I was excited to find Catherine Orenstein's Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale at my new library. I waited to read it, saving the best for last-I had heard about the book before, probably on Surlalune, and it looked very promising.
And I was not disappointed in the least. In fact, I would even categorize this in my top recommended fairy tale books. Obviously Orenstein explores in depth the history of Little Red Riding Hood, but along the way provides historical backgrounds for some of the tale's most prominent authors-from Perrault to the brothers Grimm; from medieval Europe to the first and second waves of feminism in America. Her histories provide enough interesting details to support her points while painting an overall picture of the culture impressive when considering the length of the book. Her points shed light not only on Little Red but the other fairy tales that came from those writers, and Orenstein references many other fairy tales as she compares and contrasts Little Red with other heroines. I've read about several of the eras of history she covers before, but she managed to provide me with new and very pertinent information about well known fairy tale authors, as well as exposing me to versions of Little Red I wasn't aware of or knew little about before.
For example, Tex Avery's cartoons featuring Little Red, such as Red Hot Riding Hood:
From 1943, it provides a fascinating contrast to Disney's fairy tale cartoons the world was becoming familiar with. The wolf is horny, nothing new for us but would have been very surprising to its original audience. Red Hot is not the innocent, sweet victim audiences had come to expect from Victorian versions-she is sexually attractive, yet very capable of taking care of herself. Neither is Grandma a helpless victim, but herself a sexual predator of sorts-the wolf is no match for neither of them. These female characters are empowered and self-sufficient, shocking for the times. Of course, I wouldn't qualify them as family friendly, although children at the time would have been exposed to it.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways that authors have played around with the characters of LRRH to subvert expectations (and not just in the last century-many of the older versions are quite different than the fairy tale many of us grew up with).
Orenstein's writing impressed me. Usually when it comes to non-fiction, as long as you have interesting things to say and are relatively logical in how you organize and communicate your thoughts, you're good to go. But some sections of the book were beautifully written-look at the end of her introduction: "Little Red Riding Hood does not, of course, represent every woman or even an average woman, if such a woman could ever be said to exist. Nor does her tale encapsulate the thinking of a society...it is not the whole truth. But it provides a way in. The endeavor of this book is to draw Little Red Riding Hood forth from her literary crypt, to unwrap the protective vellum that mummifies her in the rare book section of the library, and simultaneously to unravel the preconceptions that surround her in our minds...to explore some of her multitude of reincarnations, not in search of universal truths, but on the contrary, as evidence of how human truths change."
In fact, her whole introduction would really be excellent reference for all of us, especially when people ask why we study fairy tales and what they have to do with life in 2014.
I also appreciated her humor at certain points-when describing how essential a part of life spinning was to any woman all over the world in earlier eras and, hence, its appearance in fairy tales, she says, "a princess can't fling a dead cat without hitting a spinning wheel or a loom."
Orenstein bravely tackles topics that are more controversial. What do porn, cross dressing, and date rape have to do with fairy tales? Turns out fairy tales are intermingled with all of these things, and taking a look at how they influence each other does shed light on how powerful the fairy tale is and what messages people take away from them.
I will absolutely be referencing this book in the future and highly recommend it. Practically everything I read I wanted to share with you all. It was hard to put this one down! Seriously, everyone put it on your amazon wishlist, right now
*Illustrations by Charles Robinson