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“This Is What It Means to Be a Wolf”: Monstrosity and Gender in ABC’s Once Upon a Time and Marie de France’s “Bisclavret”

Winner: Walden Prize for Outstanding Graduate Student Paper1

ABC’s hit show Once Upon a Time (ABC, 2011-2018) is known for its re-writing of popular fairytales. Snow White is reimagined as a bandit, Rumpelstiltskin is conflated with Belle’s “Beast,” and The Evil Queen Regina’s mother is the Queen of Hearts. However, one of the characters who gets the most exciting re-imaginings is Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH). In Episode 15 of Season 1, it is revealed that the character Ruby (or LRRH) is, in fact, a werewolf.2 Rather than being threatened by an external monster should she “stray from the path,” Ruby is beset by an internal monstrosity – one that she does not gain control over until much later in her narrative. She’s actually ignorant of her werewolf identity for most of her life, since she can’t remember what she did when she wakes up, and as a result accidentally tears her “true love,” Peter, to shreds one night. Her transformation from human to monstrous wolf is prevented only by her enchanted red hood. Throughout Ruby’s storyline, different groups of people (namely, her jaded human Granny and her vengeful werewolf mother) try to force her to choose a side of her identity – either human, or werewolf. However, both sides ultimately demand violence in order to reinforce the dichotomy between them, and so Ruby rejects this binary view of her hybridity, and (in Episode 7 of Season 2) embraces both sides of herself. It is this act of embracing her hybrid “monstrous” identity that allows her to have control over her wolf form. Thus, Ruby, rather than being a naïve young girl who is taught to stay on the path and away from the dangerous boundaries, is instead reimagined in Once Upon a Time as a werewolf who chooses to reside on that dangerous boundary, and embrace her marginal identity as hybrid monster.

This re-imagining of LRRH is distinctly medieval in connotation. While the “earlier oral versions of the tale in France” do allow for such an interpretation (since the wolf in these oral versions “was referred to as the bzou which means werewolf”),3Once Upon a Time’s LRRH finds its most salient comparison, not in the original fairytales, but in medieval literature – particularly in Marie de France’s “Bisclavret.” Bisclavret’s transformation from monster to man is also dependent on his clothing. He says to his wife that “if I were to lose them [his clothes], / and then be discovered, / I’d stay a werewolf forever. / I’d be helpless / until I got them back” (lines 73-7).4 Ruby is left similarly helpless without her red hood. Additionally, both Ruby’s and Bisclavret’s societies seem determined to regulate them to one side of the binary. Just as Biscalvret’s clothes are hidden from him by his treacherous wife, in Episode 7 of Season 2 Ruby is framed for murder, and has her cloak hidden from her by the treacherous King Leopold so she can’t change back into her human form.5 Thus, Ruby’s narrative constructs a societal definition of monstrosity similar to that in Marie’s lai. While perhaps not deliberate on the part of the show’s writers, this reconstruction of a distinctly medieval narrative is evidence of a modern desire for the kind of hybridity which medieval texts articulate through figures like Bisclavret. Ultimately, the Ruby storyline in Once Upon a Time utilizes medieval conceptions of monstrosity in order to articulate modern concerns about marginal identities, particularly those characterized as “monstrous” by society.

The “Little Red Riding Hood” story as we know it began as an oral folk tale, a genre that is extremely concerned with defining and reinforcing social codes, and expressing these codes through violent moments of external regulation. The two main “traditional” versions of the tale come from Charles Perrault (the author of The Tales of Mother Goose) and The Brothers Grimm. Perrault “published the first written version” in 1697 after encountering the “many oral variants” of the tale told by European mothers.6 His version ends abruptly when the wolf eats LRRH, and posits itself as a moral tale to reprimand young girls for violating social norms. In case there was any doubt about the moral, he ends his tale with an explicit articulation of it:

Young children, as this tale will show, And mainly pretty girls with charm, Do wrong and often come to harm In letting those they do not know Stay talking to them when they meet. And if they don’t do as they ought, It’s no surprise that some are caught By wolves who take them off to eat.7

The wolf, in Perrault’s version, is the socially sanctioned regulatory force, there to catch and eat all “young children” who “do wrong,” but “mainly pretty girls with charm” who “don’t do as they ought” (emphasis added). The wolf is presented as the unsurprising, natural consequence of LRRH’s physical, feminine disobedience.

