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale [1968]--an underlying structure, or cultural code--albeit varied and mutated--remains intact. At once irreverently mocking fairy tale conventions and providing "a chance to recap the tale's stock characters and themes and to re-examine the laws by which they survive and adapt" [p. 227], Bright's film foregrounds what Orenstein perceives as the central paradox of the fairy tale--"it is both timeless and universal, and yet always true to the time and day in which it is told" [p. 237].

The largely European and American mutations of "Little Red Riding Hood" examined here do demonstrate how it continues to permeate and illuminate the Western cultural imagination in powerful and complex ways. Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked is impressive in its breadth and wealth of detail--even if this does give way to occasional oversimplification and repetition. This lively and accessible study offers a fascinating peek behind the ever-transforming cloak(s) of one of the most intriguing fairy tale heroines.


ZIPES, J. The Trials & Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. London: Heinemann, 1983.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.