Bikinis and Breastplates: Richard Vinen Ponders the Political Significance of Two of France's Most Potent Female Icons and Finds There Is More to Them Than Meets the Eye

By Vinen, Richard | History Today, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Bikinis and Breastplates: Richard Vinen Ponders the Political Significance of Two of France's Most Potent Female Icons and Finds There Is More to Them Than Meets the Eye


Vinen, Richard, History Today


JOAN OF ARC, THE SAINT, WAS BORN TO A PEASANT FAMILY in Lorraine, eastern France, in 1412. At the age of fifteen she heard the voices of St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret urging her to free France from the English and to see that the dauphin, the future Charles VII, was crowned king. She put on armour, cut her hair and led an army to relieve the siege of Orleans, before attending Charles's coronation in Reims. In 1430 she was captured by the English, convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. Brigitte Bardot, the film star, was born into the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1934. Her public career also began at the age of fifteen, when she appeared on the front cover of Elle magazine and met the film director Roger Vadim, who was to make her famous seven years later in God Created Woman (1956).

Apart from attaining fame early, the two women do not seem to have much in common. Joan was poor and died young; Bardot is rich and has reached her seventies. Joan is the second most famous virgin in Christian history, noted tot the androgyny of her appearance; Bardot, famous for exaggerated femininity, railed in 2003 against women who wore military uniform or held positions of command, she was writing shortly after Chirac appointed a woman a Minister of Defence. Bardot, received by the Pope in 1995, has been accepted by the Catholic hierarchy in a way that Joan never was during her lifetime, and Joan (whose life has inspired films by Cecil B. de Mille, Robert Bresson and Luc Besson) is a major figure in the history of cinema in a way that Bardot is not.

Joan of Arc and Bardot do, however, have one important thing in common. Both are associated with French political icons. Joan fought under the cross of Lorraine, which five hundred years later became associated with the French struggle against the Germans during the Second World War and especially with General Charles de Gaulle--of whom Winston Churchill famously remarked: 'he thinks he is Joan of Arc but I cannot get my bloody bishops to burn him'. The cross of Lorraine remains the symbol of Gaullism--and the huge cross of Lorraine on a hillside outside the general's home town of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises remains the most important sacred site of Gaullism. Incidentally, the house that Joan occupied in Orleans now stands in the 'Place du General de Gaulle.'

Brigitte's association with a political icon began in 1969 when the sculptor Alain Gourdon chose her as a model for a new bust of Marianne--the name given to the female figure that has represented the French Republic since the nine-teenth century. It was meant as a joke (like the reggae version of the Marseillaise recorded by Serge Gainsbourg who, rather predictably, once had an affair with Bardot) and might have remained so had the bust not succeeded in capturing the public imagination. Since Bardot, a galaxy of famous women--film stars, singers and models--have been chosen to model Marianne. Laetitia Casta, chosen in 2000, was the first official Marianne to be elected by France's more than 36,000 maires, who are for the most part middle-aged men.

In some respects, Marianne and the cross of Lorraine stand at opposite ends of the French political spectrum. Republican France, which looks back to the French Revolution as the font of political virtue, is very different from monarchist France that looks back to the alliance of Church and State believed to have characterized the Middle Ages. Monarchists sometimes derided the Republic as la gueuse (tramp or whore)--terms that were often applied to Bardot during her early career--but even within the Republican tradition, the cross of Lorraine and Marianne stand for very different things. General de Gaulle chose the cross of Lorraine as the emblem on the medals that were struck to mark his accession to power in 1958. It is, therefore, a symbol that seems to sum up the centralization and strong executive power of his Fifth Republic. Marianne is associated with a different kind of Republican politics. …

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Bikinis and Breastplates: Richard Vinen Ponders the Political Significance of Two of France's Most Potent Female Icons and Finds There Is More to Them Than Meets the Eye
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