THE RED RIDING HOOD VIRUS
A short feminist memoir, first published in my collection The Common Rat – 1993
Emily is five. She is showing me around the garden.
‘Look. The tiger lily is going to pop.’ Emily knows the names and the habits of all the flowers. We walk from the garden to the café down the street. We sit outside the café in the sun – Emily, her mother, her two aunts and me.
The adults are drinking cappuccino; Emily has hot chocolate. We all admire Emily’s dress – the green and white gingham dress she will wear when she starts school next week. We admire her green plastic sandals that resemble jelly. She scoops froth from her drink with a spoon, eats each spoonful elegantly. She looks up into the faces of the women around the table. She listens, silent and alert.
What does she hear. She hears that we are going to the lace and linen shop to look at a tablecloth. One of the aunts wants our opinion on the tablecloth. It is cream damask, but is it the right shade of cream. Her table (‘I know the table you mean,’ Emily’s mother says) is round with two leaves. You have to make certain the cloth is not joined down the middle. This is the problem with round tablecloths. Emily eats a sliver of carrot cake and listens. (A table with leaves, a cloth with a join down the middle, cream damask, the right shade of cream.)
We finish our coffee and cross the road to the lace shop. Walking into the shop is like walking into a sweet white cloud. White linen cushions embroidered in white silk, piles of white doylies edged with white lace, white lawn handkerchiefs, white satin purses for containing underwear and stockings. I pick up a doyley. Emily is beside me.
‘We have plenty of those at home,’ Emily says. ‘Nanna likes to put them underneath vases. And these,’ she says, pointing to crochet jug-covers edged with heavy beads, ‘these are for covering jugs – or anything.’
The cream damask tablecloth (the colour is not quite right) is being unfolded, and – oh no – there is a join running down the middle like a scar. We stand round in a circle holding the cloth, like firemen with a blanket, staring down at the impediment. We murmur and say it won’t do. A cloth must be a smooth uninterrupted expanse of damask.
Emily looks and listens. She moves quietly round the lace shop and she hovers beside a display of pale green dillybags decorated with lace images of butterflies. She has coveted one of these bags for months. And today is the day. Emily gets her dillybag, wrapped in white tissue paper. The aunt’s search for the round tablecloth must continue elsewhere. As we leave the shop we all stop to gaze at a baby’s dress in a glass case by the door. The dress is white silk, intricately smocked. One of the women says, ‘Imagine what a real baby would do to it.’ We imagine and laugh and move from the soft white fantasy world of the shop back into the street. It is Saturday morning and people are buying newspapers, vegetables, flowers, coffee beans, cakes.
I imagine that Emily’s mother and aunts felt close to Emily in the garden, at the café, in the lace shop – as I did. Emily’s experience was similar to mine at her age, and I expect it was similar to theirs. As a child I was part of a circle of sisters, cousins, aunts, and I listened and learned the intricate civilising details of girl. The importance of linen and lace and smoothness and perfection, cleanliness and decoration.
Emily will go to school next week and learn to read and write and count and tell the time and sing and draw and play with other children. She will take with her her new green dillybag and a head full of details of what it means to be a girl about to go to school for the first time in suburban Melbourne in 1992. Emily’s teacher will read stories to the children. Two of those stories will be Cinderellaand Little Red Riding Hood. Emily, and everyone else in the class, already knows these stories inside out. She will delight in the familiarity and repetition of the characters, language and turn of event. And these are stories aboutgirls, about how girls are, or should be or wish to be. Girls are beautiful to look at. Virtuous girls rise from rags to riches because of their beauty and their virtue. Riches will be provided by a man. There must be magic intervention. Girls who deviate from the straight and narrow path may be raped and devoured; they may be rescued and given another chance. The amount of sexual detail, sometimes obvious, sometimes veiled, in these stories makes them deliciously attractive to small children who half know the truth and long to understand and see more. The girl in the red cloak in bed with the wolf; the prince with the girl’s shoe, looking for her foot.
These stories lie deep within my culture, Emily’s culture, and their meanings have become inseparable from the story a girl tells herself about herself. There is a bit of Cinderella and a bit of Red Riding Hood in me, and, I believe, in Emily and the girls in her class at school. Boys also hear the stories, but I imagine they do not identify strongly with any character because the girl-ness of the girl in the story is what the story is. With the exception of the wolf and the ugly sisters, the other characters in these stories are undramatic and unengaging in their own right, and are placed only to serve the central theme of girl. The prince in Cinderellamust be the most uninteresting person in literature. Nobody in these stories has a name as we know a name. The names of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood appearto be the names. (A rough translation of the two titles is ‘Dirty Girl’ and ‘Little Sexpot’, but people don’t translate them.) These names are really only descriptions of the states of being, and these descriptions go early and deep into the imaginations of girl-children such as me and Emily. These descriptions are a sort of congenital virus – Red Riding Hood syndrome, or virus – carried by the female line.
