Sunday, April 3, 2011

Putain, con! Quelles loloches!

A feminine personification of a nation's ideals--a sort of tutelary goddess--looms rather large in the Western tradition.  In the US, we have Lady Liberty and in the UK, Britannia.  Mother Russia comes to mind.  While these symbols may have faded somewhat in these countries, France still has an omnipresent female symbol capable of stoking strong emotions:  Marianne.

Marianne is pictured on the most common French stamp (since at least 1849) and figures in the official government logo.  Many town halls feature her portrait and the Lodges of the Grand Orient display a bust of her.

She is usually pictured as a young woman wearing a Phrygian cap and a loose-fitting dress, sometimes with her breasts exposed, as in Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830).  Said to be an allegory of Reason and Liberty, Marianne also fits nicely within the French tradition of women saviors.  Joan of Arc is widely used, especially by French nationalists, as their symbol.  Not to mention the über-maiden:  Mary.  It occurs to me that Marianne = Mary-Anne.  Anne of course, being Mary's mother and, according to Catholic tradition, a virgin mother....

Attitudes towards prominent breasts like Delacroix portrayed may be changing in France, at least for Neuville-en-Ferrain, a small commune located near Lille.  The mayor had the local, um, bust of Marianne removed because her breasts were too large. (LA Times).The artist who made the sculpture says "I made the breasts prominent to symbolize the generosity of the Republic.  This symbolism was lost on the locals:  'Remarks were made, during weddings for example.  'It was making people gossip.' (Daily Mail).  It has been replaced by a bust inspired by French actress Laetitia Casta.  Odd choice; Casta is something of a J. Lo/Dolly Parton figure; that is to say, known for her curves, especially her bust.  Indeed, the replacement seems even bustier, more natural and perhaps for this reason even sexier.  Maybe the prominence of the first Marianne's breasts was less offensive than their gravity-defying pertness.  Was anger over an impossible ideal at fault?

The offending Marianne, France 3 via LA Times.
Replacement Marianne, via Daily Mail

As the author of an article on this story has written, the kerfuffle back in 2002 with John Ashcroft comes to mind.  You may recall that like in this case, breasts were involved.  Apparently, someone was unhappy with the fact that press conferences at the Dept. of Justice took place before a topless woman, hands raised to the sky.

The original Marianne cost the commune of Neuville-en-Ferrain 1400 euros and its replacement 900, a total of about 3300 USD.  This is still less than the 8000 USD spent by Ashcroft's office on curtains to cover up the bare-breasted statue called the Spirit of Justice, a depiction of the Lady Justice based on the Roman goddess.  Ashcroft's people said this was merely to make a better background for press conferences and had nothing to do with being prudish.  In any event, the curtains have since been removed.

Depictions of Marianne can be highly charged.  Feminists were outraged back in February 2010 because of an image publicizing one Sarkozy's plans; in this image Marianne is pregnant.  It was an ad for a development program to invest in a wide variety of initiatives but which had nothing to do with literal motherhood.  (The Times)

“The hand of the state should not be in my uterus, and certainly not to look for money,” said Le Féminin l’Emporte, one of France’s most influential feminist blogs. Detractors also said that the image evoked the slogan “Work, Family, Fatherland” used by the Vichy administration, which collaborated with Hitler during the Second World War.  

Olympe, another feminist blog, said that the Government appeared to be “suggesting that a woman’s work is to have babies whilst the men handle the billions from the loan”. 

Far be it for me to say how women should feel about this, but I get what they're saying.  Making Marianne pregnant to symbolize re-investment in "higher education, research, technology, fast internet access and small business" seems dubious to me.  This image isn't exactly the dynamic ass-kicking Marianne of Delacroix.  More like a knocked-up and spaced out Smurfette.  Not there's anything wrong with being pregnant and it's a logical choice to represent rebirth.  But maybe something more along the lines of J. Howard Miller's "We can do it" poster would have been in order.

In any event, I see this post links nicely to my last about the power of political symbols, how they can encourage vandalism or and anger.  It wasn't my intention.  Just saw the two items at about the same time is all.

So, here's a report (in French) on the story in Neuville-en-Ferrain.  Looks okay to me!  For more on women in French iconography, see my post entitled, curiously enough, Women.  For more on Marianne, includingsome rather sexier versions than the one seen here, check out the French blog Marianne Republicaine.

Whatever happens next, we'll be sure to keep you abreast....


  1. Tanit was symbolized by an ankh-like glyph with a triangular base surmounted by a bar and circle. This in turn was surmounted by a symbol representing a crescent moon which also evokes the eye. In the standard work on the symbol, F.O. Hvidberg-Hansen interprets this symbol as a woman raising her hands.


  2. Loved the video!

    A small point: I think that the official Catholic position on St. Anne, taken in 1677, is that she did *not* give virgin birth -- although I agree that the idea of Anne giving virgin birth did arise, and perhaps persists with Catholicism (although I wouldn't know about the "persists" bit one way or the other).

    By the way, the state of Maine removed a mural from the Department of Labor, claiming that it was too anti-business. Why don't they go ahead and call themselves the Department of Business?

  3. Well, shit. I always thought Anne herself conceived immaculately. I didn't realize the Vatican had made a change to that. Interesting. I suppose for some it would only add to Mary's holiness, where for others it would detract from her unique role in history.

    And yeah, I saw that about Maine. The right really is making war on the working man it would seem. Bring bacl the IWW I say. When did it become bad to be a radical in defense of worker's rights?

    None dare call it....class war!


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