Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wolves & Sexless Wonders

Ho Ko Po

Wan-Hsiang Chou offers a Taiwanese version of the story westerners know as "Little Red Riding Hood." "Ho Ko Po" ("Great Aunt Tiger") exhibits many of the similarities that followed the story to Asia: (1) the monster is a weretiger instead of a werewolf; (2) the monster is openly referred to as a demon, rather than its origins and alliances being left unstated; (3) the female perspective character (call her the "protagonist" or the "main character" if you prefer value-laden speech) stays at home alone, rather than making a trip to meet a female relative; (4) the main character wins by outwitting the monster.

Chou labels the story's origin as "Asia"--a big enough guess that it might be correct, although it has also been traced to Africa in a time much, much earlier than Chou searches (within a hundred years, plus or minus, of 0 C.E.). His own family version, modernized for Hong Kong, includes a stupid male character (a brother) who lets the monster into the house over the female lead's objections--not a plot element found in traditional Asian, European, or African derivations, but one just right for the rise of neo-liberal consumerism, the replacement of "poverty" with "diversity," and the replacement of "war" by "humanitarian intervention."

(The monster's sex varies regularly in twentieth-century Asian versions of the story, also. Whereas Europeans had settled firmly on a partly- or fully-sexualized male monster, Asians were still comfortable with allowing a female to be sexual as well as monstrous.)

Me First!

Whatever Chou's family, and modern Asians, did to their "Ho Ko Po," the underlying theme of the story remains, in most Asian versions: a (1) female character, (2) reaching sexual maturity, and possessed of (3) feminine intuition, faces off with a (4) monster. Lacking a time machine, you would be unable to pin down the "original" version of "Maturing Girl Versus Monster." With a reasonable take on the past, though, you can identify a tale with vast variations in detail, all of the older ones of which adhere to the formula given above. Again, that's: (1) female character, (2) reaching sexual maturity, and possessed of (3) feminine intuition, faces off with a (4) monster.

That's a rather basic outline. What makes "more original" versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" good is their versal value; their ability to leave the deep participant ("listener" or "reader") a better person; the insight they offer into good, evil, and the living world; the true life with which they invest their character(s). Rhetorical skill aside, you can't do those things unless you first understand those things, which is why the great majority of pop-entertainment since the advent of formal states ("western civilization") provides surreal, conformist, self-contradictory versions of the above--and leaves the participant docile and un-critical, rather than the reverse.

Reanimating Little Red

Red Riding Hood is a crucible for this struggle. "More original" versions of the story contained real, wonderful elements, and taught great lessons. More modern versions--defining modern as "A.D.," in many cases--are, much like American cinema, undead versions of the decaying husks most recently scraped out of the public domain. Stripped of true life, but still retaining its form, they lurch about the countryside, terrorizing $9.50 ticketholders and leaving in their wake confused, boorish, un-critical participants. Lacking the ability or desire to channel life into a tale, modernists borrow chunks of flesh from the corpses of slain stories to turn into profanities, like so many screenwriting Igors digging up graveyards in stolen versions of Shelley's Frankenstein.

Let's take a closer look at that crucible, in the form of the western mortification of Red Riding Hood. We'll consider, below, the standard modern version of the tale, and what it tells us; then, we'll compare the latter with an older, truer version, and what it tells us.

Grimm & Disney

If you're from greater Anglo-America, your version of the story is, unfortunately, probably a Disneyfied version of the Grimm brothers' own ruination of older tales. The Grimm brothers are great for this because, like Walt Nazi, they bought up and consolidated a lot of the public domain, investing their way so thoroughly into history that they tend to be treated as sources, rather than scribes. Older versions of 1001 Nights, legions of Decamerons, and many other tales and collections fell victim to this fate in modern human memory banks, much as the wretched Peter Pan, the post-Iran-Iraq War Aladdin, or Timothy Burton's jealous, fat fondling of Alice have replaced the past for many to have experienced them.

