You know the story. Little girl goes through the woods to her grandmother’s house. Little girl is stalked by ravenous wolf. Big bad wolf gets to the house first, eats grandma. Wolf gets in bed with girl, then eats her. This would be the Little Red Riding Hood of Charles Perrault (who published it as “Le Petit Chaperon rouge” in 1697). The Brothers Grimm (1857) reworked it a bit so we’re given a less violent end. Sure, grandma and girl still get eaten by the wolf, but then a nice huntsman comes along and cuts the wolf open, freeing them (the 1812 version even has the grandma/girl duo going after another wolf).
But the version that always sticks with me is the one found in Anne Sexton’s Transformations. She ends the poem with the huntsman, grandmother, and Red Riding Hood sitting down by the wolf’s corpse, eating wine and cake: Those two remembering/nothing naked and brutal/from that little death,/that little birth,/from their going down/and their lifting up. Those last six lines capture a grotesque kind of resurrection amid all the “deceivers” she names (the wolf being but one). She captures the trauma of living a double life, of creating split identities.
Sharon Singer’s artwork accomplishes something similar in terms of using the grotesque to question the original morality codes found in this fairy tale. No longer do we have the “prettiest girl” from Perrault’s version nor the “sweet little maid” from the Grimm Brothers. In Yo Bitch, What Big Eyes You Have, the figure under the red hoodie lacks any kind of identifying hair or other facial features that might ascribe gender. When I first showed the painting to the students in Theodora Goss’s Fairy Tales and Art class, they described the person as having “Voldemort’s nose and the Joker’s smile.” Notice how their descriptions automatically put our sweet Red Riding Hood into the role of super villain, but also, one of power. She is seen as the aggressor, and one must wonder if the the dialogue implied in the title of the painting is referring to whom she is gazing at or if the line is being uttered by her victim. That wonderful ambiguity warns wolves, huntsmen, and naive children to steer clear (I’m still holding out he/she is going to their grandmother’s house).
100 lashes has Red looking more female in form with the full flowing skirt and manicured nails.This time our protagonist has a multi-eyed “guardian” looking out for her. But the head lolls to the right in such a way we question whether that being is even alive, or merely propped by the girl. The stitching formation that creates the eyes’ lashes also runs throughout the fabric, hinting that this “body” is actually made from other corpses. Could they even be the eyes of predators who failed to make the “sweet little maid” their prey, and now must be her lookout? From the sway of the skirt and position of the hands, perhaps she even is dancing with this strange doll that is both alive and dead (another grotesque resurrection).
Little Dread Riding Hood is more humorous than horrific at first. We first notice the dreadlocks and nose ring and easily get the allusion. But then we see that the wolf is on fire, its mouth tied shut by string which also becomes the reins she uses to ride him. The wolf has its eyes tightly closed and seems in pain, but then if we follow the flow of the fabric, we come to the find not wolf paws but the girl’s feet in roller skates. She is not riding a living wolf, but made its corpse into a costume. The cape hides the grotesque violence done to the wolf so that she may stand possibly through it. She is not standing beside the wolf, and we see too much of the head to assume it is any kind of cardboard cutout. Then notice the basket, which is not stuffed with goodies for grandmother but filled with feathers, an egg, and a snake looking to escape, among other things. She has become “dreadful” indeed, a lovely monstrous thing that, like Singer’s other figures, holds a new kind of power.
Each of these works beg to have a story written around them, or inspired by them. That is the power of a fairy tale, of myth. It stays constant yet is capable of the most stunning transformations, the most unexpected resurrections that might, given enough time, cut open the skin of our cynicism and let us out into the light.
Sexton, Ann. “Red Riding Hood.” Transformations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971.