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  • "Elle aurait dit 'non'":Sexuality, Intellectual Disability, and Disidentification in French Fairy Tales
  • Jennifer Row

"'Voulez-vous avoir de l'ésprit?'

—Oui, lui répondit Mama, de l'air dont elle aurait dit 'non.'"1

LIKE MANY FAIRY TALES, Catherine Bernard's 1696 "Riquet à la houppe" begins with a bargain made: an ugly gnome, Riquet, offers a beautiful but cognitively impaired princess, Mama, the gift of intelligence in exchange for her hand in marriage. The tale incites a readerly expectation of cure, a neatly reciprocal resolution of intellect and beauty, since two liminal disabilities are pitted symmetrically against each other (the "invisibility" of intellectual disability versus the highly visible disfiguration of Riquet). However, the moment of the contract feels particularly dark and troubling. Riquet, prior to the offer, voices his own doubts about the success of such a barter: "C'est que vous ne pensez rien, et sans me faire valoir, ce défaut vous met infiniment au-dessous de moi qui ne suis que par le corps ce que vous êtes par l'ésprit" (Bernard 63). Meanwhile, Mama never clearly desired intelligence in the first place; Mama "n'avait pas assez d'esprit pour savoir qu'elle n'en avait point, mais elle ne laissait pas de sentir qu'elle était dédaignée, quoiqu'elle ne démêlat pas pourquoi" (Bernard 63). Mama seems mildly aware of her own differences, but she actively does not seek to remedy her variance in intelligence.

The narrative thus begins not with Mama's quest for cure, nor with her desire for self-understanding. Far from a traditional fairy tale's trajectory that begins with a wish and ends with its fulfillment, the story is catalyzed with the cure itself and then treats the aftermath of cure. This inversion—an example of what early modern rhetoricians would call hysteron proteron or a reversal of cause and effect—disrupts the 'natural' or 'proper' narrative arc, perhaps a fitting start for a tale about disability, a bodymind condition that itself disturbs received notions of naturalness or properness.2 Moreover, from the viewpoint of critical disability studies and from a feminist perspective, Mama's so-called moment of consent ("oui […] de l'air dont elle aurait dit 'non'" [Bernard 63]) is fraught, not only because her very ability to consent is dubious but also because the consent itself is dual: she must acquiesce (or refuse) to be cured of her intellectual deficiency while simultaneously consenting to (or rejecting) [End Page 45] the marriage proposal. How can we make sense of these moments of destabilization?

While Bernard's "Riquet à la houppe" appeared first, a competing version by Charles Perrault was published a year later. Perrault's traditional tale, with a reciprocal exchange of the gift of beauty for Riquet and the gift of intelligence for the Princess, serves as a foil to the ambivalence of Bernard's tale, wherein Mama ends up unhappily trapped in an underworld gnome kingdom. This ambivalence has been often interpreted via a feminist lens, with scholars underscoring that the female conteuses (fairy tale writers) like Bernard were able to shoehorn in critiques of patriarchal society. Lewis Seifert, for example, calls the pessimistic ending indicative of the "self-abnegation that late seventeenth-century moralists demanded of women."3 Bernard's ending signals an impasse and even a dysphoric sense of identity wherein women are compelled to conform to norms of femininity and marriage, ending in a bleak entrapment.

In this article, I consider disability's worldmaking from an intersectional perspective. We must read feminist approaches as inextricable from critical disability approaches to a text. I first examine the entwining of what is called "sick woman theory"4 and bodymind, how disabled vulnerabilities manifest in the tale as subtle forms of protest against recalcitrant misogynies, sexisms, and ableisms. Then, given these forms of resistance, I reconsider what sexual autonomy and consent might look like in the context of intellectual disability. Finally, I "zoom out" to consider the fairy tale genre at large and the questions of feminine capacity in the early modern period.

While the politics of disability justice and an early modern French fairy tale would initially seem to be light...


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