Currently reading : The Tattooed Parisienne: Reclaiming patriarchal myths of femininity
By Julie Bréthous
The Parisienne is a myth, a legend. She has evolved to represent the global epitome of femininity, of womanhood. Chic, elegant, always well dressed, always appropriate, but still slightly ahead of her time, and with a certain je ne sais quoi, always looking natural, The Parisienne haunts the streets of Paris, embodies the fantasy city that never sleeps and seduces the passer-by. To be a Parisienne is, as American author Richard Bernstein puts it, ‘to belong to a world apart, to an intellectual and moral category, not of class, race and gender, but of a qualitative difference from the rest, an essential worldliness’. To the eyes of others, both men and foreigners, she is the perfection of womanhood. However, women may try as hard as they want to look effortlessly Parisienne, the truth behind that myth is that is was constructed for the sole purpose of selling French arts and fashion to the world. The whole discourse that surrounds that persona is the proof of it: who, what is the Parisienne? It is impossible to define her, as she evolves every season through the glossy pages of fashion magazines to become once a sophisticated modern woman, and six month later some kind of glamourous bohemian. That lack of precision regarding who the Parisienne exactly looks like allows her myth to live on. It lingers and swallows everything on its way, making every new trend his, grows, mutate, and therefore cannot disappear. The truth behind that so-called Parisienne is that it is solely an empty shell invented to be filled with whatever convenient meaning for the French fashion industry.
As the Parisienne reappears over and over in front of the eyes her public, she keeps on being sold as an inspiration to women, representing what they should ultimately be. But that unfixed image pressures women to constantly conform to prescriptive notions of femininity. As a result, Parisian women have become highly judgmental towards themselves and other women. While discussing with Parisian friends on the subject, one of them quite interestingly said: ‘we look at ourselves in the gaze of others, in the way they perceive us’. Worried not to look the part, women living in Paris quickly feel the urge to conform, afraid to be judged by their peers. By being overly critical of their appearances, Parisian women ensure the continuation of dominant forms of knowledge that have been created to fit a white male dominated Western society. The Parisienne is a myth that ensures the ongoing practice of ‘disciplinary regimes of femininity’, as discussed by philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky in her essay Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. By being presented as an overly perfect character, the Parisienne adds ‘a measure of shame… to a woman’s sense that the body she inhabits is deficient’. This myth is yet another tool that has perverted women’s mind into thinking that their body must always be torn and changed to obey these notions of female presentation. The Parisienne is sold as independent, natural and inherently fashionable and attractive; when caught within the frame of the myth, Parisian women suddenly become hesitant to move beyond the frame of that restrictive femininity.
As with many other types of body modification, both socially accepted or not, tattooing stands on the verge of a debate that both rejects the postmodern aesthetic of the self, where identities are only expressed though the lenses of appearances, and celebrates the introduction of new techniques of the self that disrupt traditional Western notions of what is socially acceptable in terms of presentation. As such, the large-scale popularisation of tattoos for women in France has mainly occurred through their use by French brands in advertisement, and their being praised in magazines. This has somehow resulted in a normalisation of the practice that has emptied tattoos of their former subcultural and traditionally non-European connotations, turning them into meaningless signs and fashion accessories. Body modifications have therefore become a convenient and personal way to accessorise the outfit of the Parisienne. Whilst sold as re-enforcing her so-called independence, it still does participate in the regulation of her image. Tattoos are therefore often represented and advertised by mainstream brands in a way deemed suitable for the Parisienne: more like a small and elegant jewel that could be easily hidden rather than an affirmative statement. The myth has done its work, and integrated yet another tool in its frame, taking some of its identity away with it.
It is indeed undeniable that tattoos have been turned into fashion accessories and are now widely accepted. However, they do retain some of their disruptive power by engaging a dialogue with the others. No tattooed body, especially female, is stranger to comments such as ‘you will change, aren’t you afraid of having it on your skin for the rest of your life’?’, ‘why did you do it?’, did it hurt?’… Adding to it the fact that tattoo’s permanency makes them essentially anti-fashion, their mystique somehow still remains: the reasons behind the practice are not anymore inducing reject, but still call curiosity. If the fashion system has emptied these signs of their former meaning, individuals have seized this opportunity to express their identity though them, inscribing on their skin who they are, filling them with new meaning of their own, therefore allowing their disruptive potential to subsist. In our Postmodern Western world, tattoos do not represent a sense of belonging, but allow one to inform the outer appearance of its self. Indeed, even when one follows the trend of a body location, or a style of tattoo, it is interesting to note than the reasons why it has been done, what were the choices behind it, remain highly personal. The tattoo calls upon the language of personal identity, as journalist and subcultures specialist Ted Polhemus analysed.
By giving a personal touch to style in a world of mass produced clothes, they do allow fashion to evolve and discover new horizons. But they have also opened the door for notions of beauty regarding female appearances to evolve. Consciously or not, with heavy body modifications, a bird on their shoulder, the celebration of their love for somebody on their hand or the sewing lines of stockings of their legs, women are challenging the meaning of female beauty. This body that had been appropriated for centuries by male standards of beauty is now the prime location for women to re-write their own history. As individuals living in a specific society, les Parisiennes are women deeply influenced by that society’s main notions of knowledge: they can hardly escape the gaze of the city upon them, and feel the urge to reproduce this reductive beauty. As such, it is possible to say that many women do get the idea of getting tattooed out of trends. But because tattoos are on the contrary, a strong expression of their individuality and own history, themselves the result of a specific set of social forces and power relations unique to each individual, their presence disrupts what Art Historian Lynda Nead calls the female nude. In her essay The Female Nude, the author shows that this last has been constructed by patriarchal societies as a pristine, here to be contemplated by its [male] viewer. It has been the prime location for patriarchy to frame women and their ‘natural’ body. The Parisienne has evolved to become one of these restricted frame: afraid of being judged, women auto-regulate themselves and hesitate to move beyond what is socially acceptable or not. But where the body is supposed to be created to be solely contemplated, tattoos force the viewer into looking beyond the frame by creating a personal narrative, making him or her ask questions, and engage in a real conversation – that will end up being unique according to each individual. Of course, tattoos do not free women from the boundaries of sexual categories. But by altering the nude, they redefine the limits of the frame, including new possibilities for women to express themselves through their own design. They are a new power sources, shaking and reshaping dominant forms of knowledge. Tattoos do not create a new femininity, they open up new possibilities for the Parisiennes, for women, to define who they can become.
Through the practice of tattooing, women are therefore making the Parisienne evolve, as a character that would not only be exclusively of male design, but also of their own. The myth is not eliminated: it has evolved, has been distorted, in order to fit the values of a society undergoing profound changes. Tattoos have operated within the French fashion system as a disruptive element that challenges dominant notions of knowledge, not to eliminate them, to make them evolve towards a more egalitarian system.