Journal of Women's History 17.1 (2005) 201-209
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Representation, Categorization, Identity, and Sex
Scholars of eighteenth-century Britain and France continue to debate the effects of print culture on the status of women, the extent of women's contributions to the formation of public opinion, and the relation between print representations and lived experience. The two books under review approach these issues in such radically different ways that reading them in tandem produces distracting but ultimately productive questions regarding methodological and disciplinary conventions. Pamela Cheek presents a study steeped in postmodern theory that pulls together an array of texts that range widely temporally and geographically. William Stafford rattles the theoretical models that scaffold Cheek's analysis as he seeks to recover the views of a small, interconnected group of women writers and their reception in the last decade of the eighteenth century.
Sexual Antipodes sets out to explain "how the idea of sexual order and disorder became a primary tool in British and French print culture for imagining globalization and defining modern national and racial identity" (2). Cheek finds Jürgen Habermas's model of the Enlightenment bourgeois public sphere, with its facilitation of the free exchange of ideas, relevant to Britain and Michel Foucault's model of increasing institutional encroachment into private lives more applicable to France. She extends the Foucauldian notion of sex becoming the central element of individual identity in Western Europe to national identities. The first half of Sexual Antipodes examines the different ways in which English and French writers used sexuality as a fundamental point of distinction in competing notions of selfhood and statehood in support of her first main contention, that "identity in modernity is contingent on the placing of sexuality" (7). Although women in both countries had access to the public sphere while simultaneously being inundated with prescriptive literature on the virtues of domesticity, a common perception persisted that excessive mingling of the [End Page 201] sexes in France produced a national character of politeness and gaiety. Concern regarding female influence in public life, particularly at court, brought the libidinization of the absolutist monarchy. Sexual attacks on the British monarchy, in contrast, ceased with the ideology of constitutional liberty that took hold after the Restoration period, "indicative of a major reaction in public life against any alignment of publicity and sexual performance" (36). Enlightenment enquiries into the role of sex in the social order by Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre Chonderlos Laclos, and others, and in the popular genre of the Oriental tale, explored the contentious power relations between men and women and produced paradoxical constructions of sex both as natural and moral and as conducive to artificiality and vice. Sex then became the glue of society—the means of bonding with one's own kind—but the foundation of inequality as well.
Cheek builds upon previous studies of the desacralization of the French monarchy with an analysis of two sorts of "public women" associated with the degeneracy of the court. She first considers representations of actresses in the Mémoires secrets (1777-89), a clandestine journal chronicling the Parisian cultural scene. While British actresses cultivated reputations as domestic paragons, their French counterparts were assumed to practice depravity in private. As they portrayed royal and aristocratic characters on the public stage, star actresses displaced the court as the embodiment of publicity. Cheek then turns to the reports that the Paris police gathered on prostitutes, a practice rumored to have originated with Madame de Pompadour's desire for salacious material to keep Louis XV entertained. These reports provided fodder for a new genre of publication, the scandalous chronicles, and framed the narrative of Diderot's Les Bijoux indiscrets. In this Oriental tale, Mangogul, a sultan, alleviates...