Frank French Feminisms

Sex, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Ernaux, Huston and Arcan

by Polly Galis (Author)
©2023 Monographs X, 314 Pages


«In this important comparative study, Polly Galis provides an illuminating – and frank – examination of the feminist tensions inherent in the inclusive and often transgressive modalities of female sexuality put forward by Nancy Huston, Nelly Arcan and Annie Ernaux, writers whose work subversively troubles the divide between 'good' and 'bad' models of bodily pleasure and desire.» (Siobhán McIlvanney, Professor of French and Francophone Women’s Writing, King’s College London)
«An in-depth look at three important French-language women writers who tackle gender stereotypes, desire, the body, language and empowerment, this richly documented study is rigorous, thorough, illuminating and highly readable, with broader implications for contemporary feminism and women’s writing within and beyond France and Quebec. A major contribution.» (Lori Saint-Martin, Professor of Literary Studies, University of Quebec in Montreal)
This book is the first comparative study of the work of Francophone authors Annie Ernaux, Nancy Huston and Nelly Arcan, exploring their representation of sex, sexuality and the body. This book examines their narrative treatment of dominant sexual discourses, sexual difference and diverse feminine bodily experience, and thereby reveals these writers’ distinctive contribution to contemporary women’s writing in French and different feminisms, defined as «frank» French feminism. This feminist approach consists in tackling gender inequality, sexism and misogyny, while recognising the difficulties involved in feminist action, and acknowledging that adherence to allegedly oppressive gender stereotypes can actually prove enjoyable and empowering for women. This study examines the authors’ earliest to latest publications and multiple genres and media, including fictional and autofictional novels, autobiographies, critical essays, phototexts, diaries, journals, illustrated oeuvres, media addresses and newspaper articles.
This book project was the Winner of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I Nuanced Alternatives to Dominant Sexual Discourses
  • Chapter 1 Sexual, Textual Encounters in Ernaux’s Ce qu’ils disent ou rien, Mémoire de fille and L’Usage de la photo
  • Chapter 2 ‘Good Sex, Bad Sex’ in Huston’s Mosaïque de la pornographie and Infrarouge
  • Chapter 3 Hyper-conformity as Counter-narrative in Arcan’s Folle and A Ciel ouvert
  • Part II Gender Difference, Friend and Foe
  • Chapter 4 Class and Gender (R)evolution: From Les Armoires vides, La Femme gelée and L’Evènement, to Ernaux’s Erotic Triptych
  • Chapter 5 Gender Theory and Exceptions in Huston’s Fiction and Non-fiction
  • Chapter 6 The Feminine Condition and Abjection in Arcan’s Putain and Burqa de chair
  • Part III Corps and Corpus
  • Chapter 7 Cutting Truths in Ernaux’s Reflexive Journals
  • Chapter 8 Mus(e)ing, Musical and Magical Bodies in Huston’s Poser nue and Instruments des ténèbres
  • Chapter 9 Arcan’s Body Image and Legacy: (Dis)empowerment On-Screen and In-Print
  • Conclusion: Steady Wins the Race
  • Bibliography
  • Further Reading
  • Index
  • Series Index

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My foremost thanks go to Peter Lang for including my work in their Studies in Contemporary Women’s Writing series, and to Laurel Plapp for her unbeatable professionalism and warmth throughout the editing process. I am indebted to Professor Diana Holmes and Dr Claire Lozier for their invaluable supervisory support during and beyond my PhD at the University of Leeds, to Professor Susan Harrow for her exceptional mentorship at the University of Bristol and to my viva examiners, Professor Shirley Jordan and Professor Alison Fell, for their crucial advice on revising my thesis for publication. I am immensely grateful for the generous support of the Leeds 110 Anniversary Research Scholarship and the Society for French Studies Postdoctoral Prize Fellowship, which made this project possible. I offer my heartfelt thanks to everyone who granted me permission to reproduce works in this book: Annie Ernaux and Marc Marie, for their photographs; Galerie C in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, for Guy Oberson’s artworks; and Arcan’s publisher Bertrand Visage, for images of Seuil’s jacket covers. My sincere thanks also go to the journals which allowed me to include revised versions of previous works in chapter sections here – Cahiers de l’IREF (in Chapter 2), L’Esprit Créateur (in Chapter 3) and Women in French Studies (in Chapter 8) – and to Damien McManus, subject librarian at the University of Bristol, for resources, ideas and patience aplenty. Last but certainly not least, un grand merci to my family, friends and colleagues for their unerring help and guidance. Especially to Dr Marie-Pier Lemay, my long-lasting Quebecois correspondent and number one academic guru; Dr Rachel Pougnet, my unofficial consultant on all things French; and Dr Maria Tomlinson and Dr Antonia Wimbush, my favourite academic duo, whose daily messages have been a grounding force for several years. Finally, to my partner, Nicolas Elgueta, for reining in my fretting, and my mum, Sharon Derbe, for buckets of tea and support.

