Of Man Eaters and Bad Mothers

The chapter on which I’ve been working studies the anxieties that crystallize around representation and regulation of women in the 1880s (or, conversely, the “crisis of masculinity” Annelise Maugue has identified to be integral to the culture of fin-de-siècle France). This crisis, I’m arguing, stems from the coexistence of an increasingly disempowered male body (physical and political, personal and national) and an increasingly — if still negligibly — empowered female one.

Femmes fatales, mauvaises mères, insensées, hystériques, kleptomanes, mangeuses d’hommes: however they were categorized, the woman of fin-de-siècle France were blamed for the falling birthrate, their influence blamed for male weakness, their expensive habits for male ruin. Women were at once associated with nature and with a decadent culture. The female body brought new life (to the family, to the nation) and death (via sexual disease and degeneracy). In its pregnant glory, it was the antidote to modernity, representing tradition, hearth and home; in its decorated splendor, it was the epitome of the modern, the symbol of the rampant capitalism and material abundance that indicated moral decline.

The male body, meanwhile, was increasingly viewed as weak, even effeminate, the embodiment of the metaphorical national body, which itself was seen as indulgent, immoral, lazy. If, as Christopher Forth suggests, France was identified as “the embodiment of the feminizing ills of civilization,” its effeminate male citizens were, in turn, the embodiment of France. And while in the 18th century the genteel manners of the French meant that upper-class foreigners would be sent to Paris to learn how to behave, by the end of the 19th century, the excesses and indulgences of the Second Empire had, in the eyes of other European, created a country that knew how to talk but not how to act; a country doomed to defeat. Hello, Franco-Prussian War.

Masculinized females meant feminized males, and so for every action that could be seen as progress in the move towards female emancipation, scientists, doctors, writers proposed ‘evidence’ for the reassertion of male authority. In the face of quasi-inevitable change, these men battened down the hatches, and, fingers in their ears, produced a torrent of anti-feminist literature.

I’m suggesting the female Other in Les Types de Paris is indicative of a crisis of distinction, a questioning of what it means to be a man in an era when the veracity of the “evidence” on which male dominance and authority, formerly accepted as a given and entrenched legally in the Napoleonic code, starts to unravel.

I do so through close textual analysis of three texts in Les Types de Paris—Zola’s Bohèmes en Villégiature, Maupassant’s Servantes, Rubans et Tabliers, and Fourcaud’s Belles Filles—each of which typecasts the female in a way that echoes an approach to defining her in the culture at large. In fact, despite the variety of female “types” portrayed here—the working classes are the subject of Maupassant’s piece (peasants, wet nurses, and scullery maids); Zola takes on the bourgeois bohémienne and Fourcaud conflates the demi-mondaine with the duchess—there is a remarkable attempt to homogenize women into Woman. When read together, these short texts and the images they illustrate create a picture of “womankind” that is at once contradictory and absolutely emblematic of their time.

If panoramic literature is indeed an exercise in the production of knowledge of (and power over) an increasingly hostile urban space, then the representation of these women in Les Types de Paris—at a time when they were slowly making legal incursions into the public sphere—is an effort, on the part of “my” authors, to fix (or re-place) the elusive “éternel féminin.”

I’m ashamed that it has been two months since I’ve posted here, but it’s been two months spent in the bowels of Bobst Library at NYU, where I’m writing writing writing so that I can finish my dissertation this summer. I have a defense date; suddenly everything seems very official. Within reach and so very far away…

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