Disturbing the Fairy Tale in
The Company of Wolves
Lakkaya Palmer examines how The Company of Wolves subverts the conventions of the traditional fairytale…
‘So, when you tell the story of Red Riding Hood, remember this too:
Her mother told her
she could grow up to be
anything she wanted to be,
so she grew up to become
the strongest of the strong,
the strangest of the strange,
the wildest of the wild,
the wolf leading the wolves.’
Nikita Gill, Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul (p.29)
In traditional fairy tales, women and girls are usually helpless damsels in distress who are saved by the hands of a hypermasculine hero. The Company of Wolves features in a series of short stories by Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber (1979) – in which the gender dynamics of traditional fairy tales are challenged and subverted. Carter maintains that her stories are not simply feminist or ‘adult’ retellings, but rather she uses the inherent darkness of the original fairy tales to produce new, shocking stories which confront societal taboos. In Neil Jordan’s film adaptation The Company of Wolves (UK, Neil Jordan, 1984), Little Red Riding Hood is not just retold; it subverts the very foundations of the fairy tale tradition in the most fantastical of ways.
The patriarchal ideology of traditional fairy tales
Traditional fairy tales usually present a patriarchal worldview in which women should be seen and not heard. The tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm Brothers have been criticised by audiences for championing a vision of society in which women are portrayed as the weaker second sex, denied participation in the story’s heroic action. In tales such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, the princesses are submissive, passive, and confined to stereotypical gender roles: Snow White spends her time doing housework for men, Cinderella is limited to a life of domestic drudgery, and Princess Aurora is so feeble that she succumbs to a prick from a spindle and needs the Prince’s kiss to save her.
These women are dependent on ‘Prince Charming’ to save them – a well-rounded figure of hypermasculinity, royalty, and heroism to counter their comparable one-dimensionality. Fittingly, the threat in these stories is also usually female: all the princesses mentioned are held victim by evil surrogate-mother figures: Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, Queen Grimhilde in Snow White, and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. Fairy tale women, then, are either young, beautiful, and submissive – the trembling victim to be saved – or aged, haggard, and powerful – the malevolent tyrant to be conquered. As befits a patriarchal society, these stories suggest that the more intelligent these women are, the more obscene and evil they become.
Only A Prince’s Kiss Can Resurrect You: Redefining Female Sexuality
Women become monstrous and villainised once they acquire wisdom in the fairy tale tradition, but they also are prohibited to express their sexuality freely. In Snow White, The Frog Prince, and Sleeping Beauty, the women kiss or are kissed by a prince, and that is as close as we get to glimpse the princess’s ‘sexual’ nature. Relationships in these stories are heteronormative and chivalric to an almost medieval degree: maintaining the role of the virginal maiden is a priority as the princess often dares not speak of sex or sexual desire. The Company of Wolves is a red riding hood retelling that disturbs this completely as its protagonist, Rosaleen, displays traits of sexual desire. The motif of the colour red surrounding Rosaleen seems to imply that she is curious about her sexuality, as the colour red usually connotes sex and lust. In one such scene, Rosaleen applies red lipstick. As soon as she does this an egg cracks that contains a baby inside, suggesting a woman’s fertility – her ovaries, which, if fertilised, leads to pregnancy. This scene perhaps exposes Rosaleen’s desires to conceive a child herself, whether consciously or subconsciously.
In The Company of Wolves, once Rosaleen is with the antagonist of the story, the tempter of women- the wolf – she immediately burns her red shawl which could imply an abandonment of prepubescent life and infantile innocence. Bruno Bettelheim notes in The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) that Rosaleen makes no move to escape the wolf or fight him back, demonstrating that she wanted to be seduced by the wolf. In these episodes, Rosaleen repeatedly represents the woman who gave in to temptation or better known as the fallen woman, who illicitly seeks to express her desire.
Rosaleen’s grandmother tells her throughout the film not to stray from the path nor go into the woods or else she will be devoured by wolves. The use of the landscape of the forest is interesting as it is symbolic of desire: it is a wild, dark, and shrouded place full of mystery, drawing people into it. Once a woman enters the forest, she can become as wild and uncontainable as the forest itself. Therefore, Rosaleen’s grandmother’s warnings are a symbolic way of telling her, not to give in to sexual desire, not to give in to her wildness because men will ruin her innocence, they will ‘devour’ her. Sarah Seltzer notes in her essay, Fairy Tales and Female Sexuality, that Charles Perrault who popularised the Little Red Riding Hood story, explicitly stated that the story is a metaphor for women staying away from sex, or, in other words, not straying from societal norms. Whilst Rosaleen is constantly told not to stray from the path, as James Gracey notes, this only ‘arouses her vivid imagination’. The Company of Wolves subverts fairy tale traditions by giving Rosaleen a sexual imagination that desires and lusts for the wolf – a desire which she pursues through an equally wild landscape. However, Rosaleen’s desire is not merely presented as emancipating – it is also disturbingly bestial. It as though female sexual desire can only be imagined as a beastly, taboo and unnatural thing – a human-animal union. In The Company of Wolves, female sexuality is not permitted screen-time in a conventionally heteronormative (or even human) sense.
