Fairy Tales and Female Sexuality

Ever since there have been fairy tales, there has been feminist re-appropriation of fairy tales. And, the moral of the story often shifts with the mores of the time. 

Don’t go out into the woods. Beware ugly older women bearing strange gifts. Only a princely kiss can resurrect you.

The anti-feminist messages in fairy tales, both in their classic forms from the tales of Grimm, Anderson and Perrault, and their sanitized Disneyfied versions, abound. Heroines are frequently passive, resisting even Disney’s “spunkification” and lose their voices or fall into slumbers. They are rescued by princes or kindly huntsmen. Evil befalls them during puberty. Many fairy tales that have permeated the collective unconsciousness are known for these misogynist tropes and particularly for their warnings about female sexuality and its existence as both a threat and as threatened.

Red Riding Hood, which has just been remade into a (by all accounts mediocre) Twilight-esque tale of a dangerous teen love triangle by Catherine Hardwicke, draws on one of the more symbolically rich of these stories. As Hardwicke herself said “When you have problems when you’re five years old, it’s just like ‘Red Riding Hood.’ ‘I’m scared to go in the woods’…Later on, when you’re 12 or 13, you really notice the sexual implications. The wolf is in bed, inviting her into bed. You start reading it on a different level, once you hit that sexual awakening.”

Charles Perrault, who popularized the “Little Red Riding Hood” story, made it pretty clear from the outset that the “wolf” is a seducer, and the story a metaphor for women staying away from sex.

From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!

It’s quite explicit, isn’t it?

Susan Brownmiller goes even further in her seminal book “Against Our Will,” writing that “little Red Riding Hood is a parable of rape,” with the main character an utterly passive victim. The story serves as a warning to girls about the menace in the woods and is an early indicator of “rape culture.”

Indeed, as Paul Harris of the Guardian wrote in an article about Hollywood’s resurgent interest in fairy-stories, “Beneath the magical surface of a fairytale, with its castles and princesses, often lurk ideas around sexuality, the dangers of growing up and leaving home, relationships between children and parents, and the threat that adult strangers can pose.” And in particular, he notes, there’s a “conservative” streak about female sexuality in these stories which is one of the reasons they continue to get resurrected, retold and deconstructed.

Along with “Red Riding Hood,” archetypical tales like “Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard’s caste all share concerns about female sexuality. In “Beauty and the Beast,” the chaste beauty can tame the male beast–even when she’s imprisoned against her will. In “Sleeping Beauty” a bitter  old fairy punishes the heroine with slumber when she pricks her finger, a symbol for menstruation (as is Red Riding Hood’s cloak). In “Snow White” the lovely young queen also pricks her finger, becomes sexual and has a child. Then suddenly she “dies” and is replaced by a wicked queen, a witch. Every day this queen gets a talk from her mirror who feeds on her jealousy and her obsession with her youth and beauty until she feels compelled to kill the younger, more beautiful and more sexually alluring young woman. Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty require resurrection by a man.

Similar symbolism is at work in “The Little Mermaid,” in which a young woman, besotted by a handsome prince, goes to an older witch and exchanges her soul for a pair of legs that hurt her to use and even make her bleed.

Still, ever since there have been fairy tales, there has been feminist re-appropriation of fairy tales. As with the myths around creatures like vampires and werewolves which sometimes intersect with fairy tales, the moral of the story often shifts with the mores of the time. From Anne Sexton’s twisted fairy tale poems to Angela Carter’s brilliant stories to the new tumblr meme which turns Disney heroines into glasses-wearing, irony-spouting hipsters, fairy tales have been fertile ground for re-imaginings and inversions.

As Catherine Orenstein wrote in Ms. magazine about the re-appropriation of Red Riding Hood:

Storytellers from the women’s movement and beyond also reclaimed the heroine from male-dominated literary tradition, recasting her as the physical or sexual aggressor and questioning the machismo of the wolf. In the 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, inspired by playwright Angela Carter, the heroine claims a libido equal to that of her lascivious stalker and becomes a wolf herself. In the Internet tale “Red Riding Hood Redux,” the heroine unloads a 9mm Beretta into the wolf and, as tufts of wolf fur waft down, sends the hunter off to a self-help group, White Male Oppressors Anonymous.

Orenstein went to the origins of the “Riding Hood” myth and discovered that in its original incarnations, the heroine is much less passive and more of a trickster who ends up outwitting the wolf without the aid of any huntsman. She is just one of many writers who devote an entire book to analyzing Red Riding Hood from a gendered lens, while Carter is one of many artists to re-write the story with an entirely new agenda.

Fairy tales will always be with us, whether being sugarcoated and Disneyfied or fed to us Feminists should continue embrace the retelling and transformation of these tales as part of our ritual for contending with the myths and tropes of patriarchy. Even if Catherine Hardwicke sexualizes the story in a muddled way, she’s taking part in a proud tradition.