Who is the real victim in the story of Red Riding Hood?
Not an ordinary cautionary tale
The story about Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf is another classic fairy tale about good and evil with hundreds of variations and thousands of possible interpretations.
We can use it as a study material about society, changes in society and especially about relations among genders.
Many feminists interpret this seemingly innocent fairy tale as rationalization of a rape. Can we really look at The Little Red Riding Hood as an apologetic explanation of male dominance?
Let's try to examine most obvious themes and symbols to get a ground for some basic speculations. We'll use both of the most known versions, the one by brothers Grimm and the one written by Charles Perrault.
Perrault gave her a red cap. Red is the color of blood and psychoanalytics like to explain it as a menstrual blood. This makes logic because Red Riding Hood is a young girl who is growing up. We don't know how old is she exactly, but we know while she is still young, she is old enough to go alone in the woods and visit her granny.
She got a hood from her grandmother what can be explained as symbolic transfer of the power of life force.
Granny is old, maybe in menopause, and her vital forces are obviously declining. Her granddaughter on contrary is becoming more and more independent and responsible. Her power is on the rise.
But she is on he test. She has to go in the woods. She must face unknown. She will face danger. Her power will be challenged by another power.
Considering the time when Red Riding Hood entered into literature, we can't miss the changes in society. Perrault was afraid of raising influence of ladies in literary saloons. Fairy tales were mandatory part of their program.
Is this one of the reasons for choosing color red, the color of sin? It doesn't seem appropriate to send a girl all alone in dangerous forest as it probably Perrault didn't like to feel overpowered by ladies who ran saloons.
So we have to move the action into the woods, where male power is still the dominant force. It is uncivilized world without conventions but with clear rules. Remember the tale about the Sleeping Beauty? She stayed alone in the woods until the right man came to rescue her. Well, instead of prince we have a big bad wolf in this case...
Red Riding Hood acts irresponsible and after a series of more or less obvious erotic allusions she is eaten. (There is no hunter or other rescuer in Perrault's retelling of the story.) If women wonder through woods without protection, they can't expect anything better than death. One more thing – they can blame only themselves for their own troubles.
This was perception of Perrault and probably the reality of his times. If a girl talks to a stranger, she is risking her life (or being raped) and it is her fault. We can't expect from a creature, driven by nature to spare her, can't we?
Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm don't give much more credit to the girl either. They added the cautionary 'Don't stray from the path' and in the end the girl is saved by a hunter who is clearly representation of protective father.
It is obvious the girl is irresponsible and incompetent in their opinion just like in Perrault's. Although she is saved, she wouldn't make it without a man. It is interesting to note they had two versions of Red Cap (as they titled the tale) in the first edition of Children and Household Tales.
In the other variation the girl later meets another wolf and defeats him. She is obviously capable to learn from mistakes and can take care for herself. They skipped this version in later editions.
Maybe because a competent and resourceful young woman without a male protection didn't fit in their vision of the society? If we study their rewritings of other fairy tales, we notice clearing of all extramarital relationships, cannibalism and other threats to human civilization.
A personal touch
Perrault married 19 year old Marie Guichon when he was already 54 years old. She died at birth of their fourth child only six years later.
It wasn't uncommon situation in those days but it was probably painful experience for Perrault.
Is it possible he saw himself among 'older men preying at young girls' in the moral at the end of the story, just like he can be recognized in the title role of the Puss in Boots?
The situation of brothers Grimm was quite different. They lost father when they were only ten and eleven years old. Only few years later they started to support the rest of the family. They were certainly aware how important is presence or lack of powerful protective figure of the father. In a way they both assumed the role of the father of younger brothers and a sister.
Projection of situation in their own family is more than obvious in several fairy tales in their collection. Is it possible they subconsciously choose to promote the version with a hunter as a rescuer because they felt like lost kids in the woods who desperately need a father to survive?
If we know there were also older versions of the fairy tale with a father who lives with his wife and a girl and rescues her instead of the hunter, personal approach of Perrault and Grimms is even more believable.
Charles Perrault didn't write for children!
The song How Could Red Riding Hood (Have Been So Good) written by A. P. Randolph in 1925 was first song banned from radio because it was too suggestive. Did you know that?
Who is the victim in this fairy tale?
While Red Riding Hood is obvious victim, a bit deeper examination of the story gives us more food for thought.
Mother is a victim too. She farewells from her daughter at the beginning of the tale and the girl never comes back. Even in versions (which are most known today), when Red Riding Hood survives, she is not the same, innocent and naïve girl again.
Granny is another victim. She is obviously old and ill. Yes, she can enjoy the feast at the dead body of the wolf, she can have her bottle of wine, but her days are counted for sure. The world belongs to her grand daughter.
What about the wolf? If he dies, he seems to be justly punished, but he was punished for greed, he ate too much and fall asleep. When he ate the girl and her grandmother, he didn't do anything wrong. This is what wolfs do and they can't help it! They are just poor creatures of the nature.
If he escapes, he is still only an instinct driven beast. He is condemned to prey after little girls until he encounters a hunter who will end his misery. Nobody will ever love him and help him to become a prince like in the story about the Beauty and the Beast.
The girl who didn't listen to her mother should be punished and she is punished in all known versions. She talked with the strangers, didn't she? She strayed from the path, right?
In the eyes of hundreds of retellers of the story, which was in first centuries almost exclusively written and illustrated by men, she really asked for everything what happened later.
She told him where she is going. She showed him the path. It was all her, not his plan from the beginning!
And he should do something about that old lady living all alone in the woods, too!
Times of printed versions of Little Red Riding Hood were strange times, when a new class of bourgeoisie was formed and more and more women were starting earning money.
With money came power and responsibility. Men were still dominant force in the fields of arts and science (well, everywhere) and fairy tales were good chance to show women they should be careful if they don't want to be punished.
They should not discard family values. They should not forget old good times when all decisions were done by men. They should listen to their mothers and not talk to strangers. They should never stray from the path!
Or they will be punished ...
Red Riding Hood on audio CD
Are fairy tales conservative?
In general the answer is yes. Perrault and brothers Grimm were intelligent and relatively influential men with pretty conservative views on life. These views are notable in their works too and fairy tales are no exception. Fairy tales are almost always telling how life should be.
But they are also very subversive. They are telling us everything, just everything is possible, we are only limited with our imagination. When the focus of narration changed from adult audience (which views and behavior was probably too hard to change) to children, this became even more obvious.
Even, if you are a grown up, please don't stop listening to them. You may be surprised by their messages!
Credits and further reading
All used images are in public domain. More info on them can be found on:
Fairy tales can be interpreted in many more or less convincing ways and Red Riding hood is no exception. If you are interested, you can check the mythological explanation here: