Dress Codes and Gender Roles in "Little Red Riding Hood"

Trajectories of Change through Cultural Contexts

Seminar Paper, 2010

22 Pages, Grade: 2 (10 auf der dänischen Skala)




Strange Encounters in the Wood
Red Riding Hood and the Wondertale World
Red Riding Hood before Charles Perrault

The Broken Jar and the Colour Red
Charles Perrault, Werewolves and the Fear of Female Sexuality
The Mystery of the Red Hood

Reinventing Little Red Riding Hood
The Brothers Grimm and the Biedermeier Era

Nice Girls go to Heaven; other Girls go Everywhere
19th-century Victorian and Puritan Adaptations
The Red Riding Hood

Rehabilitating Little Red Riding Hood
Neo-Conservative English Versions
It is Not so Easy to Fool Little Girls Nowadays
Red Hot Riding Hood
Feminist Adaptations




Little Red Riding Hood has never enjoyed an easy life. During the last three centuries, generations of male narrators and moralistic Victorian authors of both sexes have changed the once straightforward and clever peasant girl, who was capable of taking care of herself and outsmarting a seducing wolf by her own wit, into a passive heroine controlled by others to suit the traditional (male) view of how “nice girls” ought to behave.

In hundreds of adaptations, writers of children’s literature repeatedly let the young girl pay for her irresponsibility and her reckless talking to strangers. Red Riding Hood was sent into the forest to be gobbled up or raped by the wicked wolf over and over again. Generations of writers never hesitated to blame the girl for her misfortune. Since Charles Perrault first published the tale of Little Red Riding Hood in 1697, her tragedy normally has been considered her own fault. If she had only listened to her mother’s advice, gone straight to her grandmother’s house and had not talked to the wolf, nothing would have happened to her.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, that seems to have been the common attitude amongst fairy tale writers towards young girls. Despite the fact that many narrators were women, modern fairy tale tradition had been totally bourgeoisified by the turn of the century. Female Victorian writers adopted and continued the manipulation of gender roles that had been initiated by educated middle-class narrators in France and Germany.

In that process, the young girl who did so well in old French folk tradition vanished. Popular culture changed the simple and witty peasant girl, who brought her grandmother milk and bread, who did not give up, but took action and tricked the wolf, into a naive and passive heroine without neither character nor wit. It created a helpless girl who was dependent on goodwill from other people to save herself – even though, in her case, help from outside came too late.

On the following pages, it is my aim to discuss how Red Riding Hood’s dress and her interaction with the wolf in different adaptations of the tale represent changes in society and mirror shifting attitudes towards female sexuality, during the last three hundred years. I will describe and discuss the origin of Red Riding Hood’s red cape and what it symbolises, how and why different writers adapted and changed the tale and how a burlesque peasant narrative with a fine sense of humour became a dull Victorian story about the right morality and behaviour – a story meant to scare children, and especially adolescent girls, from being disobedient.

Finally, I will demonstrate how modern, feminist writers managed to liberate Red Riding Hood from centuries of male projections and dubious sexual morality and how their motifs appear to be a revival of the spirit known from The Story of Grandmother – a spirit that reaches far beyond centuries of bourgeois male domination to a time when an intelligent young girl was capable of taking care of herself and tricking a seducing wolf by her own wit.

This essay follows the development of Little Red Riding Hood from its roots in Germany and France. It starts discussing the traditional Perrault and Grimm versions and moves on to focus on modern English, Irish and American adaptations.

Henrik Petersen

22 December 2010

Strange Encounters in the Wood

Red Riding Hood and the Wondertale World

The setting of Little Red Riding Hood is a rural society. It is part of a single cosmos in which humans encounter supernatural creatures as a matter of course. The supernatural is considered a natural part of the “wondertale cosmos”. Magic is taken for granted, extraordinary things can happen, but they do not challenge people’s sense of how the surrounding world works. Humans and the supernatural, however, do not live alongside each other. At least in a geographical sense, the supernatural belongs to a different world. It can be encountered only in excursions into the wilderness.[1]

When Red Riding Hood leaves her village to walk through the forest, she enters the supernatural part of the world. That is the abode of the wise men and women who appear in some wondertales to help or advise the hero or the heroine. Speaking animals have their home there, too. Red Riding Hood seems not to be surprised when she meets the wolf. The expression “old neighbour wolf”[2] may even indicate some kind of existing intimacy with the supernatural.