←x | 1→


Annie Ernaux, Nancy Huston and Nelly Arcan each express a certain unease about the terms feminine or feminist. Ernaux was a militant actor within Choose and MLAC circles during the 1970s (Mouvement pour la liberté de l’avortement et de la contraception [Movement for the Freedom of Abortion and Contraception]), but she refused the label of woman writer and disassociated herself from the pivotal feminist collective MLF (Mouvement de libération des femmes [Movement for the Liberation of Women]), disparaging what she terms an ‘essentialist feminist discourse’.1 Huston claimed in 2016, during an interview for the Saint Malo Etonnants Voyageurs [Astonishing Travellers] festival, that she is uncomfortable being deemed a feminist given her comparable interest in men’s issues.2 Arcan’s highly sexualised public image, moreover, and that of her fictional characters, undermines her feminist rhetoric in the eyes of many.3 Yet, my study makes a case for these authors’ extensive and unique contributions to French feminisms, based on their nuanced representations of sex, sexuality and the body throughout their literature.

This reading is complicated by the fact that French feminism itself is notoriously difficult to define, which has made it a site rich in intrigue and debate amongst feminist academics, particularly of a transatlantic nature. Scholars have been at pains to counteract homogeneous definitions of French feminism post-1968, popularised in the USA, that equate French feminism with essentialist philosophy and the actions of one group – Psych ←1 | 2→et Po.4 This group placed supreme value on sexual difference and controversially copyrighted the MLF acronym, meaning that the views of this one faction came to be thought of as those of the entire MLF, hence Ernaux’s own attribution of an essentialist discourse to the MLF and not Pysch et Po.5 Today, one might similarly presume that the critical reactions of actress Catherine Deneuve and other women of influence to the #MeToo phenomenon, expressed in a letter to Le Monde, are shared by the majority of French women, even though the mood in France is far more varied. The 100 signatories lamented a perceived attack on flirtation, gallantry and sexual freedom, while the French and Quebecois #MeToo and #UsToo equivalents – #balancetonporc [denounceyourpig], #MoiAussi and #NousAussi – demonstrate a very real and mounting interest in challenging sexual harassment in professional and public spaces, and in dismantling sexist structures across France, Quebec and the Western world more ←2 | 3→broadly.6 These initiatives are also attentive to the testimonies of women from groups marginalised on the grounds of race, ethnicity, economic status or social standing, and to promoting diverse women’s sexual freedoms. Deneuve and others’ arguments, by contrast, have been widely undermined as being written from a position of privilege, and for mistakenly framing third-wave feminist actions such as #MeToo as puritan and conservative.7

My aim in this book is not to resolve such debates about the status of French feminisms, and nor do I attempt to assimilate Ernaux, Huston and Arcan’s work with a specific feminist ideology or faction. Instead, I explore their engagement with a plethora of key feminist issues and theories from the 1950s to the present, such as the importance of the Loi Veil [Veil Law] for women’s everyday realities, the prevailing benefits of écriture féminine [feminine writing] and demands for sex worker rights and independence. Above all, I unveil a unique form of feminism in their work: one that strongly contests sexism and gender inequality, while remaining realistic about the difficulties and problems involved in feminist action. North American writer Roxane Gay’s collection of essays Bad Feminist is based on a similar premise, as is British-Australian comedian Deborah Frances-White’s The Guilty Feminist, a book based on a podcast of the same name which Frances-White co-hosts and in which guests meet to ‘discuss their noble goals as twenty-first century feminists and the paradoxes and insecurities which undermine them’.8 These Anglophone feminist concepts highlight the barriers to our collective feminist ambitions that lie within us as well as society at large as a potentially more productive means of achieving our feminist goals. I argue for a similarly balanced contribution ←3 | 4→to French feminisms in the work of Ernaux, Huston and Arcan that I deem not ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’ but ‘frank’.