Then, over a century later, the Brothers Grimm wrote their (perhaps more well-known) version of the tale, introducing the huntsman who saves LRRH and Granny, and shifting the tale from reprimanding LRRH to warning her about the dangerous, corrupting nature of “wild” sensuality and the secular world. Both versions of the tale utilize the monster as an external regulatory force to represent social codes. Thus, as Laurence Talairach-Vielmas argues, fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” “emphasize the idea that reality is legible,” implying that “the world is made up of codes, which little girls must learn to crack.”8 Talairach-Vielmas explains that rewritings of LRRH throughout the Victorian period continued to advocate for regulating the dangerous potential of the sexualized female body. She states that “Victorian Red Riding Hoods were frequently turned into fashion addicts indulging in their own image the better to seduce – even if sometimes innocently – hungry wolves.”9 Victorian rewritings of the tale “revolve around the dangers of appearances,”10 and as a result “highlight the taming of the body and the restraining of natural instincts, since a little girl is punished for indulging in sensuality.”11 Thus, in the traditional oral and written versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” cultural codes are made external, violent, monstrous forces which in turn regulate the problematic female body.

Ruby, however, refuses to follow this model. Instead, the show’s writers take the external, regulatory wolf setup in the original “Little Red Riding Hood,” and rearticulate him in a modern setting as an internal monstrosity. Rather than serving to regulate LRRH and prohibit certain behavior, Ruby’s werewolf identity instead demands that she accept that which is monstrous within herself. As a werewolf, Ruby exists on the boundary of the “monstrous” and the “human,” and is on the margins of society not because of her regulatory force, but because she is suspended in a liminal space between the citizen and the outcast, the normative and the monstrous. In his book Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Jeffery Jerome Cohen defines monstrosity as an “ontological liminality,” and claims that the monstrous is produced by cultural fear.12 Cohen states that “the monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy.”13 The monster is liminal because “the monster is continually linked to forbidden practices, in order to normalize and to enforce” – however, by virtue of its forbidden-ness, “the monster also attracts”; thus, according to Cohen, “the fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.”14 This forbidden/attractive dichotomy definitely applies to Perrault’s wolf – however, Ruby’s articulation of her monstrosity is one that, rather than utilizing this dichotomy in order to regulate a social boundary, attempts instead to deconstruct the dichotomy completely, expressing a monstrosity that is distinctly liminal, and almost indifferent to the human/monster boundary. She is a new being, neither monster nor human, but somehow both simultaneously, and so she represents a forbidden, attractive, nigh impossible straddling of binaries.

That is not to say that Ruby’s society doesn’t try to enforce the binary on her. Both Granny and Ruby’s werewolf mother actually ascribe to a binary definition of monstrosity similar to that in Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” – to Granny, the werewolf is something to be feared, and to Ruby’s mother, the werewolf is a violent, vengeful force with the responsibility to regulate human behavior. While Ruby’s mother resists the label of “monster,” she recognizes the marginality of monstrous identities, saying to Ruby “humans want us to believe we are the monsters. As soon as you believe them that’s when you become one.”15 However, “as idealized differences, these categories” of monster and human “need to be produced and stabilized repeatedly: the only way to maintain such separation is through more violence.”16