From Evil Stepmothers to Deviant Daughters: Redefining the Familial Unit
The Grandmother’s warning of not straying far from the path is a reoccurring phrase within the film. Rosaleen’s grandmother really cares about her safety and wellbeing and does not want her to stray into the path of adulthood too early. This disturbs the traditional fairytale trope in many ways because fairy tales often foreground an anti-maternal monstrous mother figure. The fairy tale splits the mother into two: the wicked stepmother, who does not care, and the superhuman mother (sometimes the fairy godmother), who typically nurtures. The two subspecies often combine, as evident in narratives such as Cinderella, where a stepmother’s wickedness facilitates a fairy godmother to save Cinderella from that misery. Rosaleen, however, has a loving family who constantly offers advice and encouragement. Rather than her family being figurations of the monstrous, in this film, Rosaleen shows monstrosity towards her family, demonstrated most explicitly when Rosaleen dreams that she murders her sister, Alice.
Rockett and Rockett state in Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries (2003), that when Rosaleen killed Alice in her dream, she effectively removes the first obstacle to her own maturation and sexual fulfilment as there would be no female competition around to also fight for the wolf’s affections. In killing Alice, Rosaleen gives into her unconscious dark desires, which awakens her from innocence to a figure more sinister. Her monstrousness toward her family is also shown by her constant defiance of them – she does everything they tell her not to.
Rosaleen’s mother and grandmother want the best for her, but there is an obvious conflict between doing what you like and what you have been told to do – a conflict between reality and pleasure-seeking. The wilderness is far more attractive to Rosaleen than the familial domestic space, which could be a reason why she does not want to abide by the rules of the household. Rosaleen’s attraction to the wilderness is shown once more in her defiance of her grandmother’s words: ‘never trust a man whose eyebrows meet.’ When Rosaleen comes across the handsome young man in the woods, she is tempted by him against her grandmother’s wishes.
Rosaleen prioritises her own desires against those of her family’s. This is evidenced when the wolf arrives at her grandmother’s house, who asks what he did with Rosaleen, and the wolf replies ‘nothing she did not want.’ Granny cares for Rosaleen, but Rosaleen’s sinister side gave way to the wolf, leading him to her grandmother’s house and facilitating her demise. Her family were not cruel, but Rosaleen’s desires to kill her sister and the fact she was the unintentional reason for her grandmother’s death, transformed both the tale and the protagonist herself.
The Likeness of Woman and Wolf: The Rise of Empowered Women
It seems that all women featured in the film are empowered in some sense. This is unusual for the horror genre, particularly as Molly Haskell notes in From Reverence to Rape, women are often excluded from such adventurous and dangerous narratives. But Rosaleen is the protagonist of her own adventure through the woods. She is not a passive victim, but an adolescent girl who is exploring her sexuality. Rosaleen’s character arc of her transition from a young girl to a wolf in the film’s ending signifies her feminine empowerment and emancipation from the fairy tale heroines of old. She does not need a prince’s kiss to transform her, she does not need a woodcutter to save her – the princess saves herself in this one. She does not fear the encounter with the wolf but rather embodies the wolf herself. Even the film’s ‘minor’ female characters seem to hold unprecedented amounts of power. Rosaleen’s mother states, ‘if there’s a wolf in men, it meets its match in women too’, suggesting that women can be just as beastly and animalistic as men. The power women hold can be shown in Rosaleen grandmother’s story, in which a woman snubbed from a wedding turned the entire wedding congregation into wolves.
The powerful image shows the transformation of the guests into a pack of wolves or, rather, a company of wolves. There are clear links between femininity and the metamorphosis into a wolf. In the original Little Red Riding Hood story, the animalistic ‘macho’ masculine character is the woodcutter who saves Red from the cruelties of the wolf. However, in the twisted retelling, once Rosaleen gives in to the previously unconscious animalistic desire, she leaves the life of subscribed gender roles behind her, finally being able to run free, to run wild. The nature of the wolf seems to chime within the essence of being female. Both woman and wolf are capable of transformations. Wolves in this story can transform under a full moon and for women, their bodies are always going undergoing change: birth, menstruation, menopause, and puberty. The wolf in the story can be read as representing the terrors of puberty. This can be deduced by the sudden development of excess body hair and uncontainable impulses. Rosaleen’s journey through the overgrown forest represents her going through puberty: she enters a young innocent but returns out of the forest a wolf, and transforms from a child to a sexually awakened, independent adult. The protagonist’s puberty results in her sexual awakening and departure from the stereotypical unblemished princess.
Red Riding Hood all grown up: A Final Walk Through the Woods
The Company of Wolves empowers female characters, giving them a voice that has long been suppressed under the authority of a patriarchal society. The film gives Rosaleen a sexual consciousness: her desires are foregrounded throughout the film, and her seducer, the wolf, functions as the epitome of male sexuality. The representation of family is subverted, as Rosaleen disobeys their advice, giving in to the pleasure principle and unintentionally causing the death of a grandmother that was restricting her geographical and female liberty. This gives power to the protagonist, transforming her into an individual who is more aware of life’s harsh experiences. The film showcases Rosaleen’s gendered and existential journey from an innocent into a sexually awakened adolescent. Despite her troublesome journey through the forest, she emerges a stronger individual, utterly empowered. Not only is she awarded a physical resilience through her beast-like transformation, but she is also gifted with the intellectual superiority of man, as a cunning wolf.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books, 1989.
Gracey, James. The Company of Wolves (Devil’s Advocate). Columbia University Press, 2017.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. New English Library, 1974.
Rockett Emer and Rockett, Kevin. Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries. Liffey Press, 2003.
Seltzer, Sarah. Fairy Tales and Female Sexuality
https://rewirenewsgroup.com/article/2011/03/14/fairy-tale-female-sexuality/ [accessed 22/06/2021]