What is it about Little Red Riding Hood that somehow makes her sexier than her fairy-tale counterparts like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty? As I write, it’s Halloween in the US and risqué Little Red Riding Hood costumes for women abound. Importantly, the sexualization of Little Red is far from a recent phenomenon. In 1943 Tex Avery produced the animated short Red Hot Riding Hood, in which we find the heroine onstage in her customary outfit, holding a basket, initially looking shy and innocent; she then seductively removes her red cape to reveal her hourglass figure clothed in a red corset as she comes into being as a Hollywood-style nightclub singer. This “unveiling” elicits an aggressive physical reaction in a tuxedo-clad wolf with a Clark Gable-style moustache, who begins to whistle and howl uncontrollably. The film plays on long-standing tropes between an innocent- but-perhaps-not-so girl in red, who becomes prey to a wolf-like man. Producers of different media versions of the tale consistently play on the color red to connect the film, commercial, or television series to the source tale, often foregrounding the sexuality and violence – symbolized by the color red – that has been a part of the tale since its inception. Red represents the fire of lust and the blood of violence.

The earliest literary version of Little Red Riding Hood comes from the pen of French author Charles Perrault, who wrote other well-known tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Louis XIV. We tend to think of fairy tales as written for children, but several moments in Perrault’s tale suggest otherwise. We take for granted that, after the wolf kills grandmother, he waits for the heroine in bed. When the heroine enters her grandmother’s house, the wolf-cum-grandmother asks the girl to climb into bed with her; the girl then undresses, crawls into bed with the wolf, and begins exclaiming how “big” grandmother’s arms, legs, ears, etc., are. The wolf gobbles her up; unfortunately, in Perrault’s version, no woodcutter comes to the rescue. Perrault’s end moral shifts the tale from the context of the woods to that of the parlor. He states: “We see here that young children, especially young, well-bred ladies, should not listen to any sort of person… it isn’t strange if the wolf eats up so many of them. I say wolf, for not all wolves are of the same kind; some are of a comely humor, who follow young ladies into their homes, into their salons. But alas! Who doesn’t know that these smooth-talking wolves are most dangerous of all!”

The actual readership for Perrault’s tale was an adult audience of Parisian aristocrats who frequented French literary salons, which becomes evident in the moral of the story. The moral asks us to view the wolf allegorically, as a smooth- talking gentleman, who follows young ladies into salons to “devour” them, which could be understood in terms of seduction, or even rape, given the violence of the ending. The wolf, then, is a male seducer who roams around salons frequented by well-bred young women. The tale’s allegorical connotations about seduction or rape can play out in very suggestive ways in different media, and problematically, the sexualization of Little Red can also imply that the victim brought about the tragedy herself.

Different creators have drawn from the tale to make less ambiguous claims about its meaning. For instance, in his 1996 film, Freeway – starring Reese Witherspoon as Vanessa Lutz and Kiefer Sutherland as the serial-killing counselor Bob Wolverton – Matthew Bright uses Little Red Riding Hood as an allegory about predatory male behavior. In some ways, the color red tells the story of the film. Vanessa’s mother is a prostitute who wears red, associating red with (exploitative) sexuality. Vanessa herself often wears a red leather jacket – her “riding hood” – and later a red skirt.

In order to flee an abusive stepfather, Vanessa drives to her grandmother’s house, but after her car breaks down on the freeway, she is picked up by the wolf of the tale, Bob Wolverton. Vanessa manages to outsmart him, having her own gun, and ends up shooting – but not killing – Bob, which splatters red blood on her, leading to her arrest. Vanessa ends up in prison, but eventually escapes. In order to acquire a car to get to her grandmother’s house, Vanessa wears a red skirt and pretends to be a prostitute. Thus, the color red weaves through the film’s plotline to its finale, when Vanessa finally manages to kill the wolf, shedding his red blood. Red both maintains the connection between film and tale, and becomes the color of sexual violence, exploitation, and even empowerment in Vanessa’s ability to avoid being raped and killed by Wolverton, killing the wolf instead.

Once one begins looking for Little Red, she can be found in so many different media formats. In a 1984 Dr. Pepper commercial, in typical 1980s style, the heroine roller-skates through the woods with a red headband, a Walkman and a sexy cropped shirt. A wolf jumps out to surprise her and demands the goods in her basket. Rejecting low-fat cottage cheese and diet cola, the wolf then tries Dr. Pepper, which he loves, and it transforms him into a handsome roller-skater. Quite happy about this transformation, the heroine looks back slyly at the camera and says, smiling, “Mamma warned me about wolves.” Because the wolf in question proves harmless, the commercial could be understood as questioning the tale’s rejection of sexuality, which the heroine embraces as she skates away with her wolf. Another marketing campaign, this time for Chanel No.5 and created by French director Luc Besson, features model Estella Warren who, instead of walking through the woods, walks down a runway in a beautiful red designer dress. The number 5 marks the house of ‘grandmother’, where the heroine takes a bottle of Chanel No.5 from a shelf and applies it, which seems to give her the power to tame the real-life wolf that appears before her, allowing her to waltz off to the Eiffel Tower under her red cape. Many twentieth and twenty-first century versions empower the heroine and enable her to overcome the wolf. More than fifty years before Freeway, the American writer and cartoonist James Thurber gave his Little Red a gun, which leads to giving up her red cloak for a wolfskin coat. 

 Much like the reversible dolls that have Little Red Riding Hood on one side and the Wolf on the other, Ruby from the television series Once Upon A Time is both girl and wolf; in fact, she must wear the red hood so that she does not transform into a werewolf. Such a move in which Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf are fused or bonded in some way is also evident in the work of Angela Carter, whose retellings of the tale were adapted for film in collaboration with director Neil Jordan, resulting in The Company of Wolves (1984). At the end of the film, the heroine Rosaleen – whose name evokes the color red and who wears a red cape – ends up transforming into a wolf and joining the noble hunter/werewolf about whom her grandmother warned her. Like the Little Red from the Dr. Pepper commercial, Carter and Jordan’s Rosaleen rejects the warning from an older woman about the wolf, choosing instead to embrace her sexuality, but this time, by becoming an animal. The nature and meaning of Little Red Riding Hood have changed over time, with the heroine moving from being a victim to overcoming the threat of the wolf, to finally joining the pack. In each instance, the color red is the thread that links these different takes on the story and infuses them with a symbolism related not only to violence but also to sexuality in all of its problematic as well as liberatory forms.