Red Riding Hood is a typical wondertale heroine. We know nothing about the village where she grew up.[3] She lacks physical and psychological depth,[4] she does not develop as a person, and she shows no inner or outwardly relationship – neither to her family nor to any kind of ethnic community.[5] But Red Riding Hood differs from the other heroines of “classic” fairy tales. Contrary to Snow White, Cinderella or even Bluebeard’s wife, Red Riding Hood does not benefit from her sufferings. In Charles Perrault’s version of the tale, she is eaten up by the wolf[6] – and, without the slightest glimpse of empathy, the author claims that it was her own fault. Perrault does not offer the reader a happy ending. His story does not include the typical fairy tale plot with couple formation and restoration, known from numerous other tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Red Riding Hood’s honour is not restored. On the contrary, she is the one who gets punished. The Perrault version ends with the wolf devouring Red Riding Hood without offering her any possibility to escape.

Red Riding Hood before Charles Perrault

Red Riding Hood is the only “classic” wondertale heroine who is identified alone by the colour and the art of her clothing. Even though the original title of another of Charles Perrault’s tales was Cinderella, or The Glass Slipper,[7] Cinderella never was identified just by her famous slipper – and even Donkeyskin had an identity before she put on her cape.[8] The red hood or cap, however, was to become Red Riding Hood’s trademark for centuries. It seems to have been invented by Charles Perrault in his literary version of 1697, but critical research has shown that Perrault did invent neither the plot nor the characters of Little Red Riding Hood.[9]

Basic elements of the tale about the girl and the wolf seem to have developed in French oral tradition during the late Middle Ages. Rather than inventing the plot, Perrault borrowed elements from popular folklore and “recreated Little Red Riding Hood to suit the needs of an upper-class audience whose social and aesthetic standards were different from those of the common folk.”[10] One of Perrault’s sources may have been a version of a burlesque peasant narrative later to be known as The Story of Grandmother. With its fine sense of humour, it tells the story of a girl who encountered and escaped a bzou[11] (a werewolf) when she brought her grandmother milk and bread. The werewolf tempts the girl to eat some of her murdered grandmother’s flesh and inveigles her into going to bed with him, but she shrewdly outwits the werewolf and escapes her destiny by telling him that she has to go outside to relieve herself.[12] The girl saves herself without any help neither from her grandmother, her father nor a hunter.

Like all the independent oral tales, The Story of Grandmother lacks the motif of the hood as well as the colour red.[13] Contrary to Perrault’s tale, it is not influenced by the obscure version of bourgeois Christian moral preaching male superiority, but deals with the very material conditions of peasants’ existence and traditional pagan superstition.[14] In the 15th and 16th century, hunger drove people in rural parts of France to commit horrible crimes; children were attacked and killed by animals as well as adults in the woods and fields, and there was “a strong superstitious belief in werewolves and witches, uncontrollable magical forces of nature, which threatened the lives of the peasant population.”[15]

The folk-tale versions of Little Red Riding Hood were, however, not just warning tales. The Story of Grandmother was also a celebration of a young girl’s coming of age. It seems to contain half-obscured pagan rituals – by eating the grandmother’s flesh and drinking her blood, the young girl symbolically replaces her and is initiated into society. The mention of needlework as well as Grandmother’s symbolic death “signifies the continuity and reinvigoration of custom, which was important for the preservation of society.”[16] In that context, it surely is no coincidence that the girl meets the wolf at a crossroads.[17] She has reached a turning point in her life. She has to leave childhood and follow a new path that leads towards womanhood and fertility – a path that makes it necessary for her to learn how to cope with aggressive male sexuality. The Story of Grandmother is an optimistic tale that celebrates the self-reliance of a young peasant girl. Thus, the folk tale sends the exact opposite message as all the different adaptations during the following 250 years.

The Broken Jar and the Colour Red

Charles Perrault, Werewolves and the Fear of Female Sexuality

Charles Perrault appears to have had a low opinion of women, female sexuality and the superstitious customs of the French peasantry. He changed the folk tale’s optimistic view on women and obscured its fine sense of humour.

The common elements which are lacking in the literary story are precisely those which would have shocked the society of his epoch by their cruelty (the flesh and blood of the grandmother devoured by the child) ... or their impropriety (the question of the little girl about the hairy body of the grandmother).[18]

In the folk version, the girl asks questions about the grandmother’s hairy body and her long nails as well as the size of her ears, nostrils (to sniff tobacco with!) and mouth.[19] Perrault carefully leaves out bestial and vulgar elements. In his “civilised” version, he focuses on the grandmother’s legs, arms, ears, eyes and teeth[20] and he uses the expression “eating up” as a synonym for rape.[21] Hereby, he sets the standard for all following adaptations.