I do so by examining their nuanced representations of sex, sexuality and the body specifically, which mirror current trends in contemporary women’s writing in French and, indeed, the primary concerns of French women and feminists from the mid-twentieth century to today. Personal and group differences aside, this book stresses that women and feminists in France are at least united by their shared interest in sex, sexuality and the body. This study also incorporates a broader Francophone perspective by considering feminist issues specific to French-speaking countries outside of Metropolitan France and, in some cases, across the wider Western world. The texts studied here reflect the experiences of women from a multitude of geographic areas including Europe, Asia, the USA and Canada, and frequently depict female experience in a universal sense. References to feminist theory and literary criticism from Quebec are particularly prevalent, given their relevance to my analysis of Quebecois author Arcan and associated socio-political issues. Quebec-based activists, for example, have been at the vanguard of sex worker-led and -orientated action since the 1990s.9 This book likewise reveals the authors’ foundational influence on late twentieth- and twenty-first-century women’s writing in French internationally speaking in terms of genre, style and content, particularly involving semi-autobiographical and transgressive erotic writing.

Contemporary women’s writing in French across the Francophone world is as vast in scope as it is in volume, and numerous specialists within the field have identified the difficulty inherent in mapping shared practices and outlooks. Texts differ drastically in terms of thematic content, regional context, narrative structures and socio-political agendas, and the many crossovers between disciplinary, gendered, theoretical and generic boundaries characteristic of our postmodern age complicate matters all the more.10 This is particularly pertinent when it comes to establishing the ←4 | 5→relevance of literature by female writers for feminism and women more generally in our current epoch. Many of the works produced over the last decade, for instance, the controversial narratives of Virginie Despentes, Catherine Millet, Christine Angot, Catherine Breillat, Marie Darrieussecq, Catherine Cusset and Marie-Sissi Labrèche, among others, are deliberately provocative in their representations of women, who are often depicted as dangerously dehumanised and hyper-sexualised, mentally unhinged to the point of being caricatural, or excessively dominant and violent, enacting roles and behaviours usually adopted by men within popular culture.11 Such images reinforce or at best invert existing patriarchal structures and hegemonic portrayals of female identity. On the other hand, these works resist standardised ideals of feminine behaviour precisely through these fictional women’s sexual and social deviance, and by grappling with taboo and timely topics concerning women’s bodies and their sexuality: prostitution, pornography, rape, abortion, menstruation, eating disorders, the menopause and perversions of all kinds.12 These thematic patterns reflect growing ←5 | 6→global endeavours to legitimise female desire and to address women’s needs, bodily processes and testimonials of sexual violence in an open and meaningful way. Forms of sexist subjugation and violence are being dismantled at ever greater speed by women around the world, as with the #MeToo, #balancetonporc and #MoiAussi campaigns and more inclusive successors such as #UsToo and #NousAussi; the Collages Féminicides in Paris; the Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland; the well-mediatised protesting of rape cases in Spain and India; the implementation of The Prostitution Reform Act in New Zealand, widely considered to be the most comprehensive decriminalisation model to date, to name just a few influential shifts. In short, contemporary women’s writing in French is characterised by transgression and resistance to our present state of affairs in alignment with ongoing change to improve the lives of women around the world.

