Is “Red Riding Hood” a Feminist Movie?

As a longtime fan of Angela Carter, I was excited to hear the terms “feminist” and “werewolf” together in reference to “Red Riding Hood.” What came next was not at all what I expected. I cannot recall the last time I was so eager to see a movie end. What I was left with at the blessed end of the movie was the question “is this a feminist movie?”

Valerie is our titular character. She has grown up in a village that is set somewhere vaguely European. Half the characters have French names, the other half have English names and most of them look like they’re starring in a high school production of Erik the Viking. The forest and village have an unreal Disney look to them, most of the houses quaintly sitting on stilts and the trees bearing huge thorns that look as though made of hollow fiberglass. I half expected Keebler Elves to bounce out of Valerie’s grandmother’s house. In this village, Valerie struggles to reconcile her love for the brooding, darkly handsome woodcutter Peter with her impending marriage to the brooding, darkly handsome blacksmith Henry. The two males have no real characteristics that would make either one appealing. Both are made up of a bag of glares, bedhead and stormings off. I honestly had trouble keeping them straight for the first half of the film. There’s not much in the film that explains why Valerie has feelings for either hunk. They’re cute and nice to her when not in the throes of their own mild angst. I suppose that’s what passes for chemistry.

The action begins when we’re alerted to the existence of Valerie’s beloved sister by the news of her death. The villagers had been feeding a local wolf bits of their livestock to keep it from attacking them, now they find it has developed a taste for humanburger. After a bit of crying and wailing, the menfolk rush off into the mountains to kill the wolf and return with a head on a stake. Then Gary Oldman appears doing his best version of the Spanish Inquisition from Monty Python. He warns the villagers that the true wolf lives among them there within the village. The film could have done much with this moment of paranoia, but instead the villagers have a big peasant party that ends up looking like the high school Fall festival.

Here is where we learn just how ineffectually drunk Valerie’s father is, as she finds him passed out in the snow. The exchange between them here highlighted what was for me a huge problem in the film: it was far too contemporary. Valerie has a casual relationship with her parents. All the dialogue sounds like it came out of a CW teen drama. The biggest bogeyman the film can conjure is Gary Oldman’s holy warrior who commits the grandest modern sin of being intolerant. So Valerie’s father is a drunk who is too bland to even be interesting in his dysfunction. He harmlessly totters off after his daughter kicks him and points out the vomit on his jerkin. Yawn.

Oldman comes off as a nondenominational inquisitor. He’s unpleasant without resorting to any actual religious content. He has a confusingly multi-ethnic group of werewolf hunters with him. To show just how much of a big meanie he is, he roasts a mentally challenged kid in a giant metal elephant. Yeah. I couldn’t help thinking of films like “The Messenger” in which the religious zeal of the characters formed a compelling terror in and of itself. I commented to my moviegoing partner that this movie seemed like it had been written by someone who learned about history entirely by skimming Wikipedia.

Amongst all this, Valerie discovers she can psychically communicate with the wolf, which results in her being branded a witch. Before Oldman can carry out any actual Malleus Maleficarium-style soul-saving on her, Valerie has to sit out in the village square wearing a dog mask. At this point, some girl says mean things to her, which I guess is meant to create tension? The rest of the village doesn’t seem to turn on Valerie, so it does little to show how  a young woman depends upon her reputation for social survival. This moment was another great missed opportunity to show Valerie’s own cleverness, but instead she’s rescued by the two suitors who have put aside their dislike of each other.

By the time the film gets into the identity of the wolf, it doesn’t seem to matter. As a character, Valerie mainly reacts to whatever’s put in front of her. We know she’s supposed to be tough and smart because everyone keeps telling us so, but she displays little of these traits. There’s even a cringe-worthy moment of go-girl fake lesbian sexuality that seems to be modern film’s shorthand for “feminist character.” Valerie exists primarily to be wanted by other characters. Her actions lack real agency. In the way she relates with other women, Valerie continues to serve as a vessel for the desires of others. Valerie’s mother, for example, wants to correct her own mistake in choosing Valerie’s father by ensuring Valerie marries someone stable and relatively wealthy. The film introduces the intriguing character of the grandmother who has the potential to symbolize real destabilizing female power, but tosses her out of the way in the third act.
Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” revisited the Red Riding Hood story as a tale about the dangers of desire. The wolf could represent the predatory male, or the beast of desire within Red herself which threatens the social order should it emerge. In this film the potential for desire to upset this world is curtailed. Valerie is, above all, a good girl. She doesn’t seem to have any desires other than a distant fantasy about leaving the village–a fantasy that ultimately is subjugated to being a good girlfriend. So, Red  Riding Hood is not much of a feminist film. Female desire here is safely contained within the bounds of being adored by cute boys.

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