Perrault, who claimed to write for adults as well as for children,[22] seems to have had severe problems with women. In his tales, Perrault argues for “the total submission of the woman to her husband. Feminine coquetry ... disturbs him: it could be the sign of female independence.”[23] His heroines are all very pretty, loyal, dedicated to their household “and sometimes a little stupid insofar as it is true that stupidity is almost a quality in women for Perrault.”[24] But intelligence could be dangerous. In Perrault’s mind as in that of many men, beauty is “an attribute of woman just as intelligence is the attribute of man.”[25]

Red Riding Hood does not match Perrault’s view on women. Thus, it may not surprise that the character of the young girl in his literary tale is totally different from the one in The Story of Grandmother. The girl from the folk tale is forthright, brave and shrewd. She knows how to use her wits to escape from dangerous situations. Perrault’s Red Riding Hood, however, is pretty, spoiled and gullible. The details Perrault added to his “civilised” upper-class adaptation of the “pure” lower-class version, all contribute to the portrait of a pretty and defenceless girl – a helpless girl who may have been slightly vain because of her red hood and who subconsciously contributed to her own rape.[26]

The moral of Perrault’s tale is clear: Children should be alert and be aware of strangers. His Red Riding Hood has a “spoiled nature”. She is used to being the centre of attention, and, thus, she stops to talk to the wolf and rambles through the wood gathering nuts and flowers.[27] Instead of being alert, she amuses herself – and she ends her life as an object of the wolf’s amusement. Perrault does not pity her. Red Riding Hood was a spoiled, ill-mannered girl, and in his adaptation, she was punished for her bad manners.

The cover illustration of this essay shows Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s painting “La cruche cassée”.[28] The work of the French painter (1785) echoes Perrault’s final moral in his adaptation of Red Riding Hood. In the 18th century, people easily understood the symbolism in the painting. Apparently, not only the jar is broken. The lion fountain in the background, the open dress, the roses in the apron and the broken jar are all symbols of a lost virginity. The bourgeoisie appreciated the artist’s moralising and that young girls were taught how to behave themselves.

The Mystery of the Red Hood

It is not clearly documented why Charles Perrault added the red hood. As a present from a doting grandmother to a beloved granddaughter,[29] it refers directly to the girls “spoiled nature” – and Perrault obviously intended “to warn little girls that this spoiled child could be ‘spoiled’ in another way by a wolf/man who sought to ravish her.”[30]

The colour red, however, indicates a deeper and more sinister layer in Charles Perrault’s tale. Instead of hood, Perrault used the word chaperon – a small, stylish cap worn by women of the aristocracy and middle classes in the 16th and 17th centuries.[31] By letting a village girl wear a red chaperon, he signalised that she was individualistic – and perhaps a nonconformist.[32] From the folk-tale version, we know that there definitely was something individualistic about Red Riding Hood. Perrault introduces her to the reader as the prettiest girl around, spoiled by her mother and adored by her grandmother.

Thus, the image of this young girl suggests that she contains certain potential qualities which could convert her into a witch or heretic. Her natural inclinations do in fact lead her into trouble. In the woods, which was [sic!] a known haunting place of werewolves, witches, outlaws and other social deviates, Little Red Riding Hood talks naturally to the wolf because she is unaware of any danger. She trusts her instincts. If it were not for the male woodcutters (for only men can serve as protectors), the wolf would have indulged his appetite on the spot, in his natural abode. Instead he is forced to make a ‘pact’ with her.[33]

In the 17th century, the colour red was generally associated with sin, sensuality and the devil. The young village girl with the red hood was indeed something special, and the woman-hater Perrault literally appears to have been afraid of her. Perrault grew up in a society that nearly had been torn apart in bitter conflicts between Catholics and Protestants as well as an amazing and frightening werewolf and witch craze. The campaign against the devil’s helpers culminated in the early 17th century, and the memory hereof was still alive when Perrault began writing his tales.

The werewolf originated thousands of years ago in pagan rituals where the wolf was actually celebrated as a protector and shamans wrapped themselves wolf skins, and were said to have been possessed by the animal and thereby acquiring magic powers.[34] The wolf-man was regarded with great awe in pagan societies – in fact, werewolves and wolves did not get their bad reputation before relatively late in Christian time when they gradually were associated with hostile forces and outcasts who lived in the woods.[35] European peasantry believed in werewolves. To them, they were destructive, bloodthirsty and supernatural, but neither wolf nor werewolf were directly associated with the devil or persecuted by the Church before the late Middle Ages.

