Little Red Riding Hood, a favorite fairy tale read to all young children, espouses the dangers of venturing off the known path, talking to strangers, and trusting people– even your own grandmother. Red Riding Hood introduced many children to the concept of a sexualized wolf and, depending on which version you heard, the unhappy ending of being eaten alive.
Many fairy tales have dark moments (I’m looking at you, Hans Christian Andersen), but conclude with a happy ending for the protagonist. Snow White is awakened with a kiss; Sleeping Beauty is awakened with a kiss; Cinderella, awake the whole time, gets her Prince; Hansel and Gretel kill the witch; Goldilocks gets to eat her porridge, take a nap, and escape the bears. Not so for Lil’ Red. Charles Perrault’s original translation ended with, “this wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood and ate her all up.”
Perrault’s version of an old oral tale very powerfully and evocatively teaches the lesson that a girl’s sexuality, curiosity, and adventurousness is dangerous, not only to herself but to her family, her home, and her future. Little Red’s transgressions off the well-trod path, in the original translation, lead to her violent death.
Catherine Ornstein, author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, writes that Little Red Riding Hood is “a patriarchal lesson in female obedience”. It may be no surprise, then, that I am compelled to upend that lesson and empower young Red Riding Hood and celebrate her journey through the woods– from child to capable young woman.
I feel drawn to Little Red Riding Hood and its symbolism almost more than I am to any other fairy tale. As a lifelong fairy tale fancier and a woman’s studies major, I find myself returning, time and time again, to explore and reinterpret this trope of an innocent girl alone in the woods with a tricksy sexualized wolf. I think, in many ways, my life has been informed by this cautionary tale, and some of my life choices have been to push back against it: I wander around in the woods, own my sexuality, and am capable of defending myself.
Little Red Riding Hood is abundantly rich in symbolism: her red cloak, the deep forest, and grandmother’s homey cottage. Like all good fairy tales, it aggressively invites analysis, critique, and reinterpretation. Exploring and possibly reinterpreting such a foundational piece of culture empowers us to change our own stories and future, and that is a form of magic.