Brief History: Both the French and Germans have a version of this and it’s included in most popular collections of fairy tales. After talking to a wolf, a little girl is tricked into thinking this hairy villain is her grandmother. In some versions she and Grandma are rescued by a woodcutter who cuts them out of wolf’s belly whole. In others, only Grandma dies while Red manages to escape by saying she has a potty emergency. In the earliest versions both ladies die. The end. This story isn’t based on any known historical events or folklore other than a healthy fear of the unknown and a high childhood mortality rate. Most cultures have some sort of “don’t do that” story for kids.
Analysis: First, there is the obvious – stranger danger. If Red didn’t talk to the wolf, he wouldn’t have beat her to Grandma’s house, eaten Grandma, and discovered how good he looked in a nightcap. Some variations have the kid drugged or pretending not to realize that Grandma has suddenly sprouted fur, instead of her just being so dumb that she thinks all little old ladies have fleas. Then there is the more underlying, evocative theory. Those of you who had to study Bruno Bettelheim will recognize this one. According to many, the story is also about loss of innocence, coming-of-age, and sexuality. “Are you there, Wolf? It’s me, Red Riding Hood.” The whole red cape is the first piece of suggestive symbolism (because little girls wearing scarlet are so scandalous, apparently). This is followed by Red climbing into bed with the wolf and them going through the whole “all the better to” dialogue. Then of course, the wolf devours her and well . . . Or you can just keep thinking of this as a nice stranger danger lesson. Somehow, it’s less creepy that way.
Blame it on the Victorians: Both Charles Dickens and Walt Disney expressed that their first childhood crushes were upon the little girl in the red cape. This story had that perfect mix of damsel, danger, and dim-wittedness that Victorian higher ups adored. The female character makes a poor choice an instead of having the opportunity to realize her mistake or save the day like in other fairy tales, she either dies or is saved by a random outside character. Wait, I’m supposed to be defending this aren’t I. Uh— Don’t talk to strangers, kids. There. Moral re-established.
Last thoughts: Watch the Company of Wolves – it’s trippy, man.
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