Recent women’s literature also teaches us a great deal about how women’s experiences fluctuate in accordance with their racial, class, regional, religious and cultural background, and authors are showing a growing awareness of what the so-called ‘feminine condition’ might mean for members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community (which could involve anything from positive appropriation to outright rejection, from self-affirmation to social exclusion).13 Feminism of the 1960s and 1970s in particular has been critiqued by historians for privileging a ‘generation of young, largely white, and educated women’, which feminism in its third wave has sought (and is seeking) to redress by ‘pointing out contradictions and blind spots’, as well ←6 | 7→as the successes, of previous waves.14 Still today, as Shirley Jordan points out, many erotic texts reflect a distrust on the part of contemporary women authors regarding the concept of écriture féminine or a quintessentially feminine writing style, owing to its reductive quality, and Michèle Schaal claims that young feminists reject the potentially exclusive terms ‘nous’ [we/us] and ‘Femme(s)’ [Woman/women].15 Now more than ever, then, universal notions of female identity are the object of serious suspicion. This growing diversification extends to feminist platforms, with some authors like Darrieussecq experimenting with alternative ways of disseminating their literature through the internet, a fashion fitting for our globalised and transnational era.16 Today’s literature by women in France and beyond is thus symptomatic of the changing face of feminism. What has come to be known as a fourth wave of feminism has incorporated cumulatively inclusive strategies and perspectives, as well as a renewed investment in civil activism with a specific focus on sexual assault, work-based misogyny and systemic racism – all bolstered by technological advances and online networking.17 Lest we forget moreover, this latest wave is as divided as the others before, as split reactions to the aforementioned #balancetonporc campaign have made abundantly clear. Numerous theorists have been led to conclude that if anything is to define feminism now (otherwise post-, neo- or even meta-feminism should we opt for Lori Saint-Martin’s neologism) it is this transgressive modality that seeks to overstep the mark of ←7 | 8→propriety and fixed categorisation.18 It is with this knowledge in mind that Jordan speaks of a ‘fuzzy feminism’ and Amaleena Damlé of a ‘slipperiness’ central to contemporary women’s writing in French.19 What we can assert with certainty, however, is that contemporary women writers within the Francophone world are preoccupied with exploring and representing sex, sexuality and the body from a transgressive and inclusive viewpoint.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to explore French feminisms in this book through a study of sexuality and corporeality specifically, emphasising a trend in erotically charged stories and voices. Martin Crowley and Victoria Best, for one, have identified a surge in the production of pornographic materials in France, and Jordan claims cultural production in France and the Western world ‘sustains an appetite for intimacy’.20 Women’s writing contributes meaningfully to this shift, with sex now an unprecedentedly prevalent element of women’s fiction, Jordan asserting that ‘French women writers’ intensive focus on sex is one of the most striking features of the literary world in the 1990s and beyond’.21 Given its striking quality, a close examination of this focus on sex and the intimate is a worthwhile enterprise within women’s literary studies. Throughout, I remain attentive to variances in female experience and the ways in which the authors address these, and explore sexual and textual transgressions alike; extending my analysis, for instance, to the relationship between images and texts, the body ←8 | 9→and the word, and to a range of texts, including novels, autobiographies, critical essays and various paratexts.

My chosen authors are perhaps a less obvious choice. The works of now-Nobel laureate in literature Ernaux appear in several anthologies of contemporary women’s writing, yet her literary track record makes her a more evident writer to study either in her own right or in relation to earlier writers dealing with gender inequality and sexism in a traditional sense: fighting for the right to work and write in the same way as men, and following in the constructionist footsteps of Simone de Beauvoir. Alternatively, her style and key messages have been compared to those of several life writers and artists, ranging from Sophie Calle to Marcel Proust, and her work is studied on countless occasions in relation to the philosophy of Pierre Bourdieu. Ernaux herself paid tribute to Bourdieu in Le Monde in the wake of his death, and contributed to a collective retrospective edited by fellow socio-ethnographer and autobiographer Edouard Louis.22 Through these diverse studies, critics argue for the originality of Ernaux’s work in terms of sociological evidence as well as visual and written representation. Where studies have explored sexual experience in her work specifically, the focus is largely geared towards Passion simple [A Simple Passion] and L’Usage de la photo [The Uses of Photography] with noticeably less interest invested in the remainder of her corpus.23 As for Nancy Huston, her work is seldom examined in terms of its erotic content (aside from Infrarouge [Infrared] perhaps), with critics preferring to hone in on her transnational identity and œuvre, or her portrayal of the mother figure.24 Nelly Arcan fits ←9 | 10→more neatly with a study on contemporary women’s writing, belonging to a younger generation and having worked as a sex worker, and much attention has already rightly been devoted to her depiction of sexual experience and the sex industry. Comparative studies have mostly assimilated her works to those of equally provocative writers, such as the aforementioned and infamous Despentes, Millet, Angot and Labrèche.25