A question to put to these stories that sink into young female imaginations is: do girls have to wait to be discovered and rescued? The answer given by the stories is: yes, they do. But it is obvious that they do not, in life, have to wait. Indeed they must not wait. Girls must act on their own behalf. I am sure that Emily’s teachers will urge and instruct her to think for herself and to act for herself. Generally my teachers did not do this. Emily will carry the viruses of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, but the viruses must be getting weaker. Emily will be miles ahead of where I was at her age. There are women prime ministers, airline pilots, surgeons, judges. Even as Emily goes off to school, eleven women fight for ordination of the Anglican Church in Australia. Such a thing was unheard of, unthought, when I was five. Emily’s mother earns her own living, and so do Emily’s aunts. Emily takes it for granted that she will do this too. When I left school and went to university there was an underlying assumption that my friends and I were filling in time until we would be rescued from the wicked world by marriage. Our mothers, who had not had the chance to go to university, were proud of us but also frightened for us. If I say that my mother died from the Red Riding Hood virus, I am not actually being funny. I mean that she was an intelligent creative woman who never expressed her creative self and who died stifled by her own frustrations. Not acting on her own behalf, waiting to be rescued and answered for, she languished and died. My family will probably find that statement offensive and inaccurate.
A comment by Charles Dickens about his childhood response to Red Riding Hood reveals much of the power and meaning of the myth. Dickens said Red Riding Hood was his first love. If only he could have married her he ‘should have known perfect bliss’. He deplored ‘the cruelty and treachery of that dissembling wolf who ate her grandmother without making any impression on his appetite, and then ate her, after making that ferocious joke about his teeth’. And I had a bad case of the virus myself. Charles Dickens would ask me to marry him and I would accept and disappear. (I read The Feminine Mystique andThe Female Eunuch, and The Cinderella Complex andKiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbyeand a few other things, and got, I believe, a bit better.)
It is okay these days for girls to climb trees. Emily climbs. But when I was five the boys climbed trees and the girls did not. Real Girls Don’t Climb Trees. I realise now that girls were not supposed to get a taste for the view from up there. (And what if there were boys lying in the grass looking up your dress. Ah yes, what if.)
We had a garden full of fruit trees and luckily nobody stopped me from spending time in the trees at home looking out across the hills to the mountains, looking down through the leaves at the ground. We didn’t have boys in the grass. But I was not supposed to climb random trees outside out own back yard. These were trees I might have fallen out of – been killed, injured for life. People might rescue cats from trees; they would not rescue girls. Rescue for girls meant rescue from the wayside, the fireside, the shelf. Rescue meant marriage to the prince for girls suffering from the Cinderella virus. And although there was a strong strain in popular literature and entertainment telling girls that marriage took them out of the frying pan into the fire, the overwhelming (I choose this word most carefully) drive was towards the altar. (Altar:a raised structure on which to place or sacrifice offerings to a deity.)
I recall my own symptoms of the Cinderella virus. One of these symptoms was the perfecting of a particular kind of drawing of a princess in a ball gown. This princess could sprout wings and become a fairy or an angel, but in her pure form she was Cinderella at the ball. I drew her on the covers of special books – my music book, my diary. I enjoyed being able to reproduce this creature. I never saw a human being that looked like that – she was the ideal and I had her at the command of my pencil. I can see now that she was an addiction. And I collected a version of her as an embroidered image. On handkerchiefs and tray cloths this woman (lady?) appeared. She wore a crinoline and a bonnet and carried a parasol. In my drawings she had a ‘pretty face’; in the embroideries she had no face. I still have my collection of these embroideries and I take them out and place them on the table and I see the ladies floating down the garden paths with their parasols, their empty bonnets nodding sweetly on their frilly shoulders, and I sense some of the feeling we have in nightmare.
I was Emily’s age when I lusted after a particular handkerchief embroidered with one of these ladies. My mother gave me the handkerchief for my birthday and I took it to school because I adored it and could not be parted from it. I showed it to the teacher and she admired it. Then we spent a long time standing in lines singing. I put no effort at all into the singing because I was eatingthe handkerchief. I was in a trance. (You suck the cloth into points and hook your eye teeth into a stitch of the embroidery. Then you use your teeth as a saw, pulling hard at the cloth with your fist. It is a slow process but a satisfying one.) The teacher yelled at me in alarm when she saw what I had done. I don’t remember what happened at home.
I learned to read and write and count and so on, as Emily will do. It didn’t take long, really. But it took a very long time to unlearn the myth of personal powerlessness taught by Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and the faceless lady in the bonnet.
When Emily had her green dillybag, and her aunt did not have her damask tablecloth, we returned to the house. The petals of the tiger lily had curled right back to reveal the long dusty stamens.
‘Look,’ Emily said in passing. ‘I said it was going to pop.’
Yes, Emily. Keep your eyes open.