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Scholar Views Strauss-Kahn Scandal Through a Historical Lens

New Edits for Human Experience story

On May 14, 2011, just before takeoff for a flight from New York City to Paris, police arrested French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a leading candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections. Strauss-Kahn was charged with allegedly sexually assaulting a housekeeper at the hotel where he had been staying in New York. The resulting scandal, which has most recently seen Strauss-Kahn released from prison on parole, has revealed distinct differences between American and French perspectives on gender roles, riling the media and the public in both nations.


Cécile Alduy, an associate professor of French at Stanford, has been following the case with great interest. Her research centers on the history of the body and of sexuality in literature, and she sees the furious debate that has erupted in the aftermath of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal as a story with roots that trace back to Renaissance-era France.

Alduy’s study of French poetry and literature, from the 16th century to today, has allowed her to examine the cultural history of France through a number of scholarly lenses. Her specific emphasis on the history of the representation of the female body in texts and art has broadened the scope of her literary expertise to include feminist and gender studies.

Close to 60% of respondents to a poll taken in France on May 16, 2011, shortly after Strauss-Kahn was indicted, believed he was more likely framed by a political competitor than guilty of the charges. In an opinion column published in the French newspaper Le Monde on May 26, 2011, Professor Alduy indicated that this first, massive wave of support for Strauss-Kahn and the little attention paid to the alleged victim in the first few days after the news are evidence of the way that issues of sexual harassment, sexual aggression, or sexism are routinely downplayed and under scrutinized in a society that on the surface appears to support gender equality. Hers was not the only voice to raise concerns about this state of affairs: in the weeks that followed the arrest, demonstrations and petitions called for more respects for women’s rights, and a vivid debate opposed French and American feminists, intellectuals, and citizens of all walks of life as the French public and the media grappled collectively with these issues maybe for one of the first times.

 

Professor Alduy’s reaction was largely shaped by her research and her experience as a French national and observer of French society. Alduy shares her thoughts on the roots of the polemics that surrounded the first weeks of the judicial saga, sketching for us a brief history of gender representation in French art and literature.
 

Let’s start by what you singled out in your Op-Ed for Le Monde as traces of the Ancien Régime mentality that still pervades everyday gender relations in France. In the aftermath of Strauss-Kahn’s indictment, journalist Jean-François Kahn, a long time friend of former IMF director, tried to defend him by suggesting that rather than attempted rape, the scene might have amounted to a “troussage de domestique.” The comment provoked an uproar among French feminists: why? And where does the phrase come from?

CA: The phrase “un troussage de domestique” has been translated in the Anglo-Saxon press as “a quickie with a domestic.” Although contextually accurate, this translation does not even start to unfold the rich, but troubling cultural connotations that lies underneath.

“Trousser” literally means to lift someone’s skirt. The phrase evokes a visual euphemism found in medieval and Renaissance iconography and literature where the scene of a man sliding his hand underneath a woman’s dress is a metaphor for what’s to come next: actual intercourse. It’s a very common image in Renaissance engravings, in books of light erotic poetry or, in literature, in the tradition ribald songs and novellas that date back from medieval folk tales and the Roman de la Rose and continues in Rabelais’ coarse misogyny—a tradition still very much alive in what some French comedians proudly reclaim as a specifically French “grivois” strand of humor.

Jean-François Kahn, probably unconsciously, adds to this already charged image a long-lived idea: that the bodies of servants and domestics are up for grabs for their masters.

What is symptomatic here is the cultural unconscious revealed by the use of such an archaic idiomatic phrase: although women’s rights (and employees’ rights for that matter) have progressed drastically over the last 50 years, the cultural frameworks through which some see and talk about women’s bodies is still very much steeped in an Ancien Régime mentality.

A joker, often used to signify Folly, reaches under a woman's clothing in this 15th century engraving.
Luxuria and the Fool
Master E. S. 15th c

As a scholar of French Renaissance literature how did you become interested in the history of sexuality, and specifically representations of the female form?

CA: I worked for many years on Renaissance Petrarchist love poetry, where a situation of unrequited love leads typically to a sublimation of carnal desire and to the spiritualization of love and art. In that tradition, which dates back to the Italian poets Petrarch and Dante, writing beautiful, polished poems to the unreachable, virtuous lady acts as a substitute for a real, lived, and embodied relationship. The poet creates a monument of words to honor an idealized lady: she is compared to a deity whose beauty, described over and over again, is a symbol of spiritual perfection.

