For today’s blog, I’m tying my thoughts in with the #FolkloreThursday group on Twitter, something that I have come to love and look forward to every week!
I started on Wednesday night considering modern folklore and the stories and “urban” legends we began to see online—first with email forwards, then Facebook posts, then tweets, and then (for the most part) ads made to look like stories.
There is one I received my first year of college. Now, over 10 years later, it still crops up here and there, though I think most people now realize the threat is no longer as dangerous or deadly as it once was.
The story goes something like this:
A young college coed named Mary went on Spring Break with her friends. While partying on the beach the first night, she met a handsome stranger. They hooked up immediately and fell into bed together that night. For Mary, it didn’t seem like a one night stand. He called the next day, and came over every night that week. Mary thought she had fallen in love. The last day of her trip, the young man took Mary and her friends to the airport. He gave her a small box and told her not to open it until she got on the plane. Mary’s heart leapt for joy, believing that this Spring Break fling was now something real. Perhaps her gift would be an engagement ring! Before takeoff, Mary’s friends leaned over as she ripped off the paper and opened the box. Inside was a tiny gold casket. Inside the casket was a small slip of paper which read, “Welcome to the world of AIDS.”
Two things always strike me about this story when reading it now:
Live deep and suck out all the marrow out of life.
The story is a modern day retelling of Daisy Miller, the novella by Henry James of a beautiful American girl traveling throughout Europe. First in Switzerland and then in Rome, she risks her reputation by going about unchaperoned with various suitors at night. After one of these excursions, she becomes ill from “Roman Fever” and dies.
While reading Ellen Hopkins Crank with my Children’s Literature class this semester, I noticed a similar pattern. A girl on vacation meets a boy, has her first encounters with love, lust, and drugs, which lead to her almost ruin. She gives into temptation while vacationing. Away from her real life, her real home, her real problems, she becomes someone else entirely—Bree instead of plain Kristina.
The idea which is reinforced in all of these tales is that, for a woman, leaving your daily responsibilities and stepping outside the boundaries of your prescribed role will lead to ruin.
In truth, these narratives can be viewed as retellings or adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood. In the tale told today, Little Red Riding Hood wanders off the path prescribed by her mother. She ventures into the woods and speaks with a wolf. The wolf finds her destination first, eats her grandmother, and attempts to eat Little Red. Then, a hunter or woodcutter comes and saves the day. Sometimes this man is Red’s age (if she is a teenager). Sometimes, he is a father figure (if she is a child).
The earliest versions of this tale include two major differences:
That’s it. There is no father or love interest to save her. She veers off the path and dies.
Her punishment for having the fever is a casket. (Well, not really, since there are no remains, except perhaps a few small bones the wolf spits out, but you get the idea)
One of the only inversions of this pattern is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton. I hesitate to even discuss it here for those who have not read it. The tale is a brilliant feminist response to Henry James, and the entire Little Red Riding Hood paradigm. In it, the woman struck by “Spring Fever” while in Rome triumphs over her puritanical adversary by revealing just what joys that fever brought her. It is a story of shifting values and the differences between Victorian and Modern sensibilities.
I think that these folktales do demonstrate something about the way in which we view sex and women who have even the appearance of impropriety. For the most part, what I find interesting about this is that sex should not exist in this dichotomy of good vs. bad. And neither should those who have it or choose not to have it. For all the stories of girls getting AIDS on vacation, there are more girls mocked for not having sex on vacation—for being prudish and not letting go. They are judged and ruined socially just as much as Daisy was over 100 years ago for being bold and exploring Rome (and perhaps more) with a young man and no chaperon.
I think too that women can own their sexuality and become empowered without having sex outside marriage, or with multiple partners or with random hookups. People do not always talk about this. I sometimes think that women have been given a choice by society today: Be prudish and stick to the path of staying “pure,” getting married, and having children just like the good little girl and little woman society expects you to be… or be wanton, bold, and daring and hike “off trail” and do whatever you want.
People who hike off trail can be caught in quick sand or fall down cliffs. They can also have adventures that allow them to learn and grow. But going off the path does not require having multiple partners or experimenting. Women can be bold and claim their sexual power while exploring their lives, their careers, and their world in other ways.
So, my last thought would be this: If you feel as if you are fenced in like Little Red Riding Hood before her story begins—stuck at home baking bread for your grandma all day like a good little girl when all you want to do is go out and explore that big world…
You don’t have to rebel experimenting with alcohol or drugs or sex to stop being that perfect little Victorian doll on the shelf or that stereotypical 50s housewife. Female empowerment can mean sex, but it doesn’t have to. It can mean saying “No” when your employer asks you to take on one more project so that you can stop juggling and just breathe for a minute. Maybe for you, empowerment means that you stop be polite or a doormat and start being more assertive. Maybe it means dumping that boyfriend who cheats on you and never calls you, or asking out that special someone you've had your eye on. It could mena being honest with your parents about how they mistreated you as a child, or making time for that art/ music /dance /gym /whatever class you’ve always wanted to take, writing that book you’ve always wanted to write.
Follow your passion. Because I don’t think Red or Mary or Daisy wanted to go off with the wolf. I think they just wanted to have adventures. In the words of Thoreau, they, “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”