Monday, May 3, 2010

Traversing a Landscape for New Femininity: Olga Broumas’ Little Red Ridinghood and Grimms’ Little Red Cap

Fairy tales are major contributers to cultural memory. Their various incarnations flesh out archetypes, transmit values, and provide morals across generations. Few people have not heard, read, or seen some version of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Little Red Ridinghood. Though their incredible ubiquity may tempt us to label them “timeless tales,” that would not be an accurate statement. Fairy tales themselves are constantly changing, as is their nature. While certain characters and basic plot structure have remained in tact, the real substance of the stories change with every new incarnation. At least that is how they started out. Fairy tales began with oral storytellers who shaped narratives according to their audience. In his essay entitled, “Breaking the Disney Spell,” renowned fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes recounts, “The tales came directly from common experiences and beliefs. Told in person, directly, face-to-face, they were altered as the beliefs and behaviors of the members of a particular group changed” (Zipes 22). The stories’ essences, their lessons and values, changed with every telling. This malleability made them inclusive to all, as storytellers could shape their material to fit their audience. Additionally, the fact that the stories were listened to rather than read from a page made them a communal experience. With the invention of the printing press and increased literacy, the fairy tale experience changed completely. Spoken folk tales became literary tales preserved on paper. In their written format, they became private experiences rather than communal, and they froze to static stories rather than malleable narratives. Literary tales also encouraged classism, as Zipes recounts, “. . . the genre of the literary fairy tale was institutionalized as an aesthetic and social means through which questions and issues of civilité, proper behavior and demeanor in all types of situations, were mapped out as narrative strategies for literary socialization” (Zipes 23). In printing, the tales lost what they originally were. However, printing was not a total curse, as it allowed for the tales’ preservation. The attitudes surround preservation, though, are another matter. So much focus may be put into preserving the “original,” that any attempt to rework them is often considered a violation. Zipes comments on this issue when he says:
There has always been a danger that the written word, in contrast to the spoken word, will fix a structure, image, metaphor, plot, and value as sacrosanct. For instance, for some people the Grimms’ fairy tales are holy, or fairy tales are considered holy and not to be touched. How did this notion emanate? To a certain extent it was engendered by the Grimm’s and other folklorists who believed that the fairy tales arose from the spirit of the fold. Yet, worship of the fairy tale as holy scripture is a petrification of the fairy tale that is connected to the establishment of correct speech, values, and power more than anything else (Zipes 26).
In other words, preserving the words on the page is not the same thing as preserving the fairy tales themselves. There is no such thing as an “original version” of a fairy tale. There is an original intent to telling them: addressing everyone rather than the few. By tackling fairy tales in her poems, Olga Broumas fosters this very attitude.

Broumas’ fairy tale poems spotlight particular, often ignored, meanings from the literary tales, changes those meanings entirely, or sometimes both. She takes up the mantle of the oral narrator by tailoring the narratives depending on the story she wishes to tell or the audience she wishes to address. In that way she is very true to the fairy tales’ original malleable nature. Also, adopting this practice breathes new, more contemporary, meanings into the static texts. As Zipes noted, the literary tales’ sacrosanctity has made the values they engender static along with the tales themselves. They have become antiquated. Broumas translates them to contemporary audiences. She also addresses audiences that the tales ignored. Speaking specifically of Little Red Ridinghood, Broumas spotlights the exclusivity of traditional notions regarding femininity.

Womanhood has traditionally been depicted in three stages: maid, mother, crone. Broumas’ Little Red Ridinghood takes that depiction and places it under a critical microscope. Using the Grimms’ literary tale, Little Red Cap, as a framing device, Broumas illuminates some complications with this depiction and with the scare tactics of the tale itself: womanhood, as it is traditionally understood, is ultimately male-centric rather than female-centric. The speaker begs for an understanding of womanhood that can accommodate women like herself, women who involve themselves with women rather than men. In order to fully inhabit femininity, a woman must live all three stages maid, mother, and crone. Without a man, though, a woman never passes the maiden stage. After all, becoming a mother is not a one-person game. Further, that male involvement must result in a child.  Broumas spotlights this oft forgotten figure involved in this depiction, and asks readers to consider their effect. They play an important role, as they fuel the cycle of womanhood, but this role essentially denigrates them to a product rather than an individual or a part of the life-cycle. By focusing much of the poem on birth, Broumas ponders babyhood and birth circumstance itself as a defining factor for femininity. Focus on birth is especially illuminating because Little Red Cap goes through the birth cycle during the course of her tale. Her depiction illuminates that the three-part femininity is inextricably linked to male sexuality, as it begins with sexual awakening rather than childhood. She asks us to consider how childhood and birth factor in. For the speaker, being delivered by a midwife rather than a doctor is a defining factor for her character. Little Red Cap experiences birth from a man and is delivered by a man, and is thus born a product for men. The speaker, on the other hand, is not tied to men in this way because she is guided to life by a woman, rather than pulled to life by a man. Though this frees her of being tied to male sexuality, it leaves her lost when it comes to understanding herself as a woman. She seeks an understanding that can she can fit into, for, according to traditional understanding, she is not fully a woman and can never be.