Throughout her narrative, Ruby experiences both sides of this binary. At first, when Ruby is living with her Granny, she is taught to fear her own monstrosity, and is ashamed of the wolf within her. At the same time, she is incapable of being regulated completely to the human side – when she is ignorant of her werewolf side, she repeatedly neglects to wear her enchanted hood, and after she learns of her identity, she lives in constant fear that it will be taken from her. Ashamed and afraid of her own monstrosity, she regulates herself to the margins of society and runs away to live in the woods alone. It is here that she meets her mother and a pack of other werewolves, and begins to learn to accept and control the “wolf” (she says to Snow White “I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am here”). However, her mother demands that she let go of her human self entirely, telling her to get rid of her enchanted hood, abandon society, and (ultimately) kill humans in order to prove her loyalty to the pack. Ruby’s mother accepts the nature of the wolf as regulatory violence. Thus, Ruby also rejects this side of the binary. When Snow White discovers their den, Ruby’s Mother demands that she kill her friend, saying that “this is what it means to be a wolf” – to be in constant conflict with humans, to be a constant violent force. When, instead of killing Snow White, Ruby attacks her mother to save Snow’s life, her mother murmurs with her dying breath, “you chose her” to which Ruby replies over the body of her dying mother: “No, I chose me. I am not a killer.”17

Thus, Ruby ultimately rejects the human/monster binary entirely. She represents something that is not easily categorized, and rather than to be regulated to the margins, she accepts both sides of herself. After Ruby and Snow White escape from the werewolf den, Ruby turns to Snow White and says: “Mom wanted me to choose. So did Granny. You were the only one who thought it was okay for me to be both.”18 She doesn’t have a home in either world, wolf or human, and rather than try to fit on one side or the other, she chooses instead to straddle the boundary between them, serving as Snow White’s best friend and bodyguard. Thus, just like Cohen’s monsters, “by refusing an easy compartmentalization of their monstrous contents” Ruby “demand[s] a radical rethinking of boundary and normality.”19 Cynthia Jones calls this straddling of boundaries the “notion of choosing to just be.”20 In her essay “Little Red Riding Hood: Transition from Victim to Villain,” Jones observes that, in more modern renditions and rewritings of the tale, LRRH is most often neither the victim nor the villain of the story; instead, “the little girl and the wolf are no longer at two opposite sides of a dialectic but rather choose to exist on the same plane … She embraces her animal instincts [but also] remains as she is” so that the girl and the wolf, the human and the monster, exist in “a boundary free relationship, where one flows freely into the other.”21 She accepts herself and finds her own identity, not by rejecting the wolf part of her or by forgetting her humanity, but by utilizing her wolf form to help Snow White.

This indifference to her own monstrosity that Ruby ultimately achieves is very similar to the attitude Bisclavret has towards his identity as a werewolf. Although Marie de France describes the werewolf as “a savage beast” that “eats men, does much harm” and “goes deep in the forest to live” (lines 9-12), Bisclavret himself does not seem to be “savage,” or regulated to the margins of society in this way.22 In fact, he seems very happy in his hybrid life: he is a knight to the king, lives with his beautiful wife, and “during the week he would be missing for three whole days,” simply going into the woods while in his wolf form and living off of “prey” that he hunts there (line 25-6).23 Cohen, in his essay about Bisclavret “The Werewolf’s Indifference,” observes that, as opposed to the Victorian folk tale which relied on the tortured conflict between human and wolf, “medieval literature … describes werewolves cheerful in their composite ‘bodies.’”24 As can be seen by her betrayal and her attempt to regulate him to his human form, it is Bisclavret’s wife that is concerned and discontent with this life, not Bisclavret himself; Bisclavret seems perfectly comfortable being in his wolf form. Indeed, similarly to Ruby, who learns to love what it feels like to “run” as a wolf, for Bisclavret, “time in the forest vivifies.”25 Cohen ultimately argues that Bisclavret is completely indifferent to the distinction between his wolf form and human form, since he can achieve a similar social standing in either body. As Cohen states:

Bisclavret in his wolf body earns the king’s affection through an act of submission, kissing the monarch’s stirrup and making his readiness to serve visually evident. Well-fed and watered, full of proper submission but also ready to unleash proper violence, he is at once like a favorite hunting dog and like a good household knight. He learns the equivalence between two forms that seemed mutually exclusive, learns their indifference.26

This indifference can be observed in the scene when Bisclavret is finally reunited with his clothes (clothes that, like Ruby’s enchanted hood, would return him to his human form). The poem reads:

The king demanded the clothes; …and had them brought to Bisclavret. When they were put down in front of him he didn’t even seem to notice them. (lines 275-280)27

Bisclavret doesn’t even notice that his clothes have been brought back to him. Rather than rushing to change and rejecting his wolf form, or spurning the clothes and rejecting his humanity, Bisclavret is simply so indifferent to his form that he does not realize the clothes are there. Thus, Bisclavret and Ruby both “learn the equivalence between two forms that seem mutually exclusive” – they both straddle their hybrid nature by being completely indifferent to the “monstrous” binary that seeks to regulate them and their bodies.

