For those of you that don’t know, Little Red Riding Hood is the story of a small child trying not to get eaten by wolves while running her errands. Her elderly grandmother wants some snacks, and instead of ordering some takeout she gets her naïve little granddaughter to bring her food instead. When walking through the woods, she comes across a wolf – and instead of running for her life, she stops, has a bit of a chat, and tells him exactly where she’s going and what she’s doing. Old Wolfie runs along to grandma’s house, eats her, impersonates her, and gobbles up Red with the same enthusiasm that you or I would normally reserve for a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. In some versions, she’s rescued by a convenient woodcutter, but in others, she only escapes the wolf by the wrong end of its digestive tract.
Much like Cinderella, it’s difficult to pin down the origins of this tale. There are variants of the story all over the world, some going back many centuries – what tends to vary is the nature of the beastie that ends up eating poor old Red. It seems to be a standard cautionary tale, but there’s an interesting theory that the story’s prevalence in Medieval Europe may have been a reaction to the witchcraft trials, which were often closely intertwined with stories of lycanthropy, cannibalism and possession. The versions that’re most well-known are the ones told by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, which are heavily sanitised, but early versions tend to carry strong themes of seduction and sexual politics which tend to get left out, as bestiality doesn’t always go down well.
It’s almost as difficult to count the number of adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood as it is to pin down its origins. The story has been retold so often it’s difficult to know where to begin. It’s been made into movies, novels, TV shows, cartoons, songs, games, musicals and comics – and that’s not even mentioning the huge amount of visual references the story has generated, providing everything from 19th century political cartoons to lipstick shades.
But I’m not going to talk about lipstick. I’m going to talk about six different versions of the tale and look at how each one measures up – focussing on whether the many faces of Little Red Riding Hood can pass my Strong Female Characters test.
Let’s get started – but watch out for spoilers!
This version of the story is probably one of the most well-known, apart from the Brothers Grimm adaptation. It’s pretty straightforward version of the original tale – albeit with no woodcutter to save her this time – with an explicit moral added onto the end, which I’ll discuss later. Red is as good, kind, sweet and passive as most traditional fairy tale heroines, doing very little for herself – her mother sends her to visit her grandmother, the wolf tricks her into staying off the path and then into getting eaten. The only goal she has is to get to Grandma’s house, but aside from that she doesn’t have much in the way of motivation, hobbies or beliefs.
She’s consistently naïve, innocent and obedient, although we hear little about her personality. You actually can describe her without referencing her love life, appearance or the words ‘Strong Female Character’ – but only if you leave out her fancy cape. Red doesn’t have a love life to speak of, doesn’t develop, but she does have a weakness – she’s so gullible that it literally kills her. She doesn’t do a lot to influence the plot as most of her actions are guided by other characters, and we see the bare minimum of her relationship with her mother and grandmother.
What’s most interesting about this story is how it relates to gender stereotypes. Perrault adds a specific moral to his version of the story – he says in no uncertain terms that young ladies should not talk to strangers in case men take advantage of them. Red Riding Hood is in effect a cautionary tale about losing your virginity, where the wolf is a fictionalised version of a young man trying to talk his way into someone’s pants. This puts the whole story in a completely different light, making it much more conservative and dependent on outdated sexual morals.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
Red Hot Riding Hood is a 1943 cartoon made by Tex Avery. A deliberate jab at the sanitised versions of fairy tales being churned out by Disney, this is a modern re-telling of the story. The cartoon begins with the traditional Little Red Riding Hood set-up – but then the characters complain, and the story begins again with Red as a nightclub singer, the wolf as a patron who won’t leave her alone, and Grandma as a sexed-up old lady who takes a shine to the wolf. It’s a fun little cartoon that turns the original story on its head, so if you’ve got a spare five minutes I recommend you take a look.
What’s interesting about this adaptation is that Red the character and Red the actress are two different people – the actress is the one who complains, wanting a different role, and in that respect she’s much more active than the character she ends up playing. Her hobbies aren’t really mentioned, it’s implied that her beliefs aren’t very traditional but she does have very explicit goals – to be left alone by the wolf and to get to Grandma’s place safely. She’s consistently shown as a talented singer but we don’t see too many defining character traits, and you can’t actually describe the cartoon without referencing how attractive she is. Her love life is pretty progressive in that she doesn’t want one, but she doesn’t develop or have much of a weakness.
Red is a real influence on the plot – it’s her decisions that drive it. We don’t see much of her relationship with Grandma, but as she goes there when she’s being chased it’s clear that’s where she feels safe. However, the most interesting thing is how she relates to gender stereotypes. Whereas the original tale was warning young women about the dangers of premarital sex, in this version the wolf is on the receiving end of the cautionary tale. Red is portrayed as a confident young woman who’s more than capable of giving the wolf a run for his money, and that’s actually really refreshing.
FINAL SCORE: 4.5/10
Originally published in her anthology, The Bloody Chamber, this re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood is one of Angela Carter’s famous feminist re-examination of female roles in fairy tales. Later made into a slightly confusing 80s film, this version starts off much like the original fairy tale, but takes a radically different turn after Red discovers that the (were)wolf has eaten her grandmother – instead of getting eaten too, Red seduces him, and the two of them become werewolves and live happily ever after, presumably managing to settle the whole ‘sorry I ate your family’ argument amicably.
