I spent the past two weeks reading over my old blog posts and trying to select the most notable ideas from which I could develop a thesis for my paper. I had trouble discerning any major ideas at first, because I found that there were no absolute statements that I could make about Madame D’Aulnoy’s writing. Many of the her female characters are strong, smart, and confident, but some are fickle, manipulative, or downright cruel. While most of the strong women were heroines whose toughness was seen as an asset, some of them are portrayed as coldhearted and overbearing, as misogynist writers of the time feared educated or worldly woman would become. Some of her characters reject marriage all together, while some end up gladly marrying their suitors. Many of the men in her fairytales are portrayed as weak or dependent, but some fit the traditional role of the wise, powerful patriarch.
I now see that it was silly to look for absolutes in d’Aulnoy’s writing. If there was one thing that the fairytales she wrote inspired was both renowned and criticized for, it was their complexity. Whereas fairytales had previously been simple old wives’ tales, d’Aulnoy and her female contemporaries turned storytelling into a baroque art form full of embellished language and numerous subplots. The conteuses received ample criticism from contemporary fairytale authors such as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, who believed that the fairytale should have a clear moral and be simple in language and in content. In their stories, which dominate our perception of the fairy tale today, the characters fit neatly into prescribed gender roles and fulfill idealistic narratives. In contrast to the two-dimensional personas of Perrault and Grimm’s work, the Madame d’Aulnoy’s characters, both male and female, can be strong, emotional, anxious, brave, distraught, scared, and loving all at once. In other words, they are human beings.
As I was looking back over my previous blog posts, I noticed the following passage that I had written in my post, “Dudes in Distress: The Weakening of the Patriarch:”
It is these evil queens and good-natured princes that blur the lines of any political interpretations of Madame d’Aulnoy’s work. Despite her habitual reversal of gender roles, she does not appear to advocate for women’s dominance of men, and she certainly does not make any absolutist claims about either gender. She simply portrays both men and women as human. But in a time when kings such as Louis XIV were often treated as more-than-human and women less-than-human, leveling the playfield was quite radical and even subversive.
It dawned on me as I reread the passage that the movement that d’Aulnoy started was not about empowering female characters or weakening male characters; it was about treating defining characters, both male and female, by their humanity in a society that defined them by their gender. After all, contemporary struggles against sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and every other phobia and “ism” one could imagine are founded on the same principle: that people deserve to be treated like people. When I formulate my thesis, I want to base it off of the notion that Madame d’Aulnoy’s brand of feminism was founded in the realistic and complex portrayal of human beings and that her political ambiguity of her writing was in itself a political statement.