Craske on Planté and Thérenty, eds (2022)

Planté, Christine et Marie-Ève Thérenty, editors. Féminin / Masculin dans la presse du XIX siècle. PU de Lyon, 2022, pp. 504, 18 illustrations, ISBN 978-2-7297-1270-9

Resulting from a research program supported by two French universities, this volume appears as part of the Presses Universitaires de Lyon’s “Des deux sexes et autres” series, edited by Christine Planté (who previously organised a comparable volume, published in 2002, entitled: Masculin / Féminin dans la poésie et les poétiques du XIXe siècle). Situated at the intersection of press and gender studies, and drawing on landmark texts in French press history—notably La Civilisation du journal (2011) and Marie-Ève Thérenty’s Femmes de presse, femmes de lettres (2019)—it offers a diverse range of analyses and treats periodical sources that span from the French Revolution to the inter-war period. The introduction makes three key propositions: first, that the press played (and continues to play) a significant role in defining masculine and feminine roles, so it should be analysed when debating social understandings of sex or gender. Second, that scholars need to nuance the commonly held view that women were absent from newspapers (both as producers and consumers), and third, that this process requires an analytical back-and-forth between general themes and specific case studies. Before summarising the volume’s content, Planté and Thérenty provide an insightful overview of key contexts in nineteenth-century women’s press history, highlighting questions of separate spheres, readership, authorship, the gendering of press material, and journalism’s capacity to reinforce or challenge gender roles. Subsequent contributions appear under five key sub-themes: (1) the representation, perpetuation, and contestation of gender stereotypes, (2) the gendered implications of art and literary criticism, (3) the role gender plays in criminal faits divers, (4) the experience and strategies of nineteenth-century women journalists, and (5) the continuity and evolution of gendered practices in inter-war press culture.

From glancing at the table of contents, it is clear that the first sub-theme contains significantly more contributions than the others, amounting to approximately one third of the book’s pages. This is unsurprising, given the primacy of “representations” to the research groups involved, although it does present an unbalanced picture of an otherwise broad and inclusive range of critical approaches. Probing the issue of balance further, we might also question the presence of “Masculin” in the work’s title, since most of the contributions centre on femininity and are written predominantly by women. Excluding the introduction and conclusion, only three of the twenty-two contributions discuss men or masculinity at length, and the contributors’ gender ratio is five men to seventeen women. Openly acknowledged in the introduction, this femininity-centric approach remains endemic to gender studies, with the sometimes-unfortunate result that those who critique gendered hierarchies can—by focusing primarily on women and femininity—end up re-affirming the view that men and masculinity exist beyond a gendered lens. The editors rightly suggest that the ideal approach would be to analyse examples from feminine, feminist, and generalist periodicals in relation to one another, in order to gain a wider and more nuanced understanding of press culture and gender identity in the period (9). As it stands, the current work goes a long way to formulating such an approach, while indicating a path forward for future research.

The volume covers a wide array of material that eludes brief summary. However, its contributions can be grouped together according to shared themes, forms, and scholarly approaches. For example, Catherine Nesci and François Kerlouégan analyze the construction of femininity and masculinity in early women’s newspapers and men’s fashion reviews, respectively. Caroline Fayolle and Christine Planté consider feminist contestation in periods of press censorship, while Sarah Mombert, Marie-Ève Thérenty, Margot Irvine, and Sandrine Lévêque analyse how women journalists adopted different strategies for publishing and promoting their work in a male-dominated profession. Barbara Bohac, Guillaume Pinson, and Claire Blandin analyse representations of women in La Dernière mode, Femina and Marie-Claire, respectively, highlighting the tension between tradition and emancipation typical of women’s magazines. Focusing on journalism’s intersection with visual and performance cultures, Isabelle Matamoros, Hélène Marquié, and Laurence Brogniez analyse portraits of women readers, depictions of male ballet dancers, and women’s art criticism.

Nicolas Pitsos and Sandrine Roll consider the intersections between gender, journalism, and consumer culture by studying advertising and proto-feminist consumer ethics, respectively. They employ a critical lens associated with sociology of literature, best exemplified by Paul Aron’s contribution, which includes three informative tables about the social, educational, and political backgrounds of women writers between the two World Wars (413–16, 419–25, and 428). Amélie Chabrier, Michèle Fontana, Laetitia Gonon, and Frédéric Canovas adopt a law-and-literature studies approach to the representation of women in judicial columns, the 1889–90 “Malle Sanglante” affair, the juxtaposition of gendered crimes with un-gendered depictions of corpses in faits divers, and the place of the homosexual in fin-de-siècle society. In the latter example, Canovas analyses French writers’ reception of the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895—a topic that, although interesting in its own right, sits awkwardly in the volume as a whole, since it analyses sexuality, but not gender. Moreover, anglophone critics may be surprised, when reading Pinson’s article on Femina, to find no reference to Rachel Mesch’s lengthier analysis of the same material and themes in Having It All in the Belle Epoque (2013). This oversight is especially jarring because Mesch’s book is cited in the volume’s selective bibliography. 

Féminin / Masculin dans la presse du XIX siècle is noteworthy for the broad range of material examined by its contributors and for the transdisciplinary nature of their analyses. In this way, the book is valuable not only to specialists, but also to those who are approaching such material for the first time. While providing a sample of journalistic sources from across the long nineteenth century and beyond, the articles indicate further reading for students and researchers who are interested in learning more about specific authors, titles, or sub-genres. Critics working on journalism, visual culture, literary personae, and legal history will especially enjoy reading the articles by Pitsos, Matamaros, Chabrier, Fontana, Thérenty, and Lévêque, because they combine fascinating subject material with analytical nuance and openings for future research. Overall, Planté and Thérenty’s volume makes a significant contribution to interdisciplinary research in nineteenth-century French studies. Rather than offering a cohesive, over-arching vision of its subject matter—which would risk eliding the difficulties involved in synthesizing varied, and often conflicting, material—it provides a window onto the diverse genres and themes that scholars can consider when assessing the intersections between press culture and gender.

Helen Craske
University of Oxford (Merton College)