Anglo-Americans like to begin history somewhere vaguely in-between King Arthur and Julius Caesar, set in a Europe that somewhat resembles southern California (albeit with whiter peasants who don't have logos on their T-shirts). Here, for example, is Brandy M. Miller embarrassing herself--not only for ascribing the original version of "Girl Versus Monster" to the Brothers Grimm, but using "their" outline as an example of how to construct the perfect story. This is, though less professional and condensed, an example of the hideousness of western creativity: trying to make creativity formulaic is evil enough, but doing so based on utterly erroneous conclusions (which could be disproven even via Google or talking to your average M.L.S. at the local library).

Not only cookie-cutter authors, but western teachers fall prey to this as well: here's a teacher providing an outline for how to use the "original" version of "Girl Versus Monster" (copyright the Brothers Grimm!) to teach the story to new generations of moviegoers.

The Grimm Truth

Here are the original four components: (1) female character, (2) reaching sexual maturity, and possessed of (3) feminine intuition, faces off with a (4) monster. The Grimm version alters these, editing (2) and (3) and adding a (5). Here's the Grimm story:

A (1) female character, (2) who is young, and who lives near a (3) strapping, manly woodsman, gets trapped and eaten by a (4) monster, and is then (5) saved by the woodsman. The "red cap" becomes a metaphor for menstruation; while it becomes less proper in the west to admit that females are sexual organisms, red clothing needs to utterly replace actual coming-of-age, so Red Riding Hood becomes a younger girl, rather than one beginning to menstruate.

The Disney version further emphasizes the (1) sexlessness and helplessness of its cute, childish Little Red Riding Hood (firmly ensconcing the "little" as part of the preferred western titling); the (2) bland, raw-power-motivated evil of the wolf, and the (3) heroic manliness of the woodsman who saves the day. Disney, like the Grimm brothers, took agency away from Red Riding Hood, making her a naive, helpless innocent who needed the protection of a strong-jawed man.

Prior to the Grimm' brothers' rewriting of the story, earlier European versions were more sexualized. Red Riding Hood climbed into bed with the wolf, and was devoured; she was not later saved by a woodsman. The wolf was not a regular wolf, but a werewolf.

The Best One

Here's the best version, a variation on Jean Baptiste Victor Smith's translation, courtesy Firburner:
Once there was a little girl, called Little Red Riding Hood, for she wore always that red riding hood. Now her mother had made her a suit of clothing for her to wear, and this suit of clothing had been made completely out of metal. Her mother then went away to stay alone in a little cottage in the woods, and told the girl, “only when you have worn out this suit of clothing shall you come and visit me.” So the girl, nodding solemnly, bade her mother goodbye and set to work to wearing out her suit of metal clothing.

Every day, she rubbed herself against the walls of her home, so that the clothing would be worn out sooner. Every day, day-by-day, without fail she would rub herself against the walls, till her clothes became thinner, and thinner till she completely wore it out. Elated, she made some bread with butter and wheat cakes for her mother, intending them as gifts, and left her house for her mother’s cottage in the woods.

Along the way, just as she was about to enter the woods, she encountered a wolf, which asked for some of her cakes and bread. She refused, for it was to be a gift to her mother. Unfazed, the wolf asked if she would be traveling via the road of pins or the road of needles. The young girl replied that she would be using the road of pins. Thus, the wolf ran quickly down the road of needles and knocked upon the door to the girl’s mother’s cottage.

“Who is it?” the girl’s mother asked.

“It is I, your daughter, come to bring you cakes and bread.” And when the mother opened the door, the wolf killed her, eating most of her.

Sometime later, the young girl finally arrived at her mother’s cottage. Knocking upon the door, she heard her mother call out in a strange voice, “who’s at the door?”

“It is I, your daughter, come to bring you bread and cakes, for I have worn out my clothing of metal and now come to visit you.”

“Come in my daughter, the door is not locked!” But the door was locked, and the little girl had to climb in through the little hole at the bottom of the door.

Once inside, she noticed that her mother was in bed. After the long walk through the woods the girl was hungry, and said thus to her mother. “Mother, I’m hungry, for I have traveled far and deep to this place.”

And so the reply was, “there is meat in the cupboard, that you may consume to sate your hunger.”

And as the little girl was about to eat the meat from the cupboard, suddenly a cat jumped onto the cupboard and told the girl, “do not eat this meat, for this is the meat of your mother, whom has been murdered most foul by the wolf that now sleeps in her bed!”

Thus the little girl told her mother, “Mother, this cat says that it is your meat that I am about to eat!”

