When Madame D’Aulnoy and her contemporaries began composing fairytales, the discussion of femininity and women’s behavior was ubiquitous in France and Greater Europe. The fin du siècle was marked by an effort to define “the woman” and her place in society. Known as the “grand renfermement,” this period saw the rise of moralist writings such as Satire X concerning the education as well as the public and domestic responsibilities of the female gender. Many writers exalted motherhood, claiming that a woman’s domestic duties were ordained by God, while rebuking the worldly mondain woman. As became increasingly active in intellectual spheres, scrutiny on their morals and duties intensified.
Fairytales were no exception; much of the folklore at the time promoted some sort of moral agenda, and women were at the center of the conversation on morality that pervaded folkloric culture. Female characters were always proving themselves as obedient daughters, good mothers, and faithful wives. As Lewis C. Seifert, author of Fairy tales, sexuality, and gender in France 16-90-1715, puts it, “heroes are obliged to prove their physical and emotional courage, whereas heroines must prove their moral purity, and often, their domestic competence as well.
In fairytales especially, the discourse on woman adhered to a binary system that divided women into “good” and “bad.” The good-evil dichotomy was certainly quite prevalent in folklore, and it was often used to illustrate “good” and “bad” manifestations of femininity. Seifert points out that, while most heroes battle against supernatural forces or beings such as dragons or ogres, most heroines are “pitted against a negative mirror image of themselves,” both morally and physically. Many a beautiful, virtuous, obediant female protagonist finds herself battling other women who are rude, ugly, jealous, and petty. Probably the most well known example of this is the story of Cinderella, in which Cinderella beats out her two ugly stepsisters in a competition for Prince Charming’s affection. Not only is she pitted against her stepsisters; she is pitted against all the other women at the ball and lifted up as an exception within a gender that spends all its time trying to look pretty and pining over boys. She is made to stand out against a background of “other girls” all of whom only exist to be jealous and enhance the desirability of the prince.
There exists as well a good-evil dichotomy between Cinderella’s late birthmother and her evil stepmother. In most fairytales with an evil stepmother character, the stepmother’s evilness is countered by the goodness of a virtuous but inconveniently dead birthmother. The fact that the “good” mother is often dead should not be overlooked in the context of the querelle des femmes (the woman question). In 17th century France, the “good” women was seen and not heard, and refrained from being to active in society. And is death not the ultimate form of inactivity? Cinderella’s mother is one of the more glorified characters but is also put in the least threating position; she may be “good,” but she is also silenced. Meanwhile the women in power are demonized; they are rude, ugly, and undesirable to any man. Similarly, mondain women who asserted themselves as men’s intellectual equals were also perceived as dangerous and undesirable. Other popular fairytales such as Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty contain similar narratives.
As I have discussed in my previous posts, female protagonists in the conteuses’ fairytales are much more likely to be pitted against a patriarchal figure or institution, such as an overbearing father/king, an abusive husband, or an arranged marriage. This was unusual at the time, especially considering that, in Perrault and Grimm’s fairytales, women often turn to patriarchal figures as an escape from whatever misery a jealous fellow female has inflicted on them. It is worth noting that there are certainly “bad” fairies and queens in the tales of Madame d’Aulnoy or her contemporaries, but they differ from their traditional counterparts in several ways. First, they rarely act out of jealously or desire for a man. Some of them even actively reject men. The female antagonist never performs her evil in order to keep the heroine from the eyes of a handsome prince who has caught her attention. In fact, some evil fairies/queens are equally cruel to the male characters in the story, attempting to kill them or turn them into various creatures and objects. In addition, women who are the victims of one such fairy’s evil magic almost always rescued by other women if they do not emancipate themselves-and their lovers-first. I would suggest you look at the following posts for examples of these narratives:
Generally, the conteuses portray “good” women as smart, independent, and nurturing of their fellow women. They are flawed; sometimes they feel lost and confused, and sometimes they break down and cry. On the other hand the “ bad” women are robotic and emotionless and refuse to align themselves with anybody. They appear to be governed by a simple will to do evil and harm others. It is possible the conteuses included these figures to represent women who had gone “too far,” confusing strength and independence with hostility and isolation. What I have gathered so far from Madame d’Aulnoy’s work is that she draws no clear lines when it comes to gender or feminism, but she does appear to consistently advocate for moderation and balance. Nothing good ever seems to come out of binaries or absolutes in her stories; those who get the “happily ever afters” are those who are thoughtful, complex, and discreet. It will interesting in the future to examine how she herself demonstrates these qualities in her writing and in her feminism.