- Enfants Terribles: Youth & Femininity in the Mass Media in France, 1945–1968
Many of the most influential studies of twentieth-century European youth are works of cultural studies or draw on approaches from cultural studies. One has only to think of the analyses of British postwar youth cultures done by scholars associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham or Anne Gorsuch’s recent history of Russian youth in the first decade of Bolshevik rule. 1 That this is so should not be surprising, for twentieth-century youth identities and experiences were often shaped within the contexts of popular, mass, and consumer culture. But as the works mentioned above make clear, there are multiple ways to approach the study of youth and youth culture. In the exhilerating Enfants Terribles, Susan Weiner, who teaches French at Yale, utilizes French theory—especially psychoanalytic and feminist—to analyze the historical phenomenon of the emergence of a new teenage girl in France after the Second World War.
Both the book’s subject matter and approach are innovative. To date, examinations of twentieth-century French youth history have tended to concentrate on issues related to politics, with interwar youth movements, new state approaches to youth under the Popular Front and Vichy governments, and youth participation in the events of 1968 receiving particular attention. These studies have rarely made young women or questions involving gender central to their analysis. In Enfants Terribles, Weiner breaks new ground by analyzing the French mass media to map out the rise of a new figure in the French cultural landscape, the teenage girl. The focus on the mass media is particularly apt. Postwar French [End Page 257] governments were reluctant to politicize youth as their Popular Front and Vichy predecessors had, while young women—both real and fictional—were always represented as being outside of and uninterested in politics. Instead, they inhabited the realm of culture. They gained access to the public sphere—not to mention to an often sexualized notoriety—through culture, and they were constructed in novel ways in culture. To illustrate how this happened, Weiner does a number of things. She analyzes the young female writer of the 1950s, who wrote with a shocking sexual frankness and who was sometimes the creation of male publishers intent on bringing new marketing strategies to French publishing. She also studies the ways young women were appealed to, represented in, and constructed through postwar women’s magazines, female fiction, popular music, and film. Weiner does all this with lively prose and through close readings of a range of cultural texts and images, many of which are reproduced in the book. (The book’s wonderful, colorful dust jacket, which is designed around the cover of the first issue of Mademoiselle, evokes the sensibility of 1960s youth culture particularly well.) Throughout, Weiner demonstrates that if postwar French culture allowed new possibilities for young women, it always did so within clear limits. Sexual adventures ended badly, and there was ultimately no viable position for young women outside the codes that determined the good girl.
Although Weiner’s primary focus is the teenage girl, this figure was defined in relation to adult women and young men, and Enfants Terribles has much to say about the ways women and young men were represented and positioned in postwar French culture and politics. The first chapter presents an extended analysis of constructions of adult and youthful femininity in two magazines, Elle, which first appeared in 1945 and was initially directed towards adult women, and Mademoiselle, which began in 1962 and targeted young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty. As executed by Weiner, the analysis of Elle, which occupies much of the chapter, is more than a simple analysis of representations of women. What emerges is an intriguing portrait of a female-operated magazine, one that conveyed complicated and often contradictory messages to French women, and did so as part of a larger postwar French dialogue with American models of consumer culture, domestic...