VIVE LA MAMELLE

MarianneViewed as the latest faux-pas by a French politician in the Silly Season’s ongoing Burkini debate, the comment of France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls that the Republic’s Britannia-like national symbol Marianne is a more accurate portrayal of Gallic freedom than an imposed veil because her breasts are bared has ignited another episode of controversy. Marianne ironically tends to be painted or sculpted with her head covered, and though the headgear is the Phrygian cap associated with 1789, a covered head is surely something France’s female Muslim population could relate to. But it is Marianne’s breasts that are the contentious issue here.

Perhaps the most famous artistic interpretation of Marianne is in Eugene Delacroix’s allegorical painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ – and yes, her tits are out for les gars. Painted in 1830, it celebrates the July Revolution of the same year, which saw the overthrow of Charles X. One more revolution eighteen years later saw the forced abdication of his usurper, Louis-Philippe, and Marianne was invoked yet again. A familiar figure on the pre-Euro French coins the Centime and the Franc, Marianne also became something of a pop culture icon in the late twentieth century when the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve were used as models for her.

The bare-breasted version of Marianne was always favoured by radicals; it implied a wave of female emancipation that had relevance in 1789, when women had helped spark the uprising in the first place and were eventually rewarded with progressive legislation unique in Europe. The Napoleonic era saw the erosion of these hard-won civil rights, though Marianne herself remained a regular embodiment of liberated womanhood whenever the revolutionary spirit took hold of the country – as it frequently did throughout the nineteenth century.

The nation that popularised topless sunbathing clearly regards the bare breast in a different light to its old nudge-nudge wink-wink enemy on the other side of the Channel, though the French PM’s opinion has not chimed with some of his countrywomen. Female French historian Mathilde Larrere labelled Monsieur Valls’ comment as ‘moronic’, yet both points of view seem to reflect a wider debate regarding the naked breast that stretches way beyond France. If we put the endless contrasting attitudes towards public breast-feeding to one side, last weekend’s Go Topless Day in New York was a good example of the double standards surrounding that awful word, ‘empowering’.

This event is an annual occurrence staged on the nearest weekend to Women’s Equality Day and there was a parade featuring an abundance of exposed American bosoms. What happened next was utterly unpredictable and incredibly shocking. Lots of fully-clothed men brandishing mobile phones descended upon the parade and took photos and videos, the sick perverts! What on earth did the participants think was going to happen? As is usually the case with zealots, self-righteous conviction is blind to any contradictory opinion and everyone is expected to fall into line. The thought that some men catching sight of tits on display in the middle of the day might actually be turned on by the prospect served to sour the empowerment somewhat. But what is the real difference between baring all on a PC parade and doing likewise on page 3?

A glamour model who goes topless for a living and makes a healthy income through it is regarded as the plaything of wicked male lust, yet go topless for charity or to make some spurious point about exploitation and that is somehow morally superior. Both are down to personal choice, and both will inevitably attract the same male arousal, which doesn’t particular care about the context as long as a pair of boobs is out. It is naive and short-sighted to imagine this will never be a factor, whatever the reason behind the exposure. Marianne’s ample assets are not supposed to represent sexuality, but it’s hard not to envisage anticipatory excitement back in the 60s and 70s when Bardot and Deneuve were announced as models for France’s very own Lady Liberty. And anyone who has seen ‘Les Valseuses’, the glorious 1974 black comedy starring Gerard Depardieu, will realise that some men even get excited when they stumble upon breast-feeding. Fancy that!


GENE WILDER (1933-2016)

WilderThe death of Gene Wilder at the age of 83 yesterday is worth a mention, if only for the string of superlative cinematic comedies Wilder illuminated in a golden period from the late 60s to the late 70s. Rooted in the same great tradition of American Jewish humour as Woody Allen, Larry David and Mel Brooks, Wilder enjoyed his most fruitful on-screen era in collaboration with the latter. His film debut was a cameo in the far-from comedic 1967 drama, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, though he is so funny in the small role of Eugene Grizzard that it was obvious here was a great new talent with plenty of potential. He proved it in Brooks’ ‘The Producers’ the following year, playing Leo Bloom, the neurotic accountant with a Linus-like attachment to a blanket.

Between ‘The Producers’ and the full flowering of his creative partnership with Mel Brooks, he played Willy Wonka in the first movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and also made a memorable appearance as a man in love with a sheep in Woody Allen’s ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)’. Reunited with Brooks, he starred in arguably the director’s two greatest films, ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’, both superb pastiches of two of Hollywood’s most enduring genres, Horror and The Western.

