Bluebeard illustration by Guillon for an edition of the tales by Charles Perrault published in Paris in the late 19th century.
Bluebeard illustration by Guillon for an edition of the tales by Charles Perrault published in Paris in the late 19th century. DeAgostini/Getty Images

Analysis

How a Bloody French Fairy Tale Explains France’s Sexual Politics

The tale of Bluebeard the serial wife-killer echoes in the #MeToo movement.

When the French writer Vanessa Springora published her 2020 memoir Consent, a chilling indictment of a culture that tolerates criminal behavior toward a minor when the abuser is an influential literary figure, it landed in France with what one reviewer called the force of a Molotov cocktail. That “abuse memoir” (now a genre unto itself) was written from the perspective of a victim—Springora—who had a clear understanding, in retrospect, of her predator’s strategies.

The distinguished abuser, referred to as “G.,” appeared to have taken his instructions directly from the “Bluebeard” playbook, with Springora herself explicitly referring to that classic French fairy tale. In the hair-raising story, a young woman marries a wealthy man, Bluebeard, whose past wives have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When he goes on a trip abroad, he leaves her the keys to the house—including the key to a secret chamber he has expressly forbidden her from entering. When she opens the chamber, she discovers the bloody corpses of his missing wives, whom Bluebeard has obviously murdered.

A week-long series on horror and folklore around the world that examines what popular stories and tropes can tell us about a society’s greatest fears, grimmest challenges, and darkest fantasies.

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When the French writer Vanessa Springora published her 2020 memoir Consent, a chilling indictment of a culture that tolerates criminal behavior toward a minor when the abuser is an influential literary figure, it landed in France with what one reviewer called the force of a Molotov cocktail. That “abuse memoir” (now a genre unto itself) was written from the perspective of a victim—Springora—who had a clear understanding, in retrospect, of her predator’s strategies.

The distinguished abuser, referred to as “G.,” appeared to have taken his instructions directly from the “Bluebeard” playbook, with Springora herself explicitly referring to that classic French fairy tale. In the hair-raising story, a young woman marries a wealthy man, Bluebeard, whose past wives have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When he goes on a trip abroad, he leaves her the keys to the house—including the key to a secret chamber he has expressly forbidden her from entering. When she opens the chamber, she discovers the bloody corpses of his missing wives, whom Bluebeard has obviously murdered.

Its first print version appeared in Charles Perrault’s canonical Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697, and it is framed there as an allegory of the dreadful consequences of disobedience rather than as a warning about the dangers of marriage to a stranger. The story is often modified or removed entirely from U.S. and British translations of the book, in large part because its unflinching violence is not exactly child-friendly. In France, however, the tale has attained cultural prominence so widespread that Springora could count on her readers’ familiarity with it.

“G.,” the abuser from Springora’s memoir, was eventually revealed by the press to be the prominent French writer Gabriel Matzneff. For decades, Matzneff has spoken and written publicly about his compulsive sexual abuse of minors (one book is brazenly titled Under 16 Years Old) and openly advocated for legalizing the practice.

Like a latter-day Bluebeard, Springora wrote, Matzneff—whose sexual exploitation of Springora took place when she was just 13 and he 50—prohibited her from reading any of his “notorious” works. “I obeyed the ban for a long time,” Springora wrote, “and their titles taunted me. … But, like Bluebeard’s wife, I’d made a promise and I would stick to my word.” One day, however, Matzneff traveled to Switzerland, leaving the keys to his hotel room and studio with Springora, who, following the script of the French fairy tale, violated G.’s command and began reading the forbidden books.

The “Bluebeard” fairy tale is partly about submission, but it also champions the importance of resistance and rebellion, which in Springora’s case took the form of reading G.’s books and discovering that he was “in fact what we’re taught to dread since childhood: an ogre.” Using the wisdom derived from a familiar childhood story, Springora began to reclaim her freedom.

The “Bluebeard” fairy tale is partly about submission, but it also champions the importance of resistance and rebellion.

Unlike many other fairy tales, “Bluebeard,” as a story of marital misery, does not capture—or mend—a child’s insecurities and fears as tales like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Cinderella” do. Many of Perrault’s stories, after all, emerged from a culture of oral storytelling that was often situated in spinning rooms and sewing circles. Women told stories like “Bluebeard” less to entertain children than to start conversations about courtship, romance, and marriage.

“Bluebeard” has continued to spark those discussions today. Before Springora framed her memoir as a version of Perrault’s story, French filmmaker Catherine Breillat had recycled the fairy tale in her 2009 film, Bluebeard. (“When I was a child, this was my favorite fairy tale,” she said in a 2010 interview.)

Breillat’s film, like Consent, shows the evils of male wealth and power, but it also foregrounds another aspect of the folk tale: how some women, using beauty as a lure, eagerly submit to domination when it is to their advantage. When Marie-Catherine, far more afraid of poverty than of a domineering husband with missing wives, catches sight of Bluebeard’s castle, she vows to live in it, no matter the owner’s reputation. And it is she who, with an operatic mix of emotions from greed to jealousy, is determined to take control, survive, and thrive.

Breillat’s interpretation of the tale was consonant with her later public pronouncements about victims of sexual misconduct: The filmmaker had found the #MeToo movement (rendered as #BalanceTonPorc, or “Expose Your Pig,” in France) all too crowded with opportunistic women who had submitted to sexual advances that she argued could have been outright rejected.