But underneath the glowing metaphors (eyes compared to stars, hair to gold, skin to precious stones or delicate flowers), critics inspired by feminist theories of representation have started to see a hidden symbolic violence. The lady’s body is idealized, but also silenced and dismembered in as many separate stones, petals, metaphors, to serve in the end the poetic ambitions of the poet, who is always the only one to speak and be granted agency and subjectivity.

From there, I became interested in more overt forms of sexual desire, dismemberment, and objectification of women’s bodies in the vogue of the anatomical Blazons and in the 1530-1550s and the rise of medical dissection of the human body at the very same time.

When did written or artistic depictions of the human body first appear in France, and can the timeline be attributed to a specific historical development?

CA: The body has always been depicted in literature and the arts. The question is how, how much of it was revealed, and for what aesthetic, moral, or scientific purposes. Is it beautified or reviled, idealized or realistic, and within which narrative does it function? As soon as it is re-presented, the body becomes a sign in a wider narrative about humanity, society, genders, time, etc. It is that narrative that the history of the body attempts to retrace.

Medieval depictions of the human body tend to use immutable lists of common places and focus on realistic corporeality only to dismiss the body as a sign of the Fall and the vanity of human life on earth. With a few exceptions, only the bodies of Christ, and Eve and Adam, are acceptable nudes in Western iconography. With the rediscovery and imitation of classical sculpture and literature, the Renaissance is a turning point: in paintings, it’s the invention of the portrait and the revival of the nude (one only has to think of Da Vinci, Michellangelo or Raphael); in the liberal arts and in science, the theory of an analogy between the structure of the universe and that of the human body places man at the center of the world. Its depictions becomes paramount to celebrating and understanding God’s Creation. This leads in turn to an unprecedented exploration of a largely unknown territory - the human body - with the rise of modern anatomy, and, in regards to women, gynecology. In short, there is an exponential production of representations-- artistic or scientific, realistic or idealized-- of the human body, male and female in the Renaissance.

Could you describe two or three examples of literary or artistic works that you have studied and what impact they had on the gender culture in France?

CA: It is difficult to assess what impact literary or artistic works had on such a wide, and diverse phenomenon as gender culture: in what circles did these works circulate? How were they interpreted? As models? Satires? Faithful representations or independent art works respecting intrinsic, usually classic codes rather than intending to reflect contemporary realities? The relations between art and society are never unidirectional. Rather, in my research, I try to trace in literature, the arts and in science, converging issues that arose at certain junctures and wonder “Why then?” and “How do different kinds of discourses (textual, scientific, legal, iconographic) deal with those issues and offer different or similar templates to think about them?”

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In the frontispice to what is considered the first modern illustrated book of anatomy, the author Vesalius reprensents himself performing a public dissection of the open abdomen of a dead woman.
Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel: Joannes Oporinus, 1543.
Base Dionis (CESR)

For instance, it would be presumptuous to ascertain that the poetic collection known as the Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin influenced, or even reflected, gender relations in mid-sixteenth century France, but what is clear is that this work, augmented and republished again and again throughout the century, resonated with larger concerns of the time. It echoed a more general fascination with what John Sawday has termed “a culture of dissection” present in medicine, the visual arts, poetry, and the development of methods of analytical thinking. But it was also polemical, which means that its “influence” might have been double-edged: comforting certain stereotypes while pushing against others. It participated in a general debate on the intrinsic nature of women in the 1530-40’s in France and Europe, a “Querelle des femmes” [Debate on Women] that echoed a new interest in the biological nature of womanhood reflected in the rise of gynecology as a scientific discipline.

Is it difficult to make distinctions between representations of women that objectify them and those that do not?

CA: Yes, it is, because one could argue that any representation transforms a living subject into an object of contemplation. Representations of men are no less objectifying, when they are represented as objects of gazing to the viewer. What is historically significant, though, is that it took much longer for women to be the agents of their own representations, in literature and in the arts. While Renaissance poets were experts at self-fashioning, crafting an image of themselves and creating a living voice through words and images, few women took the pen to do the same. The majority of representations of women’s bodies, words, and thoughts that have been passed on to us are written by men at least up to the 18th century if not much longer.