But why would a show that takes so many other avenues for adaptation evoke this medieval narrative at all? What is it about this medieval werewolf that finds such relevance in a modern narrative? Ruby’s storyline, by evoking this medieval past, is, by definition, an act of medievalism. According to Tison Pugh and Angela Weisl in their book Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present, medievalisms, “in their simplest sense,” are any aspects of art or culture that “turn to the Middle Ages for their subject matter or inspiration, and in doing so, explicitly or implicitly, by comparison or by contrast, comment on the artist’s contemporary sociocultural milieu.”28 Since medievalisms are wrought with a “sense of nostalgia for a lost past,” they ultimately reveal “a sense of discontentment with the present.”29 According to Pugh and Weisl, medievalisms “invite us both to explore and to ignore history, to create a magical Middle Ages reflective of our unique desires, building our very selves through a relationship with history that is simultaneously the past and the magical past that we wish it might have been. In making the past, we make the present, and thus remake the meaning of both.”30 By “remaking” a past narrative, Ruby’s storyline reveals modern discontents, anxieties, and desires about monstrosity and identity, gender and sexuality, and through this “remade past,” her story manages to rearticulate the present in a way that addresses these modern concerns.

Through Ruby’s rejection of binary definitions and learned self-acceptance, Once Upon A Time articulates a modern desire for hybrid identities and hybrid communities. In the conclusion of his introduction to Monster Theory, Cohen observes that monsters “ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression. They ask us why we have created them.”31 This is the question that Ruby asks. She knows what it means to be a wolf, but rather than accepting this monstrosity, Ruby asks why she has been created this way, and by doing so, challenges the very definition of monstrosity itself. “By revealing that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential,”32 Ruby invites viewers to reevaluate the social codes that create this difference. Her ability to cross back and forth on the human/monster divide allows her to transgress other social codes, particularly those having to do with gender and sexuality. Unsurprisingly, Ruby is the character who dresses the most provocatively, and is one of the most hypersexualized fairytale characters in Storybrooke. She is also (until very recently) the only canon queer character in the series. The werewolf identity that Ruby embodies is made almost synonymous with other forms of social exile, and through this conflation the show perhaps expresses a desire for a hybrid community that might encompass this variety of marginalized identities. This is a desire that Ruby certainly expresses. In Season 5, Ruby leaves Storybrooke (because, as she says to Snow, “I wanna find more people like me”) and goes to Oz to search for community – however, instead of finding a pack of werewolves, she finds her “true love,” Dorothy. Although Dorothy is not a werewolf, Ruby sees that Dorothy is “like her,” saying “I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong anywhere.”33 Thus, the distinctions between monster and human are done away with, and a new, hybrid “happily ever after” is articulated. Ultimately, Ruby expresses a desire for marginal identities to no longer be constructed as marginal, and challenges the audience – challenges us – to realize that these marginal, monstrous identities, and the communities which reject them, could be “constructed otherwise.”34

Bibliography

Antonelli, Emanuele. “Little Red Riding Hood: Victimage in Folktales and Cinema—A Case Study.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, no. 1 (2015): 107-32. doi:10.14321/contagion.22.1.0107.

Once Upon a Time, season 2 episode 7, “Child of the Moon,” directed by Anthony Hemingway, aired November 11, 2012 on ABC.

Once Upon a Time, season 1 episode 15, “Red-Handed,” directed by Ron Underwood, aired March 11, 2012 on ABC.

Once Upon a Time, season 5 episode 18, “Ruby Slippers,” directed by Eriq La Salle, aired April 17, 2016 on ABC.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “The Werewolf’s Indifference.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol 34 (2012): 351-6.

