Syllabus prep led me to two versions of the song “Little Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, and the cover by Amanda Seyfried. I’ll be asking my students to analyze the two versions, as part of a close-reading/note-taking exercise for a freshman composition class. But I have many thoughts about aspects we likely won’t touch in class.
At first, I thought the song was irredeemably misogynist. I’m still pretty sure the original is. But after listening to the Amanda Seyfried version about a million times on repeat, I think it might actually have a positive feminist message, partly about adolescence.
When the singer is male, the song is disturbing enough (it’s using a disturbing fairy tale about female puberty, after all). It’s essentially the “nice-guy” trope – I’ll protect you until you trust me. Until you trust me enough that I can drop the nice guy act, that is, and be the bad wolf I am – until I can drop my sheep clothes.
Then again, there’s that line “bad wolves can be good” – perhaps a reference to BDSM? (Apparently there are some very dirty versions of this song. But I only found references to those, I didn’t find the songs themselves.) I kind of liked to think it is, but the addressee of the song is very clearly a young girl. That’s not okay.
50 Shades is only fine if Ana actually wanted it. If she was tricked or manipulated into wanting it, as the girl in this song might be, that’s a problem.
It does sound at times that he is a genuinely nice guy, not out to trick or manipulate Red into anything she might not want. He wants to hold her, “But you might think I’m a big bad wolf so I won’t.” That could go both ways. He’s really not a big bad wolf, because he doesn’t try to hold her.
But at the end he has to remind himself not to howl but to bleat, and he does hope that eventually Red will accept that a bad wolf isn’t bad. He gains her trust, and in his own mind he’s worthy of that trust. But he initiated contact because he noticed a pretty girl, he claims to be protecting her from others, and he plans to act differently once he’s gained that trust. That is classic nice-guy behavior.
Then there’s the “blazon” – the cataloging of the girl’s features, obviously echoing Red’s own words in the tale “my, what big eyes you have.” But here it’s “the kind of eyes that drive wolves mad,” “what full lips you have, sure to lure someone bad.”
A girl can’t help her full lips (not counting the craziness of the Kylie Jenner challenge), but they’re apparently going to lure someone bad regardless of what she does.
“You’re everything a big bad wolf could want.” If that isn’t a life-long unshakable scare, I don’t know what is. It tells her she can do nothing, she just will always be attracting these big bad wolves simply because of physical features she has no control over. If she wants big bad wolves, good for her. If she doesn’t – well, too bad. It’ll happen anyway.
The only thing that can protect her is this guy escorting her – and he plans to become that big bad wolf driven mad eventually.
So what happens when the speaker is a woman?
First of all, Amanda Seyfried sings this far more seductively than the original. I’m not entirely sure yet what that does to it. Her tone could be interpreted as soothing and comforting rather than seductive.
It starts off sounding like the speaker might be someone like Red’s mother in the tale, who warns her about the dangers in the wood – an older wiser woman giving a young girl advice.
With that message of “you can’t help it, your body will always attract the wrong type of guy,” having a woman say it is troubling. Internalized misogyny, acceptance of patriarchal attitudes, female acceptance of their own inevitable sexualization and being at the mercy of anyone who wants to focus on and pursue them sexually.
But considering that the woman says the same words as the man (“maybe you’ll see things my way / before we get to grandma’s place”), the female speaker could be interested in the little girl sexually too. The problems are the same as with the man, but with a twist.
Assuming the wolf is still male, it’s an added problem of portraying an older lesbian woman telling a young girl that men are predators, and that a woman can protect her, only to become just as predatory as the men she’s warned the girl about.
Then again, maybe seeing things her way before she gets to grandma’s place isn’t referring to Red agreeing to have sex with the speaker. And here’s where the feminist reading kicks in.
Maybe the offer to escort her, keep her safe so she doesn’t get chased, is actually about ushering her through the time when she is a “little big girl,” vulnerable to society sexualizing her body. The speaker is then assuring her that she is not simply a sexual being – and maybe by the time she gets through these woods (adolescence? society in general?), she’ll understand that just because wolves chase her, that doesn’t mean that’s her identity.
Keeping her sheep suit on until Red knows she can be trusted might mean speaking and acting meekly as society has told Red a woman should. Ultimately, she can show Red that “even bad wolves can be good” – both that a vocal and angry feminist is not a bad thing, and also that “notallmen” – a full understanding of it all. “Grandma’s house” then refers to adulthood.
In this reading, the whole song is advocating for female mentorship of adolescent girls to both keep them safe in the moment and to teach them that society’s view of them (read: men’s sexualization of them) should not shape their own views of themselves, of sexuality, of men, of society.
Notably, Amanda Seyfried’s cover leaves out both the beginning howl of appreciation and the closing howl-to-bleat. The last lines in the original, before the howl-to-bleat, is a reminder that she’s everything a big bad wolf could want. The last lines in the cover is a repetition of “So until you get to grandma’s place / I think you ought to walk with me and be safe.” The male speaker reiterates the little big girl’s desirability; the female speaker reiterates the wish to keep the little big girl safe.
I love the Amanda Seyfried cover, despite its disturbing undertones. Partly because of its disturbing undertones. But mostly because within those disturbing undertones, I see the possibility for a really cool feminist reading of it.