She is baking donuts. The cozy kitchen is already filled with the scents of melted butter, vanilla and chocolate. She dips the warm pastry in sweet icing and lays them out carefully in a box. Soon little red riding hood will come along to carry this plentiful basket over to her grandmother’s.
She considers sprinkling the shiny chocolate frosting. Maybe it is too much. Her mother does not like sprinkles anyway. However, perhaps they would make her happy? They would please her daughter, who was still shameless in her affection to sweets.
She enters the kitchen, blushed cheeks and wayward curls gathered under a crimson shawl. ‘I’m ready’, she says. She wonders if she will ever be truly ready to send her daughter out into the world without her heart missing a few beats and have her thoughts haunted by nightmare scenarios.
She looks at her daughter, the girl-child that she is; her flowing mane of hair, her eyes, alight with a lilt of laughter. She leans in to kiss her cheek and she notices how tall she has gotten. Soon she will have discarded all the marks of childhood. She wonders if the child knows how much she wants to escort her or give her a ride.
‘Call me when you get to grandma’s house’, she says, trying to sound casual. She does not want to infect her daughter with her anxieties.
She reminds herself how important it is for them, her mother and daughter; grandma and granddaughter; to have their time together, just the two of them sharing stories and secrets of women’s wisdom. She sends her child off and returns to scraping chocolate drippings off the counter.
But her child already knows fear. She knows fear of strangers and penetrating gazes and dark streets. She was born into a world where little girls and little boys are afraid.
The kitchen is spotless and the child has not called to say she has arrived safely at grandma’s. She decides to write in an attempt to fend off the anxiety welling up inside her. ‘Perhaps I’ll call my mother’, she thinks, ‘To ask if she liked the little cakes I sent’. She does not want to upset her mother. One worrisome woman is more than enough.
Then the phone rings. A sigh of relief. She picks up, trying to sound casual. ‘Mommy, I am about to cross the park. Can you just talk to me until I reach grandma’s house?’
So she talks to her and watches over her with her voice, and she wonders if that would be enough to fend off even the most ravenous of wolves. She hears her daughter urging her steps through the semi dark park and then the gate creaks and the door opens. She hear her mother, the granny child ith the silver-kissed hair, embracing her grandchild in her arms.
The wolf has been left out of this story. Until the next time.
A wise young man asked me, ‘Why do we pick on the wolves? How did it come to be that the wolf is a source of fear to children and a metaphor to sexual aggressors?’
However, the tale of Little Red Riding Hood is, of course, a parable. The wolf is a symbol of all the perils that stalk children with a curious and adventurous streak. The written versions of the story put on paper by the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Charles Perrault in France were “cautionary tales” meant to educate children – and especially girls – to show obedience. In their versions, Little Red is severely punished for disobeying her mother – who told her walk straight and stay on the path. She is penalized for addressing her natural curiosity, simply by exploring the woods and picking flowers. These versions send a clear message that curiosity and disobedience are adverse qualities in a child, meant to be condemned. Qualities that lead to your death or to be rescued from the belly of the wicked beast by a valiant hunter, a stark agent of the patriarchy.
The lesson illustrated at the conclusion of the version written by Perrault in 17th century France, highlights the intimidating message of the tale, especially when it comes to pretty, polite and educated little girls, how should know better than to talk to strangers:
“From the story one learns that children,
Especially young lasses,
Pretty, courteous and well bred,
Are wrong to listen to any sort of men”
This is a horrific message, one that points a finger at the victim and spares the offender. This European-bourgeois moralité does not condemn the wolf for abusing and breaking the trust that Little Red put in him, but it condemns Little Red Riding Hood for trusting him. This lesson turns the classic story into a tool that preserves the status quo, which accepts the existence of prowlers, in the form of ‘This is way of the world and the wolf’. This twisted message prevails far beyond the dog-eared pages of folk and fairy tales books. It is alive and kicking to this very day. Just recently, we heard comments by certain men, eager to support their colleagues who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault, casually saying, ‘What did she think was going to happen up there?’, or in other words, if you agree to meet with a man who is your senior in the workplace, it should be clear to you that he will try to force himself on you sexually. Why otherwise, would he have any interest in meeting with you?
We can and should tell Little Red Riding Hood’s tale differently. Feminist scholars of folklore and myth such as Maria Tatar and Cristina Bacchilega located earlier versions of the tale from the oral tradition of storytelling, ones that passed from generation to generation and were told by women to women and girls. These versions were “initiatory tales”, meant to mentor and prepare girls for adulthood. To prepare, not in the sense of warning them of healthy qualities such as curiosity and adventurousness, but by imparting an empowering message that says:
‘You have the resilience, the strength and the wisdom to cope with the challenges and perils of adolescence”. .
These versions present Little Red as a brave and resourceful girl, one that, in a joint act of feminine solidarity with her grandmother, outwits the wolf. These formative versions convey an entirely different idea, one that emphasizes Little Red Riding Hood’s ’s agency as a character and her capacity for healthy curiosity, along with the ability to handle the repercussions of that curiosity. As Cristina Bacchilega claims:
‘As an initiatory tale in the oral tradition, ‘Red Riding Hood’ did more than symbolize the child’s ability to defeat danger and evil by resorting to cunning: it also demonstrates the woman’s knowledge to survival’.
The world is full of boys and girls, men and women with stories of fearful encounters in the woods with an insatiable wolf, to him they were nothing but an object; a thing to quell his hunger, boredom or need for ruthless dominance. The world is full of people who live in fear of the wolves in their own family, workplace or community. These wolves will persist to roam amongst us and terrorize so long as we keep telling stories whose moral is ‘The fault lies with the prey’, because they ventured out to the woods, showed an interest in the world around them or trusted someone who was not supposed to harm them. It is time to tell stories that will chase away the darkness of the forest and make it into a safe space. Innumerable brilliant lights that will expose the true wolves. Millions of stories that let out a stark cry: No one’s ventures into the woods to be devoured. It is our responsibility as a society to make our private and public spaces truly inclusive and safe.