This website is an interactive academic
tool for CEA-UNH course:
Gay Paris:
Culture, Society, & Urban Sexual Identity

CEA GlobalCampus | Spring 2009
UNH Course Code: GEN230
Credits: 3 | Location: Paris, France

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Jean Genet

excerpts from Queer French: Globalization, Language, and Sexual Citizenship in France
_Denis M. Provencher

Jean Genet (French author) serves as the archetypal ‘outlaw’ or ‘dissident citizen’ in twentieth- and twenty-first-century France by creating a discursive space where his characters remain somewhat on the social margins by naming their same-sex desires and sex acts without articulating a ‘homosexual identity.’ (p. 53)

For the first half of the 20th century, French homosexual consciousness was informed by French literary figures such as Proust, Gide, Cocteau, Genet (who all deal with homosexuality in their writing). The presence of French writers like Gide and Genet continue to inspire various ‘coming out’ style for French gays and lesbians.’ (p. 93)


Genet’s non-identitarian language of desire that defies sexual categories serves as a ‘queer’ French language of sexual citizenship. (p. 55)

Genet’s characters generally avoid the practice of naming or categorizing themselves…In order to remain free, one must find the means in the linguistic system all the while avoiding terms that define identity. Characters such as Querelle and Gil seem to understand the dangers of a stable identity, and look for the means to avoid homosexual identity, without equally dismissing their desires. Seblon, the only character to completely assume his identity ultimately find himself in prison. (p. 64)

What does ‘authenticity’ signify to you? In the context of sexuality and sexual identity?

Is ‘authenticity’ social, natural, genuine, contextual…?

Provencher claims that ‘authenticity is a cultural, textual phenomenon.’ (p. 55) Do you agree?

He sites Judith Butler who sees gender ‘as a construction with no beginning or end – an on-going discursive practice. Whereas the individual’s sex is determined by his/her chromosomes, the individual’s gender identity becomes inscribed on the surface of the body through such artifices as gestures and language…Hence, the ‘realness,’ ‘naturalness’ or ‘authenticity’ of gender emerges over time through a variety of repetitive and performative acts.’ (p. 56)

Authenticity relates to an abstract notion invested with local cultural values, beliefs and assumptions, whereas ‘authentification’ represents the process by which cultural values are repeatedly performed into being by group members. (p. 57)

Language plays a critical role in these acts of ‘authentification.’

Quoting William Leap, Provencher states, “‘speaking is the same as doing; the words we use to describe ourselves and our relationships are crucial in creating our culture.’ Hence, gay identity and cultural authenticity are not pre-discursive; they exist and persist through enunciation and reiteration.” (p. 57)

Quoting Mireille Rosello, “Repeating is the most powerful form of enactment. Repeating is a speech act endowed with the maximum authorized level of power…the truth of a stereotype lies in its successive repetitions.” (p. 57) (Physical example of the cross used).

How does this relate to Foucault’s ideas about homosexuality?

How does this relate to our readin
g - Folles, Swells, Effeminates and Homophiles in Saint-Germain-des-Pres of the 1950s?

Jean Genet

Richard Dryer writes of Genet: “His name evokes a flavour, a set of images, a world – you don’t have to have read his work to know what sort of thing you’re going to get when someone says such-and-such is Genet-esque, nor to be able to catch illusions to him in so many novels, films and theatre pieces or to grasp the significance of the frequent references to him in the major intellectual trends of the post-war years.” (p. 59)

Genet iconography includes: flowers, prisons, drag queens, dirt, melancholy unshaven criminals and sailors, crucifixes, crotches, tattoos and scars. (p. 59)

While Genet follows in the modernist narrative tradition set forth by such writers as Proust, Gide and Cocteau, he also begins to break away from such convention…’Gidean homosexuality is strangely undemanding, almost to the point of being indistinguishable from a homophobic rejection of gay sex…inverts are, according to Proust, compelled to see with disgust their unnatural selves reflected in the specular presence of their fellow inverts. (p. 60)

(In contrast) Genet signs his own name to his writings on the subject of homosexuality; he creates a narrator who self-identifies as homosexual; the narrator and characters recount undeniably homosexual acts. (p. 61)

Who does Genet write about?

While Proust and Gide chronicle the lies of upper-middle class and aristocrats of Paris society, Genet recounts the experience of the abject of society including among others its drag queens, prostitutes, pimps, assassins, thieves, prisoners, sailors, and soldiers. (“Extreme modernity”) (p. 61)


Excerpt from Genet’s novel Notre-Dame des fleurs (1948) (an initial sexual encounter between the drag queen Divine and her ‘masculine’ lover Mignon):

“Loving each other like two young boxers who, before separating, tear off each other’s shirts, and when they are naked, astounded by their beauty, think they are seeing themselves in a mirror, stand there for a second open-mouthed, shake – with rage at being caught – their tangled hair, smile a damp smile, and embrace each other like two wrestlers, interlock their muscles in precise connections offered by the muscles of the other, and drop to the mat until their warm sperm, spurting high, maps out on the sky a milky way where other constellations which I can read take shape: the constellations of the Sailor, the Boxer, the Cyclist, the Fiddle, the Spahi, the Dagger. Thus a new map of the heaves in outlined on the wall of Divine’s garret.” (p. 62-63)

Unlike previous authors like Proust, Gide and Cocteau who do not allow their characters to ‘parade before an audience with an open fly,’ Genet generally allows his characters to expose their body parts and to participate in vivid sexual acts observed by a homosexual narrator.” And “although he opens his character’s fly, it is not always a penis that falls out. For example, in Miracle de la Rose, an open zipper provides for the release of more than a hundred doves. (p. 63)

“In the final scene of the novel, Genet’s tough guy Mignon finds himself in prison and decides to write to his lover Divine to express his feelings and ask for some help...” (p. 63) *

Un Chant d’amour (1950)

Genet’s use of prison walls in Un Chant d’amour (1950) is notable – where such a physical barrier that generally represents a boundary between prisoners, actually serves as a form of communication between prisoners with the help of graffiti, holes, and chains of flowers or smoke. (p. 65)

Genet in Contemporary French Popular Culture

Jean-Paul Gaultier’s ‘Le Mâle’

Jean-Paul Gaultier’s cologne for men, ‘Le Mâle’ calls upon a stock of Genetesque characters. Similar to Genet’s novels that offer voyeuristic and homoerotic depictions of soldiers, sailors, criminals and the like, this advertisement displays two sailors, as seen through a naval-ship port hole. The two men sit face to face at a table, in front of a blue nautical backdrop, and display their muscular, tattooed biceps in a type of arm-wrestling match. it is noteworthy that Gaultier uses the same male model for both of the characters in this image, which gives the appearance of two twin sailors who are consumed by each other in a narcissistic gaze. The image recalls the scene from Notre-Dame des fleurs… (p. 66) *

Paris’ Queen Nightclub

French Popular AIDS Fiction

Pierre et Gilles Photography: “Merde à le Pen” (p. 73) *

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