And her mother told her, “Surely this cat is lying, for am I not alive and well, talking to you even now? So throw your stick at the cat and eat the meat to sate your hunger.” So the girl obediently threw her stick at the cat, thus scaring it off before consuming the meat.

When she had eaten her fill, she felt thirsty, and told her mother so. “There is a bottle of wine above the fireplace child, drink it, and sate your thirst.”

And as the girl went to the fireplace and picked up the bottle, a bird flew onto the fireplace and chirped, “little girl, do not drink this wine, for it is the blood of your mother that has been killed by the wolf whom now lies upon the bed.”

And when the little girl said to her mother, “mother, there is a bird that says that this bottle of red wine that I am about to drink is your blood, and that you were killed by a wolf, whom now lies in your place!”

And thus came the reply, “child, am I not alive and well? So is the bird lying. Throw your cloak at it, that you may then drink of the wine in peace, and vanquish your thirst.” Thus the girl did as she was told, and drank of the wine, till not a drop was left.

Now when she had eaten and drank her fill, till hungry and thirsty she was not, suddenly the girl felt sleepy. Thus her mother said to her, “come child, and rest by my side. I would have you by me once more.” And the girl walked to her mother’s side and undressed. Putting her clothes of cotton and wool neatly by the side, she climbed into the sheets with mother, so as to rest. There she saw her mother, looking very strange.

“Why mother,” She exclaimed, “what big ears you have!”

“The better to hear you with, my child.” Came the reply.

“Why mother,” the girl continued, “what big eyes you have!”

“All the better to see you with, my child.” Came the reply.

“But mother, what big paws you have!” The girl exclaimed.

“The better to hug you with.” Came the reply.

“Oh mother, what big, sharp teeth and terrible mouth you have!” The girl cried out.

“The better to eat you with!” The wolf said.

And at that, the wolf pounced upon the girl and devoured her, rending apart her flesh and bone, eating her alive, ignoring her screams.

And thus, the wolf ate the girl, sating its hunger.



Meaningful Red, Meaningful Structure

Review the basic structure again: (1) female character, (2) reaching sexual maturity, and possessed of (3) feminine intuition, faces off with a (4) monster. All those things are there in the above version; the best of the European versions--and the one that further written western variations were based on. The essential elements of the above story were pared out, bit by bit--by Charles Perrault, then the Brothers Grimm, then Disney (later Hollywood buffoons have faux-revisited "dark elements" after being taught about the Perrault version in prep school lit).

Let's look at the structure of the story in more detail, now, adding in elements from the good version above, and explaining the metaphors:

(1) and (2): A female character is reaching sexual maturity. Her wise mother clothes her in a metal suit, representing the protection a parent can offer a child against the outside world. The mother hopes that the daughter will be ready to face the dangers of the world after wearing through the metal suit; the daughter hopes to wear out the suit as fast as she can.

We learn, here, that trying to protect something by locking it up--rather than by "being there"--does not work well. That was the mother's mistake; the daughter's mistake was trying to grow up too quickly, by forcing the armor to wear out, rather than letting it wear out on its own. If it had worn out through normal use, rather than deliberate rubbing, the mother's plan might originally have worked. By trying to force something, rather than letting it happen naturally, we learn that we're not actually helping ourselves. In fact, we're hurting ourselves. This is a lesson of intrinsic value, speaking to learning how to defecate, to how to learn a language or an instrument, to how to answer questions well during a job interview. The theme is one of peace, acceptance, and appreciating the moment.

By contrast, Grimm/Disney offer the message, "Do what your mother says and bring your grandmother food." It's a message of deference to authority, where the issue of going or not going is not an issue at all, but a given--a plot that must happen because it is preordained; it is on someone's outline. Grimm/Disney also de-sexualize Red: instead of being a developing young woman, she is a mannequin-child. The Red Hood is not a gift of budding maturity offered by her mother, but a cutesy symbol from the old story, whose meaning has been deliberately forgotten because it was too icky for conservative audiences. The later repressed outburst of horniness in Hollywood's recent Red is little better, reveling childishly in an incomplete, dramatized version of something that the American 1950s missed out on entirely.

