Jenny's Library

The Problem with Sisters Red

Posted on: March 27, 2013

“Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.”

– from Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault

Little Red Riding Hood by Gustave Dore

I picked up Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce, with the expectation that a story about two Little Red Riding Hoods as wolf hunters would turn the traditional tail on its head.  Alas, I was greatly disappointed.

While it’s true that the plot veers wildly from the classic tale, and neither Scarlett nor Rosie are the helpless little girl that normally dons the red cape, the underlying assumptions and arguments of the Little Red Riding Hood we grew up with are never questioned.  Sisters Red is a retelling and not at all a deconstruction, and therein lies its problem and many of its flaws.

“I’m not worried,” I answer, unable to suppress a sly grin. “I’m not that kind of girl.”

The story begins with younger versions of the sisters pointing a wolf the way to their grandmother’s house. Deviating from the classic tale, the girls escape – and manage this without the help of a woodsman.  Partly through being observant and quick thinking, and with much help from their grandmother’s self-sacrifice, but also through the unlikely probability of Scarlett defeating a grown werewolf in combat.  Thus setting Scarlett and Rosie on the path of becoming wolf hunters.  Yet, this twist isn’t entirely an improvement; where previous versions of the story present us with children that are meant to represent any little girl, Pearce’s Sisters Red are Exceptional Women who know things and have skills that normal girls do not.  Unlike the paths previous Little Red Riding Hoods have gone down, this isn’t a direction that other girls can easily follow.

There’s nothing like a lost teenage girl on the bad side of town to get their blood pumping.

Time and again, from the sisters first encounter with a wolf all the way up to the last victims shown in the book, the basic idea that wolves hunt pretty young girls, and that these girls’ innocence, foolishness, and femininity is what makes them both vulnerable and desirable to the wolves, is repeated and reinforced. At no point are the wolves ever female, at no point are their victims ever male or – aside from granny – not young and pretty.  And at no point is the wolves prey not described in a way that mimics how we talk about sexual assault.

They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyelashes at the club’s bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off.

The combination of these two aspects of the novel – the exceptional nature of the girls chosen path plus the sexualized nature of the wolves choice in prey – is where the lack of any sort of adult figure becomes a major flaw rather than just a typical trope in young adult literature.  Scarlett’s defeat of the wolf at the start of the story, and her subsequent choice to spend her life hunting wolves, is framed as a rejection of the gendered morality in the traditional tale.  Yet there is no actual person or institution for her to revolt against in order to generate this tension within the actual plot, leaving a narrative gap that must be filled.  In its place, the difference between herself and normal girls is highlighted.

“It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it? [Silas] asks pointedly. “Can I tell you how glad I am that you and Rosie aren’t like them?”

Little Red Riding Hood on the pathThe insidiousness of the most talked about passage from Sisters Red is not even so much that Scarlett and Silas blame the girls* for being so tempting to the wolves, but rather the way that it reinforces our perception of Scarlett as an Exceptional Woman.  The limited range of ways to be female that are presented in the text means that Scarlett defies the restrictions of her gender rather than demonstrating the fullness of its possibilities.  Her dedication is not something that most other women could hope to achieve and her method of dealing with the wolves is the only option presented.  There is no Willow here, wielding magic at Buffy’s side – nor other potentials waiting in the wings; there’s just Scarlett and Rosie and their axes.

At various points during the story it looks as though the younger sister may be poised to break out of this mold.  A huge part of Rosie finding her own path involves interacting with people other than Scarlett or Silas via taking various classes at a community center, an experience that leads to her finding herself in a very classic coming of age way.  There was a possibility here for her to not just reject following in Scarlett’s footsteps, but of finding an entirely different method of honoring their grandmother’s sacrifice.  One that is truly revolutionary and very different from the individualistic compromise between black and white that she ends up deciding on.  Instead, these moments are fleeting and much of her angst centers on the tension between being accepting Silas’ romantic love and making her sister proud.  Again reinforcing the idea that the girls may only choose between being Scarlett or being normal, not from a multitude of colors and possibilities.

“The Fenris stare at her lustfully. Jealousy stirs in my stomach again, but I force it back down.”

There have been a lot of protests on the interwebs against people asserting that this construction reinforces rape culture. Some claim that was never the intent and that any reading that talks about rape is bringing something extra to the book that isn’t there to begin with.  Which would be all well and good if this wasn’t a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood – a story that has been about reinforcing rape culture ever since Perrault got his hands on it. Any retelling that borrows heavily from his version, directly or not, must address and reject the rape myths he presents if it wants to not perpetuate them.  The question is not if Sisters Red says anything about rape culture, but rather what it says about it.

screencap from Hard Candy

Pearce’s novel does make a rather interesting failure though.  We have every reason to believe the author about her intent but that doesn’t change the actual result.  How does this happen then? More importantly, how does one avoid it?  I think the trick lies in not buying into the default male point of view that we have inherited from Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, among others.  We are so steeped in the male gaze that it’s often hard to impossible to think outside of it or even recognize when we are using its assumptions as our framework. Like the many anthropologists who have assumed that any Ice Age depictions of women were meant for men, the idea that the wolves might target girls for reasons other than sexual allure never seems to occur to Pearce or her characters.

Little Red Riding Hood

To break out of this mindset there need to be options other than hunter or prey, and these two roles need to not follow so starkly along gender lines – especially with regards to who is prey and why.  While women’s physical strength deserves more attention and honor than it often gets, one can’t fight rape culture by arguing that women are capable of fighting back, however true that may be.  That still places the responsibility on women, makes them the enforcers of men’s morality, and creates a framework that encourages victims to second guess their own actions rather than seek help.  Somewhere there needs to be the argument that men are capable of stopping themselves, that they should do so, and that violence is merely one method of fighting back.

*Let’s get one thing straight: any narrative that argues that rape happens because of the lust women inspire in men is blaming the victim.  (And yes, this mindset is argued by the text overall, not just that one conversation.)  This concept perpetuates the myth that rape is about lust and not control/power/punishment/entitlement, obscures the reality of how most rapists choose their victims, and implies that rape can be prevented by women being less alluring.

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1 Response to "The Problem with Sisters Red"

[…] to The Book Smugglers – and Kate Elliott and Liz Bourke – for retweeting the link to my Sisters Red post!) I realized I ought to point readers in the direction of some of the posts that got me thinking […]

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