A scene from the 2009 film version of Bluebeard from director

A scene from the 2009 film version of Bluebeard from French filmmaker Catherine Breillat. Strand Releasing

The filmmaker was particularly passionate in her denunciation of Italian actress Asia Argento’s accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Claiming that the actress was “quite servile,” Breillat refused to believe her account of rape. “I know her,” she added, as if to strengthen her case, “and she was very, very young.” Accusing Argento of “semi-prostitution,” Breillat fired additional salvos by labeling her “a mercenary and a traitor.” (Argento herself was later accused of the sexual assault of a minor and reportedly made a deal to pay the accuser $380,000.)

As the dueling perspectives on “Bluebeard” in Springora’s memoir and Breillat’s film show, submission to the tyranny of male authority and freedom from it lie at the heart of sexual politics, in France as elsewhere in the world. But in a country that values paradox and wit, along with esprit and amour, and that also enshrines liberté as its highest value, the idea of any form of submission becomes unacceptable, and both Springora and Marie-Catherine cast their lot with resistance and rebellion. This is despite prominent real-life examples of young women following scripts that dictate submission as a strategy for securing what the world endorses as personal triumphs and professional success.

Many French women in the fields of entertainment, academia, and publishing felt that the #MeToo movement in the United States erred in the direction of convicting, in the public eye if not the courts, the accused men without giving them due process. On Jan. 9, 2018, more than 100 such women published a letter in the leading French daily Le Monde denouncing the use of social media to report incidents of sexual misconduct. “Rape is a crime,” they wrote, “But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.” In the name of “sexual freedom,” they championed the “right to pester (importuner).”

In response to days of harsh public backlash, the actress Catherine Deneuve, a prominent signatory, later published a clarification that included an apology to victims of sexual assault and harassment. “Yes, I love freedom,” she wrote. “I am a free woman, and will remain so,” she added. And in a gesture of solidarity, she declared, “I fraternally salute all the victims of hateful acts.”

Deneuve’s insistence on absolute freedom, both her own and that of men to have the “right to pester,” rejected the possibility of structural misogyny, the belief that society leaves women, regardless of their privilege, vulnerable to patriarchal power—an idea that was already circulating in mid-20th-century France. In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir had shown in The Second Sex how submission to patriarchal power, dictated to women by social norms, is less costly in terms of social capital than freedom.

Many philosophers accept that premise today. Building on Beauvoir’s work, Manon Garcia argued this year in We Are Not Born Submissive that patriarchal logic demands submission from women at the price of their freedom: “women’s situation makes freedom more costly and thus submission is more appealing to women than men.” Women actively choose submission, she added, because it is “prescribed to them by social norms.”

Garcia and others give the lie to the euphoric sense of freedom felt by those who participated in the May 68 movement, a 1960s countercultural revolution famed for, among other things, its rallying cry, “Il est interdit d’interdire” (“It is forbidden to forbid”).

Young demonstrators shout slogans during a rally in Paris on May 1, 1968.

Young demonstrators shout slogans during a rally in Paris on May 1, 1968. JACQUES MARIE/AFP via Getty Images

Matzneff himself had embraced the free-spirited, transgressive energy of that movement, using it to justify pedophilia in his novels and essay collections, as well as in diaries that documented his sexual history with children. Rather than worrying about consent, the writer aggressively defended sexual contact with minors in the name of freedom, not just for himself but for the children he abused as well. In this instance, liberty was recruited to enable predatory behavior.

The story of Bluebeard and his wives offers a powerful narrative challenge to the tyranny of adult male authority and its demand for submission. It helps us think through and recalibrate the need to control, subordinate, and punish that emerges as a form of cultural repetition compulsion in real life. First framed as a cautionary tale about the perils of disobedience, “Bluebeard” not only stages the forced submission of the young and vulnerable to the rich and powerful, but also enacts strategies for escaping it and securing some form of freedom.

“Bluebeard” not only stages the forced submission of the young and vulnerable to the rich and powerful, but also enacts strategies for escaping it and securing some form of freedom.

For years, guided by one of the two morals appended to the story by Perrault, “Bluebeard” was read in France as a warning about the horrific consequences of female curiosity (“Women succumb, but it’s a fleeting pleasure.”) Tellingly, Perrault also disavowed male violence in his own time, claiming in a second moral that husbands are “no longer so terrible, / Demanding the impossible.” Frenchmen in his day, he insisted, “toe the line,” for it is “not hard to tell which of the pair is master.” It is not hard to imagine that the signatories of the Le Monde letter were, consciously or not, guided by Perrault’s interpretation.

France is, of course, not the only culture with a story about a serial murderer who bumps off one wife after another. We can go back to the narrative frame of the One Thousand and One Nights and discover a cruel tyrant determined to slay one woman after another until the wise Scheherazade gets the better of him through her storytelling prowess.

The similarities between Bluebeard’s homicidal rage in the French fairy tale and the misogynist frenzy of the ruler Shahriyar may help explain why “Bluebeard” is so often Orientalized, as in Edmund Dulac’s famous illustrations for the tale and in English translations that give the wife the name of Fatima. After all, it’s much more comforting for the French reader to think of such marital discord and violence as having taken place long ago and far away, rather than at home in today’s France.

When Perrault uprooted “Bluebeard” from an adult oral storytelling culture and put it between the pages of a book for children, the fairy tale was still valued as part of a conspiratorial craft, one that provided encoded instructional manuals filled with ancestral wisdom.

Today it is still doing that high-stakes work as it migrates into new media and compels us to sort out how submission, resistance, and freedom are constellated in new ways. It challenges us not only to resist and reinvent the same old story but also to consider how we can put an end to the seemingly endless cycle of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Maria Tatar is the John L. Loeb research professor at Harvard University, where she focuses on Germanic languages and literatures, and folklore and mythology. She is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Society of Fellows and the author of many volumes including The Heroine with 1001 Faces, The Fairest of Them All, and The Annotated Brothers Grimm.

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