The Body’s Bounty

This month I wrote an article for the wonderful feminist Collage Magazine on female bodies and political power. The essay begins with the French Revolution and the example of Helen Maria Williams’ political discourse, bodies publicly executed in the amphitheatre of the Tuilleries; and moves to our contemporary political landscape, including Louise Mensch and Kate Middleton. You can read my essay alongside others in the new issue of Collage on Women and the Revolution, by following the link to Issuu here: Here are a couple of teasers for you here anyway.
marie antoinette scaffold

“Within the female body of the Marianne of French Liberty, depicted bare-breasted in semblance of her maternal and sexual power, women of the French Revolution found a utopian ideal for their involvement in, and centrality to, the new politics of La Republique. From the platform upon which a statue (whether it be the Virgin Mary or Joan D’Arc) is raised, to the ‘amphitheatre’ of public executions; the stage of the French Revolution provided women with an arena within which their formerly private bodies (consigned to the sexual politics of the bedroom) could become public and political signifiers.  The new feminine La Republique of France emblematised in the figure of Liberty, appeared to found itself upon feminine values and opened out a space for women to construct a feminised political discourse within a new world of active political engagement. ”

Liberty Leading the People, 1830, by Eugene Delacroix“If it is Liberty and the Marianne who are the seed of William’s statuesque portraits, then it is Liberty we must return to in determining the political effectiveness of such memorialisation. At University my supervisor forced me to scrutinise Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People until I relented: I satisfied his palpable, unspoken desire, and commented on Liberty’s bare breasts. What do you notice? What do you notice about Liberty? He insisted.

That soft curve of pale flesh is the very centre of this painting, it is the most obvious thing – so why mention it? In that moment it felt like I wasn’t just being forced to recognise a naked pair of breasts, I was also being made to feel aware of my ‘otherness’, of my own body. Liberty is powerful, defiant, a glorious and beautiful figure to lead, but she is also a woman and those bare breasts are an incontrovertible reminder: they are her weakness. She is not like Joan of Arc: she is not sexless, she is sexy. That is not to say that heroism must be sexless, but simply to acknowledge the symbolically loaded binarism which divides and excludes.  Liberty leads the people, but do we ever truly see her as a leader?”

Louise Mensch

“There are countless current examples of women using their bodies in a play for political power; whether it is the wives of politicians and presidents who have electoral sway equivalent to the success of their wardrobe choices, or news of highly charged political affairs such as Monica Lewinsky’s ‘improper relations’ with Bill Clinton. The debate about whether women can effectively use their bodies for political power is as relevant now as it was to Williams.

I started out with the idea that my contemporary parallel might come from current female politicians; if Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga MPs seemed too continental, then perhaps Louise Mensch under the glaring lights of an ‘Iron Maiden’ photo-shoot for GQ (all soft silk and leather panelled pencil skirt), could be my new politically revolutionary pin-up. But the problem was that these examples had very little power as icons, a niche magnetism perhaps: obsessive-Menschites and scandalized Berlusconi commentators aside, these bodies hadn’t affected very much change.

If there is any icon capable of becoming the female embodiment of contemporary Britain in the same way that the Marianne represented La Republique of France, it has to be Kate Middleton: an aspirational symbol for recession-beaten and coalition-confused GB.  She is certainly not revolutionary, but she is stability. She is painfully corporeal in the way that the 21st century has idealised: thin and taut like our models and our cover girls but classically feminine with flowing dark hair and now a modestly growing pregnant belly. “

1 comment
  1. This is a really interesting post. I am very intrigued by the the parallels you have drawn between lady Liberty in Delacroix’s painting and modern images of women in the press and other media… very thought provoking

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