It is my belief, however, that each of these authors’ corpuses, and not just Arcan’s, warrants close examination in terms of its erotic content, and presents us with a unique and nuanced approach to feminist critique. As this book demonstrates, each author equips us with inordinately rich and complex portrayals of sexual and bodily experience that compete with more recent entrants to the Francophone erotic scene. Furthermore, each has established an unquestionably successful literary career for themselves in France and Quebec, with considerable international impact. Between them, they have been nominated for close to twenty literary prizes (winning many), have repeatedly occupied bestseller spots, and Ernaux and Huston have been awarded honorary degrees from l’Université de Cergy-Pontoise (Ernaux), l’Université de Liège and the University of Ottawa (Huston). Most notably of all, Ernaux was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first French woman to be granted this honour, ‘for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory’.26 All three authors’ works additionally feature in national school and university syllabuses and have been translated into several languages. This unremitting popularity is partly owing, I believe, to a balance in their work between theory, experimental language and more commonplace prose and tropes, which diversifies and extends their readerly appeal. The erotic writing of Ernaux, Huston and ←10 | 11→Arcan thus provides a wide-ranging insight into contemporary women’s writing in French – temporally, nationally and formally – and a reliable indication of the types of representation of the female body and sexuality celebrated within the Francophone imaginary. This is all the truer given their regional backgrounds and generic preferences. Ernaux is a teacher and distinguished author of two novels and over twenty autobiographical publications, which recount her experiences of working-class girl- and womanhood in France as far back as the 1940s. Huston is a Calgary-born, Paris-based author whose career took off in the 1980s, with an abundance of works ranging from novels to screenplays, philosophical essays to children’s books, focussing on transnationalism, bilingualism, gender and maternity. Arcan is a Quebecois writer who died by suicide in 2009 at the age of thirty-six, having time to publish only a handful of autofictional, largely psychoanalytic works on the themes of sex work and beauty norms.27 In short, each is born at a different time in a different place, and their corpuses diverge greatly in size and focus. A study of these authors’ literature thus provides a substantial overview of women’s writing in French from the mid-twentieth century to the present day: an overview which extends ←11 | 12→beyond the Hexagon, and accounts for diverse women’s experiences and feminism at multiple stages of its history.

These differences between the authors and their works might explain why critics have yet to study them collectively. Upon closer inspection, however, there is much which connects these authors that requires careful attention, namely the paradoxes that populate their literature. Ernaux has historically fought for women to be granted the same rights and societal opportunities as men, critiquing the targeted education of girls and boys that over-emphasises girls’ physical appearance and justifies their objectification. And yet, she blithely confesses to a strict beauty regime and obsessive love affairs, to which she offers herself with self-destructive abandon. She thus abides by the same oppressive clichés of feminine identity which she herself deplores. Huston is likewise concerned with overstepping gender difference and challenging normative ideals of femininity in her novels, but upholds a controversially essentialist argument and strand of evolutionary thinking within her critical essays. As a means of justifying her views, Huston implicates Arcan in the process by labelling her work biologically determinist, though I stress that this has been hotly contested. The main cause for debate where Arcan is concerned is her previous work as an escort and her public image as a femme fatale that several critics consider to be at odds with her role as an established writer and philosopher.28 Her semi-fictional female characters and narrative voices are similarly puzzling for readers: they condemn patriarchal schemata and misogynist depictions of women, yet they seem to acquiesce to these with alarmingly zestful commitment. All three writers therefore employ what Sarah Kofman calls a ‘double strategy’, whereby an author can put forward two polarised views through two different modes of expression.29 If contemporary women writers are ←12 | 13→‘fuzzy’ or ‘slippery’, Ernaux, Huston and Arcan go a step further by contradicting their own points of view, declining to yield singular answers.