(3), (4), and more: Feminine intuition faces off with the monster. The young girl is nervous, and curious. She realizes that she wants to see her mother, and feel safe with her mother, even though she finally got her wish and "grew up" by wearing through her metal armor. Facing the desperation of separation, she is unable to fully utilize her sense that something is wrong, and allows herself to be deceived: by separating, mother and daughter doomed themselves. The wolf saw an opportunity to lay in wait for the daughter because he caught the daughter searching for something she missed. The mother's decision to use armor, rather than her presence, to protect Red failed, because unguided Red wore through it and set off to reunite.

We learn that people are interconnected; that they need each other to survive, and that technology cannot replace human interaction. We learn that predators will be drawn to people who, despite their trinkets, do not think critically.

The little bird, and the cat, try to warn Red that she is eating her mother's flesh and drinking her blood. We learn that predators lie, and that when we are made weak by being isolated from each other, we may fall victim to terrible lies told by powerful predators. We may even become the instruments of their wrongdoing, believing that we are helping ourselves when, truly, we are hurting those like us in order to fatten ourselves up for consumption by the predator.

We learn that little birds and cats might come to us with outlandish warnings--conspiracy theories about eating Mother's flesh or drinking her blood--and that the Wolf will tell us that these warnings are lies. The Wolf will dress up like someone trustworthy and respectable, but we will get an eerie feeling that something is wrong. We learn that we will ignore that feeling of wrongness at our own peril.

Why would the bird go out of her way to lie to Red? Why would the cat risk herself? For attention's sake alone? It was an awful mistake for Red to lash out at the creatures who were only trying to warn her. That metaphor is made twice in the story to good end. Not only does Red ignore the warnings, but she is upset enough that she tries to hurt the people who were trying to help her. This insight is one that still mystifies people--in the 1980s, for example, why did poor people vote for Reagan's trickle-down economics? (And why do they still vote for Goldman Sachs?) This is a lesson that needs to be understood.

Sometimes the predators win. Having grown isolated from each other, Red and Mother are both devoured. The Wolf is sated, but will surely need to eat again. Its torment will never end; it shall need to search for new Reds and new Mothers.

To happify the story, Disney and Grimm added a woodsman. The Woodsman shows us that Red can do nothing, and learn nothing, on her own. The Woodsman supplants the dynamic between Red and Mother. By his presence, he invalidates Red's ability to be either positive or negative, because he would slay the Wolf anyway.

Sexless Wonders

If you're familiar with the real Peter Pan, and with Disney's perversion of it, you'll perhaps see a similarity in the way that drawing meaning away from stories involves de-sexing them. Antilife wants to neuter the world; to make sex icky and wrong and unfair, and sterilize interactions between people into endless cartoons that end with a dance or a kiss. Wendy's development as a sexual being, and Red's, provide us with similarly true perspectives on aging, puberty, sexual development, interest in the outside world, and the delights and sorrows that can go with it. When they're turned into bland, sexless adventure stories, they lose not just the sex, but the meaning. Good versions of "Red Riding Hood" can, understood, make life better--they can help readers of any age understand not only the ways that people grow, but the ways that evil entities manipulate people at different points during that growth.

In 2013, wolves dress up like sweet mothers, plan to consume us, and whisper that little birds are lying. They pit us against each other, forcing us to eat one another's jobs and prospects in a struggle to survive a sacrificial economy. Red, from dozens of centuries ago or just a couple hundred years, shows us how it happens; how the lies work; how we can become weakened enough in order to believe for them. Red sparks thought at how to avoid her fate. The result of eating our own flesh and drinking our own blood--even the winners getting eaten in the end--is sure. Yet, we confront the Wolf already.

No, there's not an answer there. Red teaches by opening up questions. They are real questions, about real people, with real sexual needs and real desires that they might later see as selfish or foolish. The Woodsman is a myth created by the Wolf. Red is a real hero, because she can make real mistakes, rather than the sensationalist "trying too hard" mistakes allowed for Hollywood's characters. Red and the Wolf show us, as characters should, what we are really like. Because of that, we can learn from them, rather than merely be entertained by them. Given the state of civilization at the time that good version was written--and the state of civilization now, and during the buildup to the Pax Romana, when the earliest potential forms of the tale appeared--the world deserves and needs the real story of Red Riding Hood, where the Wolf consumes.

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