One could argue that across the centuries French literature and art have influenced societal attitudes about gender as much as one could argue that those same creative works were reflecting the prevailing ideologies. Which do you believe is the case?

CA: I think there is a constant back and forth between cultural works and the societies that produce and consume them. In this process of cross-pollination, there is more at play than simple relation of mirroring or direct influence. But it is true that there is a whole current of thought dating back at least to Plato and revived in more positive terms in the Renaissance that thinks of literature as a widely influential medium, one that, for better or worse, shapes the minds of its readers. As 21st century readers, we tend to have a much more nuanced appreciation of the power of literature to change behaviors and societies alone, if only because other, more powerful media tend to dominate.

How has the ongoing sexualization of women in French art and literature contributed to current gender roles and the perception and treatment of women in France today?

CA: I think that the sexualization of women is so engrained in French culture that it participates to the collective unconscious: most people don’t even think of it, they reproduce a model inherited from the Ancien Regime, even though the political landscape, the work place, the economy and the legal system have changed. My colleague Paula Moya in the English Department proposes to re-think the concept of race and ethnicity in terms of “doing race” rather than “being racist” or “being of a race.” I think it is similar with gender: people act out certain stereotypes and concepts about “woman” without necessarily thinking through the implications or roots of those attitudes. 

In France, as was revealed with the Strauss-Kahn scandal, women are still deterred to report instances of rape, sexual harassment or assault. I think that this has to do with the underlying message that women are “sexual” and “tempting” in essence, that “seduction” is part of the social game, and “flirting” at work part of the culture, and not accepting it is risking marginalization.

Both France and the United States are relatively progressive western societies, however there are definite differences in the perceptions of women in each country. To what degree have the arts in each nation contributed to that cultural divide?

CA: It is hard to generalize since Hollywood has more than compensated in the last 70 years for the former Puritan ideals that might have differentiated French and American representations of women. I would say that the cultural divide is not in the representations of women: it is in the legal systems and judicial practices of both countries.

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The Blasons du Corps Femenin is a collection of poems describing each female body part one at a time. The vogue was started as a poetic competition among Francis I court poets.
Blasons du Corps Femenin 1536, dans Hecatomphile [Ensemble, les fleurs de Poesie Françoyse, Et aultres choses solacieuses. Reveues Nouvellement] 1537

What about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story motivated you to comment on French culture in an international forum like Le Monde?

CA: As a French woman living in the United States, I felt outraged, and shocked, at how Strauss-Kahn was immediately exonerated from a majority of French people from any suspicion that the alleged victim was indeed assaulted, even though there is a history of sexual misconducts on his part, it is true under-reported by the French media in the name of respecting politician’s private lives.

The kinds of sexist comments that could be heard in the media in the first few days after Strauss-Kahn indictment were appalling, and contrasted sharply with the ethics of zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace in the States. What was shocking to me was the cultural unconscious these comments and reactions revealed, and the blind eye the French media and the political and intellectual elite would turn on this fact.

The warm, positive responses I received after my Op-Ed was published confirmed that I was not the only one to have felt a line had been crossed.

Twenty years ago Anita Hill alleged that her supervisor, now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, harassed her in a sexual manner, setting into motion an era of increased awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in the United States. You have described the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal as having the potential to be a parallel turning point for the French. How confident are you that the French are ready for change?

CA: I do think that the Strauss-Kahn scandal has already changed the conversation about sexual harassment and gender stereotypes in France. Even with the latest developments that saw the release of Strauss-Kahn from house arrest and mounting doubts about the credibility of his accuser, the media have been subjected to harsh criticism for their coverage of the political elite and for “covering up” alleged misconducts. Other sexual scandals implicating elected politicians erupted in May and June, as if a taboo had been broken, a wave of revelations unleashed.

For almost a month after May 14th, there was not a single day when the question of gender inequality, everyday sexism, and the necessary reassessment of the role of the media and the judicial and legal system in counterbalancing these, were not front and center in the public debate. That's a welcome change.

I do think that there has already been a shift in the perception of these issues, a realization that other countries treat sexual harassment, sex crimes and plain old inappropriateness differently, and that the current taboo in France on such affairs cannot last any longer.

And there is now a new generation of young, vocal, organized feminists who are in favor of a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment and everyday expression of machismo.

Read more: Alduy on "What’s New in the New Strauss-Kahn Storyline?"

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