Subtext in stories are not new things, at their core fairy tales are morality tales, there’s a lot been written about the sexual subtext about Little Red Riding Hood. Yep, it’s all about sex. Red is the innocent girl and the wolf is man’s sexual desire, so the interpretations go.
This interpretation seems most evident in The Company of Wolves adapted by Angela Carter from her own work where the wolves are the werewolves, the beasts within men, ‘hairy on the inside’ as Granny played by Angela Lansbury says.
Such an interpretation wasn’t new, the, according to Catherine Orenstein in Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, the first published version of Little Red Riding Hood, was Le Petite Chaperon Rouge by Charles Perrault in 1697, showing a picture of a wolf pretty much mounting Red who gets devoured at the end. Just in case anyone missed the suggestion the slang of the time for a woman losing her virginity was ‘elle avoit vû le loup – “she’s seen the wolf”’ [Page 26]. I know I said you can’t say exactly what a writer means in their work but that’s fairly suggestive.
Of course, you can’t have your heroine die in the end so in future tales along comes the woodcutter/huntsman/insert man’s man here to protect the young girl’s innocence. Chop, chop and there goes the vicious sexual male and Granny and Red are saved by the good man and, presumably, Red goes off and becomes a good little wife, purity intact. The Victorians decided not to mention the fact that those good husbands often gave their wives syphilis, including Mrs Beeton, that wouldn’t encourage young women to guard their virtue. The Victorians were odd though, why sit down and explain this stuff to the young when they could take them to museums featuring wax work representations and little guidebooks about what would happen to them if they gave in to wickedness?
Censorship had been around for centuries before the Victorians, and sex was one of the battlegrounds. In the classic gothic stories and melodramas from the late 18th century we can easily infer what will happen to our young heroine at the hands of the villain and what the hero is saving her from but it could never be explicitly stated. More on that later though.
You can suggest The Little Red Riding Hood story is a morality tale aimed at warning young girls to steer clear of the immoral desires of men; don’t wander off the path, little girl, you might say. Or you might argue it’s our 21st century perspective that puts that spin on it and it really is an innocent tale of a young girl who strays off the path and suffers the consequence of being a wolf’s dinner. That’s the thing about interpretation, it can go either way and as long as it could the censorship let it through.
Or did it?
Orenstein Catherine, Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books, 2002)
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