Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Yesterday my daughter and I were discussing the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. She’s more familiarised with the Into The Woods take on the classic, but they’re not too dissimilar. As we were discussing the wolf’s stalking and trickery, my daughter said, “But she (Red Riding Hood) shouldn’t have talked to him or told him where she was going.” For a moment the world seemed to stop turning. The lights went on and I froze as I realised - this isn’t a fairytale. This is carefully woven victim-blaming. And it’s working. Even my seven-year-old knows the message of the story finds fault in the protagonist.
Tales of this type were created and shared to warn of danger but note that this isn’t a story told to the wolves as a message that violence doesn’t pay. It’s a tale told to little girls to teach them to be more vigilant. Take measures to protect themselves. When Sarah Everad went missing and the police predictably responding by telling women not to walk alone at night. I don’t think I’ve heard the voices of women (and many men too) rage so strongly in my lifetime. It’s not that we haven’t heard this before, but it seemed we’d reached a point of ‘no more.’
Then Jenny Jones came out and wondered, and I say wondered because she was clear to point out this wasn’t a suggestion, whether men might be asked to stay home after dark instead. The backlash she got did not surprise me and yet I found myself with my head in my hands.
Systematically we restrict the rights of women, supposedly to keep them safe, without blinking an eyelid and yet, the mere idea that men share the responsibility caused unjustifiable outrage. Personally, I think Jenny Jones was genius in presenting this option because she didn’t need to make a speech about underlying misogyny many are keen to deny, her comments allowed the kickback to prove its existence.
Little Red Riding Hood is presented as a naive girl skipping carelessly through the wood in her red cloak. In the 17th century, of course, red garments were avoided as they represented sinful women. And yes, you can associate this story with men attacking women just in the way that she is described by her choice of outfit. The wolf quite obviously is not a wolf but a representation of a predator. The wolf disguise is simply a way of diluting the message to make it more palatable. Of course, this doesn’t work in real life because wolves are obviously to be avoided, whereas the issue with women protecting themselves from dangerous men is that we can’t tell them apart. Yet, the story concluded with the male woodcutter rescuing the little girl and her grandmother. So I suppose we’re comfortable in naming men as heroes but not predators. This is reflected in the language we use today. We say,
“1,425 women and girls were killed in the UK over the ten year period between 2009-2018” - The Justice Gap
“1,425 men killed women” (of course it could be less due to multiple crimes committed by one person)
We have started using the term ‘femicide.’ It’s not. It’s murder. Using a different word suggests it's either a lesser or more serious crime.
Then you have headlines in national newspapers which neglect to mention the perpetrators;
“Number of female homicide victims rises 10% in year” - The Guardian
As if females are getting themselves killed. It is not an attack on men to suggest they should be named in the story, because whilst it is ‘not all men’ it is ‘nearly always men.’ And the biggest victims of male violence is men.
In fact, what Jenny Jones didn’t point out in her statement was that if men stayed home after dark it would likely save more male lives than female lives. Based on the statistics. The story of Little Red Riding Hood implies that the wolf would not have been able to attack the girl if she hadn’t spoken with him. If she hadn’t told him where she was going. Also, by making the predator a wolf and setting the tale in the forest it appears as if Red Riding Hood has walked in his territory. His natural habitat. Which again, places some blame on her. What stopped the wolf from gobbling up Red Riding Hood right when they met? He didn’t need to speak with her, entice her, trick her. Yet, by doing so the storytelling suggests that the girl has the ability to keep herself safe should she be clever enough.
In some ways, learning how to minimise risk is a valuable lesson. Our daughters have the right to walk the streets at night and feel safe, but the right to do so does not protect them. As human beings, we have the right to equal treatment, equal opportunities. It doesn’t mean we get them. Refugees have the right, under international law, to enter the UK and seek asylum. Yet it doesn’t prevent our government from referring to them as ‘illegal immigrants', even though they’ve not broken any laws. Having rights does not necessarily give you power. It only means you are protected under the law should something bad happen to you. Not necessarily before.
It’s only a fairytale though. Why is it important? Surely we’re not going to cancel Little Red Riding Hood, are we? Of course not. However, whilst language is important so too are stories. They have been used throughout history to share ideas and information. Fiction can even affect our view of the real world today. Take issues of social justice. Do you remember the statistics or do you remember the stories? The first-hand accounts and sharing of experiences, or the facts and figures? I bet the former greatly contributes to the position you take on issues. The way in which a story is presented leads you to the conclusion the teller desires you to make. I know this - I’m a writer.
What is dangerous about the Little Red Riding Hood story is not only the implication that Red Riding Hood gets herself and her grandmother eaten through her own stupidity, but that by making the male a wolf we suggest violence is in his nature. Which isn’t only false but again strips the predator of responsibility. So, rather than tell a story about a predator who makes a choice to attack a girl we’re telling children that girls must be the ones to change. If we can except that Red Riding Hood would have been eaten by the wolf regardless of whether she engaged with him then we absolve her of any real power over the situation she finds herself in. So, if the wolf can't change, there's no hope for little red.
Lastly, though it is only a fairytale, modern versions see Red Riding Hood rescued in the end.
In the real world, girls consumed by monsters do not escape as whole unmarked people. Often they don’t escape at all. And when they do, they are not grateful for the valuable lesson they’ve received about 'stranger danger'.
If we are truly committed to keeping women safe on the streets (or woods) then we have to change the language we use. We have to rewrite the stories. Above all, and I recognise that might seem like hypocrisy in an article seeking to highlight the injustice of victim-blaming, we have to stop calling men who commit violence ‘monsters’. No man, or at least very few, are born violent. Young boys do not grow up thinking they will murder or assault women. Something happens. To some men.
When we remove the man from the story, or news articles discuss what happened to the victim in a way that writes out the person who committed that crime, we can never make our streets safe. Men need to be in the story so we can address why some men become predators or abusers. Only then can we all, both men and women, work together to prevent these atrocities from happening.
No man is born a wolf and no woman is born a victim. Red riding hood is not an outdated story. It just doesn’t reflect reality. The idea that girls can protect themselves and that male predators are acting on natural impulses had always been, and will always be, fiction.