Wilder then formed another creative partnership that spanned four successful films, this time with Richard Pryor, movies that served to transcend Pryor’s cult popularity and turn him into a box-office star. By the early 90s, however, the work dried up and the last twenty years of Wilder’s life were spent absent from the medium that made him, which was a tragic loss for the big screen. I mourn his passing in that he was one of the few actors – Peter Sellers being another – who made me laugh whenever I saw his face; he didn’t even have to say a line, for his impish countenance simply possessed a quality that was imbued with anticipatory laughter on the part of the audience; when he appeared in a movie, you knew he was going to cheer you up, and that’s a very special gift. I can’t pay him a greater compliment than that.

© The Editor

BATHING BEAUTY

VictorianA society that imposes a dress code upon its citizens would be one we’d probably regard as far from democratic. The spectre of Peter the Great, the reforming early eighteenth century Tsar, hovers above sartorial legislation, banning the beard in order to drag his medieval nation closer in line with the Western Europe he was exposed to on his travels; and autocratic feudal Tsarist Russia would hardly constitute a democracy in anyone’s books.

Dress is so subjective that personal opinion could only ever render attempts to introduce laws censoring a particular item of clothing utterly biased. I imagine it’s easier to do so today than it would have been, say, forty years ago in that there is now a greater public consensus on dress; there remain tribal factions, but the so-called ‘alternative’ is as conservative in its mindset as the modest apparel of the masses, with anyone not adhering to the tattoo & piercing uniform mocked behind their backs. It goes without saying that there have always been a small and select few bucking every trend, but the gauntlet they have to run as a consequence is limited to insults on the street and, on occasions, the fist and feet of the mob. The law may not approve, but it does not effectively censure.

The images that appeared this week of armed policemen forcing a woman to disrobe on a French beach took sartorial legislation to a new level, however. Any dress code dictated by religion as opposed to State presents the State with a problem, particularly a secular State like France. For a country once so entwined with the Church of Rome, France post-1789 has consciously taken a step back from the severest edicts of Catholicism and perhaps earned its reputation as a far more easier-going and less uptight nation than its old enemy across the Channel. The convulsions of the Revolution for the traditional State religion were even more traumatic than the Reformation had been here, and Church and State were eventually formally separated in 1905. Secularism may be a choice in the UK, but in France it’s practically State policy. In order to maintain this, a faith with such strong visual insignias as Islam has given the laissez-faire attitude France revels in a genuine challenge. And one could argue France has made a bit of a mess of the whole business.

Personally, I find tracksuit bottoms or crop-tops far more offensive than the Burqa, but we’re back to subjective opinion again. The French Government thought differently when it decided to ban the Burqa five years ago.

Whenever ‘security’ is employed as a reason for any new law that concerns the individual rather than an institution, my suspicious hackles are raised, and France came to the conclusion that the face being covered in the name of religion constituted a security risk. Whilst naturally viewed as a law specifically relating to Muslim headgear primarily worn by women, this also extends to anyone whose face is covered in a public place – though obviously not on a motorcycle. Breaking the law can result in a fine and the threat of ‘Citizenship Education’ (how very Orwellian), and if anyone is found guilty of forcing another to cover their face against their will, a prison sentence of twelve months is on the cards.

Interestingly, this law came into being long before the Islamic terrorist attacks that have struck France over the past year or so, thus proving that exposing the faces of Muslim women in public since 2011 clearly worked as a security measure to prevent such acts. In the wake of recent events, France couldn’t really add to a ban that predated them, though that obnoxious, corrupt midget Nicolas Sarkozy has been stirring it again in his attempt to return to public office, exploiting the understandable paranoia surrounding Islam in a way that allies him with the likes of Marine Le Pen. In response to external pressures, the government of incumbent and under-fire President Francois Hollande has raised no objections to the controversial bans of the so-called Burkini by several French holiday resorts, resulting in this week’s images of police enforcing the ban by ensuring women wearing it remove it.

Ironically, a glance at photographs of late nineteenth and early twentieth century female bathing suits shows a distinct aesthetic connection between those and the Burkini. If a woman’s modesty was considered worthy of preserving on the beach a hundred years ago, why should a woman have to have everything on display in 2016? The problem with the Burkini is its close association with Islamic dress, which is evidently a delicate issue in France today, especially considering that Nice, one of the country’s top seaside resorts, suffered the most recent Islamic-related terrorist atrocity.

However, imposing a ban on an item of clothing that doesn’t even hide the face and therefore doesn’t contradict the Burqa ban of 2011, seems a rather ridiculous way to respond to a State of Emergency and appears even more ridiculous when one compares the Burkini to the virtually identical wetsuits worn by some members of the French Olympic swimming squad in Rio this summer. Context is apparently everything where clothing in France is concerned. And here’s me, a repressed Englishman, thinking the French, who gave the world Brigitte Bardot, were so much more laidback than that.

© The Editor