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17 Sages

shell pebble

Reversing Red Riding Hood & other radical acts

The Bloody Chamber - Helen Simpson, Angela Carter

I was expecting to be made very uncomfortable by Carter's best known work, but FAR from being a pornographic wallowing in sex and violence, I found the book to be a feast for my creative understanding. Gender and power relationships & structures, fantasy and folklore are explored from a critical feminist perspective in a series of tales that excavate, question and challenge the 'latent content' of traditional fairy tales, often by shifting and switching gender and power roles.

Some of these subversive tales are redemptive and centre on the breaking of binding enchantments. These liberations come at a cost, at times severely compromising. Carter refuses easy narratives of feminine sexuality, dominance and rebellion. The lush surface of delectable language, varying in tone throughout this collection, is a pleasure that sweetens the bitter pills Carter perspicaciously prescribes.

@FeministBC hosted a discussion on the book, to which I contributed, though re-reading I can now see my comments are a bit simplistic. It can be found on their blog here

In response to readers who found the amount of sexual content objectionable I wrote:

"I identify strongly with these comments – I consider myself asexual – but I think Carter is one of far too few writers who describe sex in a useful way. Greer’s classic ‘The Female Eunuch’ provides some laughable examples of ridiculously idealised sex in writing – and shows how they only serve to reinforce objectification of women.

I think the unpleasantness of Carter’s beasts and so on is really amusing as well as questioning the idealisation and challenging male dominance and power. Sex under patriarchy has this beastly subtext – isn’t that where victim-blaming and rapist-defending comes from? Boys will be boys – or, when one thinks about the behaviour involved, boys will be beasts…"


"When you say ‘Carter was writing to shock’ I agree, but I don’t think she does so just to sell books, but rather because she sees patriarchal culture in need of strong challenge: powerful weapons of disgust and discomfort. She ascribes agency in all the wrong places and makes us feel how uncomfortable that is – she wants us to ask why we are uncomfortable! I also agree that she has deliberately made it accessible to analysis – she wants people to be able to understand the questions and challenges she poses about the implicit power dynamic in fairytale and cultural norms."


"On Carter’s beasts with ref to sex, I personally feel that partly she is challenging what Greer characterises as the castration of women under patriarchy – women are objects of desire and have completely passive sexual organs while men feel (forgivably uncontrollable) lust etc. In contrast women’s ‘beastliness’ can be tender, as well as bold. But I don’t want to push the beast=sexuality line too far and read out all the nuance! I think Carter uses it, but light-heartedly and to hold up the trope for questioning."


"It seems to me that the original rescued Riding Hood is the one who submits (to the wolf and then the hero – she is powerless), whereas in this story Carter has her turn the power relationship around, but without a fight. This is radical feminism [in original sense, not the recently acquired one of trans-exclusion] really – changing the dynamic without resorting to the male method of coming to blows. We could have a neater reversal where she kills the wolf or escapes, but the communion that transforms both of them is more interesting, and we SHOULD be disturbed by it – we haven’t been permitted to see sex in this way, as communication, or hardly as something initiated by women’s desire, and when sex is permissible it’s in a safe environment with safe men, not wolves."

I am going to re-read this book at some point from a more enlightened position.....