Fairy tale retellings are nothing new. Countless original—and not-so-original—renditions of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood have graced literature and film for decades. Some industrious souls have even tossed characters from different fairy tales into the same story. If one retelling is good, more must be better! Rooster Teeth’s animated series RWBY originates from this last tradition.
At first glance, RWBY takes a familiar approach to tackling a familiar premise. A kick-butt team of appealing fairy tale heroines who fight monsters? Check. Anime-influenced character designs featuring lolita-style dresses and cat ears? Check. Subversions such as gender-flipping notable figures from mythology and folklore? Double-check.
Truth be told, the concept starts RWBY off on a shaky note. From Journey to the West to The Wizard of Oz, no source canon is safe. The nyan cat meme even finds a place in the show as Neon Katt!
Are the creators playing “spot the reference” with viewers? Are they patting themselves on the back for being so clever? No matter the motivation, the initial impression is disjointed rather than cohesive.
The kitchen sink approach doesn’t end with the references either. While I personally appreciate RWBY’s efforts to diversify its cast of characters and cultures, the results can be mixed. I won’t lie; I was extremely confused by Yang Xiao Long, a statuesque fighter with long blonde hair. (She’s based on Goldilocks.) Maybe I’m oversensitive due to Hollywood’s tendencies to whitewash Asian characters, but what’s a Chinese girl doing with blonde hair? Given RWBY’s heavy anime influences, the mismatched hair colors and names shouldn’t surprise me, but while hair color typically indicates specific personality traits in anime, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true in Western animated productions.
But as the show progressed from season to season, I realized something. RWBY isn’t actually a fairy tale retelling, at least not in the classic sense. The characters’ connections to their source material veer toward the superficial. In fact, I’d argue that the fairy tale and folklore inspiration functions as a form of pattern recognition. An entry point for viewers to access the real story, if you will. After all, one of the very first trailers for RWBY featured a red-cloaked girl walking through a forest to encounter a pack of wolf-like monsters.
The visual presentation deliberately evokes Little Red Riding Hood. But is Ruby Rose actually RWBY’s Little Red Riding Hood?
Rather than delve deeper into the original fairy tales and myths that serve as its basis, RWBY does something else. The show builds a story about a group of girls that strive for a common goal and who become reluctant friends along the way. But that, in itself, is not original either. What makes RWBY unique is that it takes these recognizable fairy tale figures and fleshes them out into new characters with identifiable struggles. Who isn’t charmed by Ruby Rose’s earnest dream to become a Huntress, one of the female warriors who fight the monsters that terrorize humans? Who doesn’t sympathize with Weiss Schnee’s efforts to break free of family expectations? Or worry about Blake Belladonna’s precarious position as a Faunus, a race of people with animal characteristics, and her former life as one of its militants?
If RWBY does take any narrative cues from fairy tale sources, it pulls from the original forms rather than the family-friendly versions that dominate pop culture today. This isn’t to say the show is a violent gorefest, but the core narrative doesn’t shy away from topics like maternal abandonment or the sacrifice of female bodies for the greater good. You see, RWBY revolves around loss, or rather, overcoming loss by facing it head-on, grappling with it, learning from it, and becoming stronger from the experience. Sometimes loss comes in the form of losing family and home as demonstrated by Lie Ren, whose tragic backstory forms the basis for a quiet personality that masks a deep, long-simmering rage against the monster that killed his parents. Other times, loss manifests as an absent maternal presence, which fuels Yang’s obsession with tracking down the mother that left her behind. Or, as in the case of Blake, it can mean disillusionment via the destruction of a once-certain worldview.
These backgrounds serve as the foundation for character action in the present. Let’s use Blake as an example. What do you do when the cause you believe in has warped beyond recognition? Do you stay and try to temper the extremism? Do you leave and try to rebuild your life, while weighing the risks of trusting people with your checkered past? Or do you return and redeem the group in the hopes of reforming it? At various points over RWBY’s four seasons, Blake follows each of these paths, ultimately choosing one as the best course of action.
Not all turning points take place in the past. Some occur within the context of the show. The girls lose the security of their school and home in Season 3 when Beacon Academy is overrun with monsters. On a more personal level, Ruby is known as the cheerful and energetic heroine of the show. Her Huntress team, RWBY, is named for her, after all. As a contrast to half-sister Yang, she maintains this attitude despite having lost her mother at a young age. But as RWBY proceeds, Ruby faces loss in the form of a fallen friend and a vanished mentor. Even rich girl Weiss learns how the loss of privilege can affect her life and the choices she makes.
No matter when, where, or how it happens, loss drives the major characters of RWBY one way or another. You could say that Ruby’s inability to save her friend in Season 3 drove her determination to save a beloved relative in Season 4. Yang’s injuries force her to learn better control over her powers. Weiss chooses to fall from grace, eschewing her wealthy family and the luxury it promises, to escape a barely metaphorical gilded cage and live her own life.
After four seasons of escalating disaster, RWBY has grown beyond its fairy tale roots. Ruby, Yang, Weiss, and Blake are more than updated versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Snow White, and Beauty. With the latest season finale ending on quite an ominous note, who knows what losses the characters will suffer in future seasons? And all signs do point to more losses happening. But if we’ve learned anything from this show, they’ll endure and return stronger for it.