This Red is much more in control of her actions – she decides to go into the woods, to talk to the stranger, and to seduce the werewolf. She believes she’s safe from harm and aims to get to her grandmother’s house, as well as make out with her handsome werewolf pal for a bit. She’s a consistently fearless, innocent and in control throughout the story, but you can’t describe her without referencing her appearance or her sexuality. She does make some decisions that aren’t motivated by her love life but there aren’t many of them – when you take hot werewolf sex out of the equation all that really motivates her is the desire to get to Grandma’s. She does develop over the story, becoming less innocent as it progresses, but doesn’t have a weakness.
She’s a huge influence on the plot, whether that’s using her sexuality to stay alive, deciding to go to Grandma’s house or trying to deliberately lose a contest so she can make out with her werewolf friend. She’s much more progressive in terms of how she relates to gender stereotypes – while much is made of her innocence and beauty, she owns her sexuality, takes control of the situation and refuses to become a victim. We know she has relationships with her mother and grandmother, but we don’t see much of them, as a lot of it is told second-hand.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
This collection of poems was written by Roald Dahl, so you know we’re in for a treat. Dahl took a selection of classic fairy stories and retold them in as tongue-in-cheek a way as possible, and all in rhyming verse. Red Riding Hood’s version is by far my favourite – when she gets home to find the wolf has eaten her grandmother, she pulls out a pistol and shoots him dead, and turns him into a coat. In another poem, we see her get called in to deal with the wolf menacing the Three Little Pigs – and she promptly gets a new wolfskin coat and a pigskin travelling case.
She’s firmly in control of her own destiny – she dispatches not one but two wolves, and the remaining little pig just because she feels like it. She has clear hobbies (shooting and walking), clearly has no issue with skinning random animals and making them into accessories, and wants to get rid of as many wolves as possible. She’s consistently brave, unflappable and ruthless, and a real sharpshooter to boot, and isn’t completely defined by her love life or appearance. She doesn’t have a love life to speak of, but she also doesn’t have much character development or weaknesses either – unless you’re going to count her penchant to murder her friends/clients, which is a definite flaw in my book.
She’s the driving force on the plot – so much so that other characters call her in to sort out their problems. She turns the original fairy tale on its head in so many ways and she’s a calm, unflappable badass – a far cry from Perrault’s cautionary tale about the value of virginity. We don’t see a lot of her relationship with her grandmother, but as she kills the wolf to avenge her death, there’s clearly some good feelings there. All in all, it’s a great retelling as well as a hilarious little poem and I highly recommend it.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
And now we come to the obligatory edgy modern fairytale reboot. This one is a classic Twilight knock-off, complete with love triangle. Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, our Red Riding Hood for the evening, who lives in a non-specific woodland village being terrorised by a werewolf who may or may not be one of her possible boyfriends. She spends most of the film running about in the woods, getting in trouble with a creepy priest and moping like an absolute champion.
She’s not really in control of her life as she’s a victim of my Universal Monster Law – it’s the werewolf’s random attacks that are really dictating the plot. We don’t hear much about her hobbies or beliefs but her goals are clear: get out of her arranged marriage and don’t get turned into a werewolf. She’s consistently kind and good, but you can’t describe her story without referencing the werewolf love triangle that she gets caught up in. However, this isn’t what motivates all of her decisions, as she’s also trying to protect her family and not get sacrificed/eaten etc.
She doesn’t develop over the course of the story. She has no weaknesses whatsoever – in fact, one of the other characters quite literally describes her as being “too perfect”, so she’s a classic Mary Sue. She doesn’t influence the plot in any way other than just being there, and when it comes to gender stereotypes she’s absolutely useless – she’s the perfect damsel, the special and unique heroine who does nothing of substance and the object of pretty much everyone’s desires. However, she does actually have a very wide range of relationships with other female characters, so I can’t fault her there.
FINAL SCORE: 3/10
The version of Little Red Riding Hood from Once Upon A Time is a bit of a break from tradition – she’s the werewolf in this one, struggling to come to terms with her identity in between quests and waitressing. She’s not a main character for most of the show, and only comes into her own in the later seasons, but in recent episodes her character has been given a lot more screen time.
This has made her a much more active character, as she gets many more chances to shape her own destiny and takes full advantage of that. Her goals and beliefs are clear – she wants to find some other werewolves and believes that understanding her nature is important for her. She’s consistently feisty, brave, well-meaning and occasionally petulant, and you can definitely describe her without mentioning her appearance, love life or the words ‘Strong Female Character’. In fact, her love life doesn’t affect many of her decisions at all – what really motivates her is her desire to find and connect with other werewolves.
She develops over the course of her story by moving on from accidentally killing her boyfriend in a were-rage (which brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘time of the month’). She has a weakness – she can be petulant and occasionally finds it difficult to express herself, although this doesn’t often hold her back for long. She’s a very active player in the plot and is pretty progressive when it comes to gender stereotypes – as she’s a woman struggling to come to terms with her super-dangerous murder powers – although this isn’t always explored in a lot of depth. She also has a wide range of relationships with other female characters, including a girlfriend: she’s one half of the first LGBT couple on the show. This is all development from the later seasons, but I think that’s a real testimony to how much a character can improve when writers put in the effort. Before she wasn’t really much more than a background player, but now she’s really come into her own.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
And there you have it – that’s my analysis of Little Red Riding Hood! In a nutshell, most of the adaptations have problems when the wolf is given too much power – it’s important to remember that this should never be done at the expense of character development. The original fairy tale doesn’t do a lot for her character beyond the obligatory ‘don’t have sex’ warning –
– but the more modern adaptations have taken this in a host of different directions. Where Red is allowed to take control of this herself, that’s where her development is strongest, but where the original victim flavour of the fairy tale remains, that’s often what makes her character development a bit sub-par.
Next week, it’s back to the usual format, and I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and bust some ghosts. Erin Gilbert, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.