The witch craze was a perverted way of subordinating and dominating women as well as obscuring the Christian faith: “The basis of every state was now considered the dominance of the sole reasonably gifted man over woman as so-called natural creature.”[36] More women than men were declared witches and were burned because they were associated with untamed nature and potential heresy.[37] The male-dominated, centralised French society as well as the Catholic Church feared female sexuality. Women were considered to be either holy virgins or witless children, needing comfort and guidance. The medieval Maria Cult and the witch craze mirrored the two opposite views that “introduced that transformation which changed the woman as feared representative of nature into an object no longer capable of domination her nature.”[38] Perrault’s virgin-like heroines Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty represented the image of the ideal woman of the late Middle Ages. They were sweet, passive and patient. They did not stray in the forest to encounter mysterious beasts, but kept waiting at home.

Red Riding Hood, however, was a little pagan. With her red chaperon and her natural way of talking to a wolf – or may be even to one of the last surviving pagan wolf-men, as the expression bzou in The Story of Grandmother indicates – in the woods, she represented forces that neither the Catholic nor the Protestant Church could accept. Obviously, she was not willing to integrate in modern male-dominated society, and she was punished in the same brutal way as witches and werewolves had been in the preceding centuries. Perrault stigmatised the young girl with the colour red – the usual way of marking social nonconformists and outcasts throughout the Middle Ages and Reformation. Perrault paid reference to a long, sinister European tradition: In medieval Central Europe, Jews were obliged to wear a special red hat. Its brim was shaped to resemble a pair of horns, clearly linking Jewry to Satanism.[39] In parts of England, witches were dressed like “fairies”. They wore a red mantle and hood, and their favourite meeting-places were cross-roads.[40]

The fact that Perrault let her heroine wear a red chaperon and meet “old neighbour wolf” at a crossroads underscores his low opinion of women and the superstitious customs of the French peasantry as well as his fear of female sexuality. Superstition had not died away; Perrault’s upper-class readers easily understood his message even though he changed the werewolf into a real wolf – a girl who acted so independently and self-reliant as Red Riding Hood could be nothing but a witch. At Perrault’s time, however, members of the upper classes hardly believed in witches and werewolves anymore. To get his message through, it was necessary for Perrault to project an image of women as “innocent, helpless and susceptible to the chaotic, somewhat seductive, forces of nature, capable of making a pact with the devil or yielding to her fancy.”[41]


[1] Max Lüthi, The European Folktale, pp. 7-9

[2] Charles Perrault, Little Red Riding Hood, p. 91

[3] Max Lüthi, The European Folktale, p. 16

[4] Ibid., p. 12

[5] Ibid., p. 17

[6] Charles Perrault, Little Red Riding Hood, p. 93

[7] Jack Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, p. 449

[8] Maria Tatar, The Classic Fairy Tales, p. 109

[9] Jack Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 18

[10] Ibid., p. 18

[11] Paul Delarue, The Story of Grandmother, p. 10 and Catherine Orenstein, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, p. 65. Orenstein’s translation shows that the girl in fact met a bzou – a werewolf – and not a speaking wolf, as Zipes’ translation of Delarue’s tale indicates.

[12] Ibid., p. 11

[13] Jack Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 23

[14] Ibid., p. 23

[15] Ibid., p. 23

[16] Ibid., pp. 23-24

[17] Paul Delarue, The Story of Grandmother, p. 10

[18] Jack Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 25

[19] Paul Delarue, The Story of Grandmother, p. 10

[20] Charles Perrault, Little Red Riding Hood, p. 93

[21] Ibid., p. 93

[22] Jack Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 25

[23] Ibid., p. 31

[24] Ibid., p. 31

[25] Ibid., p. 31

[26] Ibid., pp. 25-27

[27] Charles Perrault, Little Red Riding Hood, p. 92

[28] Musée du Louvre, La cruche cassée (The Broken Jar)


[29] Charles Perrault, Little Red Riding Hood, p. 91

[30] Jack Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 26

[31] Ibid., p. 76

[32] Ibid., p. 77

[33] Ibid., p. 77

[34] Ibid., p. 67

[35] Ibid., p. 67

[36] Claudia Honegger, Die Hexen der Neuzeit, p. 91

[37] Jack Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 70

[38] Claudia Honegger, Die Hexen der Neuzeit, p. 62

[39] Jack Zipes, Trials and Tribulations, p. 83

[40] Ibid., pp. 83-84

[41] Ibid., p. 75

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Dress Codes and Gender Roles in "Little Red Riding Hood"
Trajectories of Change through Cultural Contexts
University of Southern Denmark  (Institut for Litteratur, Kultur og Medier )
2 (10 auf der dänischen Skala)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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596 KB
Rotkäppchen, Little Red Riding Hood, Grimm
Quote paper
Cand.mag. Henrik Petersen (Author), 2010, Dress Codes and Gender Roles in "Little Red Riding Hood", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/200987


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