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«Plaisirs de femmes»

Women, Pleasure and Transgression in French Literature and Culture


Edited By Maggie Allison, Elliot Evans and Carrie Tarr

Feminist approaches to questions of women, pleasure and transgression have generally been premised on the assumption that women’s pleasures are typically constrained – if not ignored, marginalized or forbidden – in patriarchal cultures. The naming, foregrounding and pursuit of women’s pleasures can therefore be deemed potentially transgressive and linked to women’s emancipation in other realms. The essays in this volume draw on a range of materials, from travel writing and the novel to film and stand-up comedy, addressing the specificity of French and Francophone approaches to women, pleasure and transgression across a range of historical contexts.

The volume is divided into three sections: intellectual and creative pleasures; normative pleasures, that is, pleasures conforming to women’s conventionally expected roles and status as well as to accepted views regarding race, national identity and sexuality; and perverse pleasures, that is, pleasures transgressive in their tendency to reject authority and norms, and often controversial in their «excessive» appetite for violence, sex, alcohol or food. In each case, questions are raised about how we approach such pleasures as feminist researchers, motivated in part by a desire to counter the notion of feminism and feminist research as something «dour» or joyless.

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8 Liberté sexuelle: Pleasure and Identity in Catherine Millet’s La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001) (Elliot Evans)


Elliot Evans

8 Liberté sexuelle: Pleasure and Identity in Catherine Millet’s La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001)

In 2001, the French art critic Catherine Millet published a self-described ‘témoignage’ of her sexual experiences. La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. notably offers graphic descriptions of les partouzes [group sex], with its protagonist attending private orgies, visiting sex clubs and enjoying anonymous group sex in the bois on the outskirts of Paris. The book became a bestseller in France and has been translated into over forty languages. Millet’s stark account of female sexuality, recounted over nearly 200 pages and spanning around three decades, would seem on the surface to be inevitably transgressive. Arguably, however, her pleasure-loving and pleasure-seeking protagonist’s construction – and loss – of identity, while partly formed through transgressive sexual acts, and their recounting, is also partly formed through the distancing of supposedly pleasure-less others. What kind of identity is inscribed, then, and how transgressive is it in fact? Can it be linked with the controversial views expressed in the open letter Millet co-wrote criticizing the #MeToo movement, which appeared in Le Monde in January 2018, signed by 100 French women including the actress Catherine Deneuve? After an analysis of La Vie’s literary identity and construction of the self, I explore those themes, tendencies and allegiances which prefigure the contentious views on consent – bound up with the French literary and cultural tradition of libertinage – expressed by Millet and her co-authors in this letter.←123 | 124→

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