In a similar vein, they blur the boundary between fiction and non-fiction (chiefly autobiography), the visual and textual, and their literature straddles multiple styles, forms, genres and disciplines. They also broach the same abject feminine experiences (such as rape and abortion), the same trying phases of sexual development (puberty, menstruation, the menopause and ageing) and a similar sense of isolation when they or their characters lose their virginity, sell sexual services or enter into an affair with a married man. Furthermore, I recognise that these three authors are all white, heterosexual, able-bodied cisgender women (in fact the term ‘women’ in their work almost exclusively infers cisgender women), and so they write about forms of alterity from a position of relative privilege, of which they are self-critically aware.30 Finally, their works are interrelated because Huston would have it so. Huston and Ernaux appeared on television together, with Huston endorsing Ernaux’s Mémoire de fille [A Girl’s Story] and its inclusion in French curriculums, and though unable to meet Arcan during her lifetime, Huston took part in an invented interview with her conducted by Claudia Larochelle as part of a published homage.31 Karine Rosso later imagines them in conversation in ‘Nelly Arcan et Nancy Huston en dialogue’.32 ←13 | 14→At the 2016 conference ‘Belle comme une image’ [Pretty As a Picture] in Brussels, Huston additionally urged that the work of Ernaux and Arcan be covered during compulsory sex education classes nationwide.33 There is therefore more that unites these authors than separates them. The paradoxes and contradictions that they uphold in their work are also striking in their number and incongruity, and hence beg a methodical working-out. Such is what the following comparative analysis hopes to achieve, shedding new light on Ernaux, Huston and Arcan’s understandings of the female body and sexuality, and, fundamentally, what this means from a feminist standpoint (feminism being understood as plural and temporally diffuse). In so doing, I present them as crucial contributors to late twentieth- and twenty-first-century women’s writing.

The three parts of this book are designed according to themes rather than individual authors to emphasise the similarities outlined above. Each part is subsequently divided into three chapters: one per author. Parts I and II focus on key aspects of sexuality: sexual experience and its representation in sexualised discourses such as pornography and the media, and gender difference and sexual development. For Part III, I build on the conceptualisation of the primarily female body central to this project, exploring this time the relationship between the body of the authors, their readers and the text itself; in a nutshell, between corps [bodies] and corpus. The questions I unpack are as follows: first, how are women’s bodies and sexual experiences presented in dominant sexual discourses, and how does this impact on their lived sexual experiences? In what ways do the studied authors proffer a productive counter-narrative? Second, a critique of this type of hegemonic representation of women’s bodies and sexuality implies that these representations are at odds with the reality of women’s experiences or inform them in negative ways. In that case, what do the studied authors understand by the ‘feminine condition’ and how it comes to be, and how do they resist or reinforce these gendered structures and their foundations? Third, how far are the authors’ bodies themselves and their bodies of work ←14 | 15→reflective of other women’s experiences? How are the authors and their fictional characters’ bodily and sexual experiences translated or conveyed within writing in the first place? In short, in what senses does their erotic or embodied writing serve women and a feminist cause? How does it assist women’s sexual and bodily emancipation?

Part I proposes that Ernaux, Huston and Arcan critique dominant sexual discourses and create characters who adhere to patterns proper to these discourses, a creative decision that might seem counterproductive. I argue, however, that the studied authors recuperate and reinvent potentially oppressive tropes through their erotic language and imagery to make them work in the interest of an empowering feminist agenda. In so doing I hope to deliver an answer of sorts to the existing literature surrounding this paradox in Arcan’s corpus, and to unpick ones largely unaccounted for in critical work on Ernaux and Huston. I first deal with their more or less explicit critiques of dominant discourses, before turning to how they offer alternatives, through which strong female voices and protagonists take charge of erotic action and production.

In Part II, I make the case that conformity to certain gender norms in the studied literature actually enables other, more problematic stereotypes to be contested and subverted. I respond to criticisms concerning the portrayal of women in their works – Ernaux has been criticised for narrating hackneyed erotic scenes and female parts within them, Huston for her essentialist theorisation of gender roles, and Arcan for her hyper-feminised and hyper-sexualised female characters and personal public persona. If their portrayal of women can be considered anachronistic, I uphold that it is also progressive insofar as it acknowledges the prevailing influence of gender stereotypes and difficulty of performing outside of our prescribed genders. Voicing specifically female sexual and bodily experiences is also essential given their relative historic under-representation and the continuing need to legitimise female sexual and bodily pleasure. I here draw synergies with existing literary criticism about class and shame in Ernaux’s literature, and essentialism in Huston’s and Arcan’s.