Broumas astutely points out that the traditional understanding of womanhood is defined more by men and children than women themselves. If a woman is to traverse the maid, mother, crone landscape, she requires a male guide and a child reward, else she is stuck in the maiden phase for her entire life. Being stuck in this place, she can never fully inhabit what it truly means to be a woman. Male involvement shall be discussed later. Attention, for now, is focused on the child. Broumas notes that the product of the maid, mother, crone trinity is often ignored. According to this prescription for femininity, giving birth to a child is a requisite part of being a woman. However, the significance the child holds is never elucidated. It is more a product than an affecting being. Interestingly, Broumas’ poem appears to be in the same line with that thinking. The child’s effect is only elucidated in one short section, 
. . . I have no daughter 
to trace that road, back to your lap with my laden 
basket of love . . .
Viewed in the light of this line, the child exists to connect the generations. When a maiden transitions to mother, her mother may transition to crone. As such, the child is the propellent. However, it is not given much more status or effect. Frankly, it arguably has more effect in absence than presence. While it is certainly important, it has a very ambiguous significance when it is present. After all, childhood is not even considered part of the woman’s depiction. It begins with maid, the time when a virginal woman becomes prepared for sexuality. The time leading up to that, though, and its significance is ignored. Broumas notes the flaw in this understanding by focusing on birth circumstance and how it may mould life circumstance. Birth by a woman symbolically ties the baby to one path, and birth by a man symbolically ties the baby to another. Significance of these ties will be elucidated later. Attention, for now, must be directed in Broumas’ questions about this stage in life. She proposes that birth and childhood play more of a role in determining a woman’s self-definition than it is generally portrayed. After all, by focusing the beginning of womanhood with sexual awakening, women are indelibly tied to sex -- and not much else. 

Broumas’s poem implies that men’s involvement in birth symbolically ties womanhood’s connection to male sexuality. She borrows this idea directly from the Grimms’ tale, as Little Red Cap is delivered by a huntsman from the male wolf. Little Red Cap thus goes through two births: one from a woman that determines she is a woman, and one from a man that determines her relationship with them. Though more obvious sexual content was expurgated by the Grimms in their documentation of the oral tradition, the sexual overtones implicit in this scenario remain: Little Red Cap is reborn for male “consumption.” Broumas emphasizes this point by embodying both the wolf and huntsman in the notably semen-colored doctor:

evading 
the white-clad doctor and his fancy claims:   microscope,
stethoscope, scalpel, all
the better to see with, to hear,
and to eat . . .

These lines are a clear reference to the wolf’s famous, “the better to...” lines. In giving the doctor the wolf persona, it implies that the male doctor has a kind of ownership over the baby, a desire to eventually “consume” it.  Interestingly, Broumas omits one of these lines from her poem:

“‘Oh, Grandmother, what big hands you have!’
‘The better to grab you with” (Grimm 95).

Broumas’ white-clad doctor uses forceps rather than hands to deliver the baby. When actually delivering the baby, the doctor is much more like the huntsman: very hands off. The huntsman essentially performs a c-section on the wolf:

He [the huntsman] took aim with his gun, and then it occurred to him that the wolf could have eaten the grandmother and that she could still be saved. So he did not shoot but took some scissors and started cutting open the sleeping wolf’s belly. After he made a couple of cuts, he saw the little red cap shining forth, and after he made a few more cuts, the girl jumped out and exclaimed, “Oh, how frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s body” (Grimm 95).

Note that the huntsman simply cuts, and Little Red Cap emerges on her own, so he does not have to be hands-on in the way the midwife is. Additionally, his silent assault on the wolf is incredibly forceful. Broumas’ use of the forceps carries similar forceful implications as the huntsman’s c-section.

. . . High forceps
might, in that one instant, have accomplished
what you and that good woman failed
in all these years to do:   cramp
me between the temple, hobble
my baby feet.

Broumas implies that the forceful forceps, though being very hands off, symbolically marks the baby for men. Notice that she says the forceps do what the midwife’s hands can not: hobble her feet. The word “hobble” has a couple definitions. The first means “to walk in an awkward way, typically because of pain from an injury” or “to cause a person or animal to limp.” The second definition is more telling to this poem: “tie or strap together the legs of a horse or other animal to prevent it from straying.” Initially, this use of “hobble” seems to affirm keeping the speaker on the proverbial path away from men. However, considering the consuming and owning characteristics of the doctor, it would be more accurate to say that he would have hobbled her to men. This is very in keeping with the spirit of the Grimms’ tale. The real message of the story is more about controlling the circumstances of male “consumption” rather than never straying from the path, as Broumas’ speaker does. A story point often ignored is what follows from Little Red Cap’s male birth: she knows how to deal with “wolves” after this and is able to outsmart one during another trip to grandmother’s house. This implies that straying from the path is necessary at some point in order to “become a woman” -- stray from the path with the right man under the right circumstances. In ending the story this way, Little Red Cap’s story is less about “protecting her shroud” and more about “mastering the wolf.” One must stray off the path at least once to do this.

