The fairy tale has become totally institutionalized in Western society, journeying from a secular/pagan peasant oral folk tradition to modern-day Disney films. Along the way the genre has evolved, often reflecting a multilayer of influences of folk, pagan, biblical, classical and cross-cultural sources. Although originally incorporating some aspects of instruction, these tales mainly focused primarily on magic and human experience which intended to entertain, frighten and amuse.
For women, however, these stories were of particular relevance, often highlighting their resourcefulness and survival, and were part of a female oral bonding ritual shared between grandmothers, mothers and daughters in peasant communities.
As societies altered, folk tales were however often stolen from their traditional contexts and adapted to promote the ethical, economic and societal values of the church and the aristocracy. The patriarchal ruling elite had the power, wealth and resources to re-write, publish and distribute such tales to suit their own value systems and this began to impact widely on Western culture itself.
In the seventeenth century the aristocratic Perrault and his contemporaries adapted folk and fairy tales to entertain the ruling classes; however simpler versions were created and distributed for a wider cultural audience. The ruling classes of his generation, in pre-revolutionary France aimed to establish their own hierarchical, patriarchal/royalist social order.
By the nineteenth century the likes of the Grimms and Anderson adapted tales to be representative of certain ethical standards such as perseverance, Christian obedience, kindness, duty and also incorporated hierarchies based on class, sex and ethnicity. They were then deemed acceptable by educators and clergy alike, resulting in their role within the socialisation process.
The Perrault, Grimms, Anderson canon retains a pervasive influence in contemporary times, remaining almost universally familiar. They have endured by use of repetition and familiarity. For example, many contain stock character such as ‘the wicked step-mother’, ‘the witch’, or ‘passive princess’ – a trend reinforced in contemporary times by Disney.
By examining several adaptations of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ it is possible to contemplate the fairytale and patriarchal ideological contexts. Repeatedly reinvented, this particular tale however originally presented themes and motifs relating to obvious animal dangers, strangers, loss of orientation, pagan spirituality (death/rebirth), werewolf myths and cannibalism.
Feminist scholars argue that this was a tale passed from women to women. Themes originally alluded to female rites of passage, puberty rituals and menstruation. Many emphasize that the original tale incorporated the heroine outwitting the wolf, corresponding to Angela Carter’s observation that peasant fairy tales were stories of ‘survival…[far from female] passive subordination’(2005, p. xx).
On this tale’s journey from oral tradition to literary genre, however, ideas of power and roles were altered to suit a more patriarchal agenda. Once adapted by Perrault, the reader was directed to view female sexuality here as dangerous and punishable by the male/wolf, the female as passive prey (object) and the male as active predator (subject).
Any semblance of female wisdom is devoured ‘quicker than a wink’ (Perrault).
The grandmother’s death and demise of the female protagonist are here due to her failure to ‘guard [her purity] against all sorts of men’ (Perrault). This suggests a Christian portrayal of woman as Eve, punished for her disobedience and curiosity (linking to Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’). The writer therefore highlights female accountability for received (sexual) violence, while enabling the institutionalization of rape myths in Western society .
The Grimms, Anderson and their nineteenth century contemporaries however emphasized values such as hard work and diligence, entwining ideas of endurance of hardship linked to reward (Protestant work ethic) in an era of burgeoning capitalism and post-revolutionary religious revival. The Grimms’ adaptation of this tale focuses on ideas of class and female compliance, conformity and the dangers of disobedience; of straying ‘from the path’ (Grimms).
In this sanitized adaptation, to suit redefined boundaries of decency, ‘Little Red Cap’ and grandmother remain passive, spared only by the intervention (and invention) of a male rescuer (‘huntsman’). Here there are also messages of the essential nature of compiling with patriarchal constraints, as the protagonist learns from her mistakes to survive a second encounter with the wolf. It is also significant that the protagonist is portrayed as a female ‘innocent’, rather than Perrault’s punished ‘sinner’. The ‘virgin’ and not the ‘whore’ this time. As both versions maintain familiar symbols and motifs such as the red cape and repetitive phrases, however, both adaptations have become intertwined within modern consciousness, and their reading of womanhood has become culturally embedded. Significantly both depict perspectives on either the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ female victim, encouraging the continuation of an existing (rape) cultural hegemony.
Feminist critics have argued that the most popular and enduring tales both present and encourage female objectification and passivity, as in ‘Snow White’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Cinderella’ for example. This, as Angela Carter states, projects both ‘notions of the nature of women and men’ (2005, p. xxiii). In turn, such ideals have enabled their survival and actual institutionalization, evident in the sexist, (racist and imperialist), yet globally successful, Disney fairytale film franchise.
However, when we consider the original form of the tale, and as Angela Carter states, Red Riding Hood was/is in fact ‘nobody’s meat’ (2006, p. 138).
Carter. A. (2006) ‘The Company of Wolves’, in Carter. A. The Bloody Chamber. London, Vintage
Carter. A. (2005) Angela Carters Book of Fairytales. London, Virago