In Part III, I focus on largely more fluid depictions of feminine identity through bodily representation in the work of the three authors. I specifically examine the relationship between the body, sex and sexuality, with a ←15 | 16→focus on readerly pleasure and jouissance [enjoyment, orgasm or ecstasy] as a convenient climax to this book, and one which identifies examples of individual and collective feminine pleasure and empowerment across the authors’ corpuses. I explore the representation and reception of women’s bodies across a wide range of media and time periods, including fine art, television, newspapers and book covers, from the seventeenth century to today.

I undertake analysis of the majority of the literary works of Ernaux, Huston and Arcan, including all genres and drawing from their earliest publications to the most recent. I thereby deliver a comprehensive examination of their writing about sex, sexuality and the body, with a primary focus on women’s identities and experiences. In so doing, I demonstrate what their erotic or sexually charged writing accords to female readers in particular and to feminist projects past and present. Overall, I propose that their literature constitutes an innovative and important blueprint for more nuanced representations of feminine identity and experience that, despite conflicting appearances, constitute a potent force against patriarchal systems and misogynist dogma. Such representations, I contend, allow for a productively ‘frank’ addition to French feminisms.

1 Annie Ernaux, L’Ecriture comme un couteau: Entretien avec Frédéric-Yves Jeannet, with postscript by Annie Ernaux (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), p. 95. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

2 Grégoire Sauvage, ‘Littérature sans frontières: Nancy Huston, romancière canadienne’, Radio France Internationale, 15 May 2016.

3 A view famously exemplified during an interview with Guy Lepage. Arcan retaliates with a critical article entitled ‘La Honte’ [Shame] (Chapter 6). Guy Lepage, Tout le monde en parle, ICI Radio-Canada Télé, 16 September 2007.

4 Claire Goldberg Moses proposes that this conceptualisation of French feminism is largely owing to the selection and presentation of essays in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron’s 1980 anthology New French Feminisms, substantiated thereafter by special issues in The Feminist Studies and Signs, as well as Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics. Claire Goldberg Moses, ‘Made in America: “French Feminism” in Academia’, in Beyond French Feminisms: Debates on Women, Politics, and Culture in France, 1981-2001, ed. by Roger Célestin, Eliane DalMolin and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 261–284 (pp. 270–271).

5 Diana Holmes, French Women’s Writing, 1848–1994 (London: Athlone, 1996), p. 209.

During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a staunch split between Psych et Po and the MLF ‘proper’. The Psychanalyse et politique collective, led by Antoinette Fouque, advocated for differentialist ideology and practices, celebrating specifically female bodily processes and feminine creative practice, on the basis that these had been historically suppressed by patriarchal structures. They wielded strong political currency, not least because of their publishing house Editions des femmes as well as the trademarking of the MLF acronym. Yet, the MLF and wider feminist movement was composed of multiple factions who held quite different ideas and political strategies, including material feminists, socialists, eco-feminists and splinter lesbian groups, most of whom believed feminine identity to be a social construct that needed deconstructing. Bibia Pavard, Florence Rochefort and Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, Ne nous libérez pas, on s’en charge: Une histoire des féministes de 1789 à nos jours (Paris: La Découverte, 2020), pp. 271–272, 315–318, 335–336 and 350–352.

6 Alexandra Alévêque, with Kathy Alliou and others, ‘Nous défendons une liberté d’importuner, indispensable à la liberté sexuelle’, Le Monde, 9 January 2018.

7 Léa Clermont-Dion, ‘La Troisième vague du féminisme est tout sauf conservatrice ou puritaine’, Le Monde, 11 January 2018.

8 Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays (New York: Harper Collins, 2014).


X, 314
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (March)
Feminism(s) French Francophone Sex Sexuality the Body Annie Ernaux Nancy Huston Nelly Arcan Women’s Writing Contemporary Literature Frank French Feminisms Polly Galis Contemporary women’s writing in French French feminism Tackling gender inequality, sexism and misogyny
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. X, 314 pp., 3 fig. col., 6 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Polly Galis (Author)

Polly Galis completed a PhD in French at the University of Leeds, and a Society for French Studies Postdoctoral Prize Fellowship at the University of Bristol, acting as tutor and lecturer at both institutions. Polly has published widely on sex, sexuality and the body in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Francophone culture, including an edited volume with Peter Lang, Queer(y)ing Bodily Norms in Francophone Culture. A lover of books, Polly currently works in publishing.


Title: Frank French Feminisms
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326 pages