The speakers birth at the hands of a midwife, rather than the forceps of a doctor, frees her from being branded as an object for male sexuality. She has a more say in her own making, as she comes out of her mother naturally guided by hands rather than pulled by instruments. Note that the speaker first recounts her emergence, rather than the midwife’s guidance:

. . . I slipped out like an arrow, but not before

the midwife
plunged to her wrist and guided
my baffled head to its first mark. . . .

Broumas’ choice of structure here puts more emphasis on the speaker’s autonomy rather than the midwife’s guidance. The speaker is self-determined in this manner of birth, and she would not be by a man’s delivery. Further, the woman’s hands free her from the mark of men, as there would be no indents from the forceps left on her. She is free to define herself for herself and as a woman rather than as a man’s possession.   The speaker recounts that she lives this path and never submits herself to men. This is evident when she says:

 . . . I kept

to the road, kept
the hood secret, kept what it sheathed more
secret still.    I opened
it only at night, and with other women
who might be walking the same road to their own
grandma’s house, each with her basket of gifts, her small hood
safe in the same part.

Broumas’ language implies that the hood is the speaker’s hymen and it is never broken by a man. The only people she exposes herself to are other women who also refuse to learn the lesson of Little Red Cap, who refuse to stray from the path and learn to tame the wolves. In this way, the speaker is completely autonomous to herself. The problem, though, is that she cannot inhabit womanhood in a way that the rest of society understands. As she is, she is incomplete.

I grow old, old

The speaker simply grows old, not into a crone, a wise woman, or a grandmother. She is simply old, and nothing more
.
without you, Mother, landscape
of my heart.

Though it sounds like the speaker tells of being apart from her mother, it speaks to a different mother. It speaks to the mother she never became. She has gone without that stage in life. The life’s landscape she was “supposed” to traverse has been broken, as illustrated by the enjambment between “landscape” and “of my heart.” She reiterates these lines near the poem’s end, but adds another element to her loss:

. . . I’m growing
old, old
without you.     Mother, landscape
of my heart, architect of my body . . .

She continues the same lines, but she adds, “architect of my body.” Not only did her mother build her body, but her body was built to be a mother. In being herself, she neglects a fundamental part of her being. She seeks to find a way to live this role and more definitely define her womanhood. This is especially apparent when she asks:

. . . what other gesture
can I conceive


to make with it
that would reach you . . .

She pleads for another way to understand herself and reach her womanhood in a more visceral way. In her plea, she tells us that women need a way to understand themselves based on themselves rather than others.

When Olga Broumas’ poem Little Red Ridinghood and the Brothers’ Grimm literary tale Little Red Cap are read together, they show that society lacks an understanding of womanhood than enables women to define themselves independently of others. Little Red Cap sets up the traditional progression from maid, to mother, to crone. The tale specifically deals with maidenhood’s definition: sexual awakening. Though often understood as a precautionary tale against men, close reading of Little Red Cap reveals that it calls for women to learn how to “tame” selected men rather than ward all of them off. Little Red Cap’s birth from the wolf by the huntsman’s delivery marks her for men. Broumas hones in on this story point and fleshes its symbolism out as well as the implications carried in that symbolism. Her vivid depiction of a male-doctor’s delivery by pulling the baby out with forceps ties the babies to male sexuality. Note that the doctor has qualities of the wolf, Little Red Cap’s depiction of male sexuality, and has characteristics of the huntsman, who delivers Little Red Cap in a very hands-off manner. This is starkly contrasted with the speaker’s actual birth. She is guided to life by the midwife’s hands, and she is able to emerge on her own accord rather than by force. In coming to life this way, she is not marked by men and nor hobbled to them. She has an autonomy and freedom from men. While this is certainly a gift, her involvement with women rather than men has kept her from ever fully inhabiting her womanhood in a way that society understands. In never having a child, she cannot progress through the cycle nor can she live out the function her body was built for. In being herself, she is less of a woman by traditional prescription. She yearns for a way to define her femininity, but she lacks a formula to do so. Hence, Broumas asks us to find one for her.

Works Cited
Broumas, Olga. “Little Red Ridinghood,” In Beginning with O. 67-68. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Little Red Cap.” In The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. 93-96. New York: Bantam Books, 2003.
Zipes, Jack. “Breaking the Disney Spell.” In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.

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