Jones, Cynthia. “Little Red Riding Hood: Transition from Victim to Villain” in Villains and Villainy: Embodiments of Evil in Literature, Popular Culture and Media, ed. Anna Fahraeus and Dikmen Yakalı Çamoğlu. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011, pp. 93-106.

Marie de France. “Bisclavret.” The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. Ada: Baker Books, 1995, pp. 92-104.

Perrault, Charles. “Little Red Riding-Hood” in The Complete Fairy Tales, trans. Christopher Betts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 99-103.

Pugh, Tison and Angela Jane Weisl. Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. “Rewriting ‘Little Red Riding Hood’: Victorian Fairy Tales and Mass-Visual Culture.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 33, no. 3 (2009): 259-81.

Notes


  1. Miranda Hajduk received the 2017 Daniel Walden Prize for Outstanding Graduate Student for her presentation of this paper at the MAPACA conference. ↩︎

  2. Once Upon a Time, season 1 episode 15, “Red-Handed,” directed by Ron Underwood, aired March 11, 2012 on ABC. ↩︎

  3. Jones, Cynthia. “Little Red Riding Hood: Transition from Victim to Villain” in Villains and Villainy: Embodiments of Evil in Literature, Popular Culture and Media, ed. Anna Fahraeus and Dikmen Yakalı Çamoğlu (Rodopi, 2011), 94. ↩︎

  4. Marie de France. “Bisclavret.” The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante (Baker Books, 1995), 94. ↩︎

  5. Once Upon a Time, season 2 episode 7, “Child of the Moon,” directed by Anthony Hemingway, aired November 11, 2012 on ABC. ↩︎

  6. Antonelli, Emanuele. “Little Red Riding Hood: Victimage in Folktales and Cinema—A Case Study.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, no. 1 (2015), 107. ↩︎

  7. Perrault, Charles. “Little Red Riding-Hood.” The Complete Fairy Tales, trans. Christopher Betts. (Oxford University Press, 2009), 103. ↩︎

  8. Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. “Rewriting ‘Little Red Riding Hood’: Victorian Fairy Tales and Mass-Visual Culture.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 33, no. 3 (2009), 269. ↩︎

  9. Talairach-Vielmas, 260. ↩︎

  10. Talairach-Vielmas, 274. ↩︎

  11. Talairach-Vielmas, 260. ↩︎

  12. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 6. ↩︎

  13. Cohen, 4. ↩︎

  14. Cohen, 16. ↩︎

  15. S2 E7, “Child of the Moon.” ↩︎

  16. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “The Werewolf’s Indifference.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol 34 (2012), 352. ↩︎

  17. S2 E7, “Child of the Moon.” ↩︎

  18. S2 E7, “Child of the Moon.” ↩︎

  19. Cohen, Monster Theory, 6. ↩︎

  20. Jones, 101. ↩︎

  21. Jones, 101. ↩︎

  22. Marie de France, 92. ↩︎

  23. Marie de France, 92. ↩︎

  24. Cohen, “Werewolf,” 352, emphasis in original. ↩︎

  25. Cohen, “Werewolf,” 354. ↩︎

  26. Cohen, “Werewolf,” 356. ↩︎

  27. Marie de France, 112. ↩︎

  28. Pugh, Tison and Angela Jane Weisl. Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present. (Routledge, 2013), 1. ↩︎

  29. Pugh and Weisl, 2. ↩︎

  30. Pugh and Weisl, 10. ↩︎

  31. Cohen, Monster Theory, 20. ↩︎

  32. Cohen, Monster Theory, 20. ↩︎

  33. Once Upon a Time, season 5 episode 18, “Ruby Slippers,” directed by Eriq La Salle, aired April 17, 2016 on ABC. ↩︎

  34. Cohen, Monster Theory, 12. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Miranda Hajduk is a PhD student in English Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY, an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University, and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College. Miranda specializes in late medieval poetry and medical history, and her scholarship interrogates medieval bodies through the lens of disability studies, post-humanism, and queer theory. She received her MA in 2016 from Seton Hall University, where she wrote her thesis on the Wife of Bath’s deafness.

Volume 4, Issue 1

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