French Pop Culture

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores French popular culture through its media, entertainment, and public celebrations. We will learn about the aspects of French culture that make it unique, such as science fiction, caricature, political satire, cinema, and Carnival.

Defining 'Frenchness'

What do you imagine 'Frenchness' to be? It may involve Inspector Clouseau's accent, a French maid's costume, a baguette loaf, or a beret hat. All these things are immediate signs (or stereotypes) of French culture to foreigners. They enter our minds from a combination of cultural products, or things and ideas that circulate around the world that all originate from the same national, intellectual, and creative mindset.

Representations of French men and women in the movies, French television programs, cuisine, literature, music, art and dance: all these cultural products coalesce to into a conception of 'Frenchness'.

Unfortunately, a concept of French popular culture based solely on its cultural products will inevitably be flawed. A better understanding can be found by looking at two distinct aspects of French popular culture: cultural practices and everyday life.

Moving away from what was conventionally understood as high culture, associated with aristocratic audiences and the opera halls, the study of popular culture scrutinizes everyday life and its artifacts. Once referred to as low culture, this category seeks to level the field between products of high culture, like opera and art, and products of everyday consumer culture, like film and cartoons.

Satire and Caricature

One unique characteristic of French popular culture comes from the way it infuses political commentary into entertainments. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a cultural product that did not have some political undertone. Whether it's in science fiction, caricature, or Carnival, political commentary infuses French popular culture.

Science Fiction

Both science fiction as a literary genre and film as an art practice had their beginnings in France, and are therefore rich and intrinsic cultural practices. Albert Robida, a contemporary of Jules Verne, was known for his imaginative illustrations and novels in the 1880s that combined speculations about technology with subversion of mores, such as the role of women in society.

Womens rights depicted in Albert Robida
albert robida

Science fiction worked so well as a vehicle for satire because it showed the real world not as it was but twisted into a futuristic version of itself. Through such stories, prolific filmmaker George Melies explores issues of racism and religious persecution. His silent 1902 film, 'A Trip to the Moon,' for example, shows aliens as the target of racism when brought home to earth.

Print Culture

Through France's vibrant print culture, newspapers, magazines, books, fliers and posters circulate from authors to readers. They spread ideas in the form of stories and news, as well as opinion and commentary about current events.

French culture holds a special place for caricature: humorous illustrations with exaggerated traits, which spotlight political commentary. For example, Honore Daumier was both a notable painter as well as renowned caricaturist for a magazine called La Charivari. Though initially the European tradition of charivari took the form of gatherings that reinforced community by ostracizing outsiders, it grew into a practice of political commentary that poked fun at high profile figures.

Daumier's most famous charivari political cartoon is his depiction of King Louis-Philippe I as Gargantua (1831), which attacked political corruption, indifference to poverty and inhumane working conditions.

Honore Daumier, Gargantua, 1831
gargantua

Carnival

Celebrated across Europe and the Americas, Carnival takes the form of parades, dancing, feasting, and festivities. Carnival ('jours charnels', or carnal days) grew out of the Roman Catholic celebration that took place before Lent, a period of fasting. Carnival came from the Latin for 'farewell to the flesh' or 'take out the meat'.

According to scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, Carnival in medieval times was considered a time when all bets were off and the world went topsy turvy. Priests became beggars and politicians became thieves. Carnival was the prime time for political satire, upending social customs and testing assumptions. In the spirit of French popular culture akin to satire, caricature and Charivari, during Carnival it would have been okay to ridicule the King.

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