Vinay Swamy is Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Vassar College, and the author of Interpreting the Republic: Marginalization and Belonging in Contemporary French Novels and Films and co-editor (with Sylvie Durmelat) of Screening Integration: Recasting Maghrebi Immigration in Contemporary France, which was recently published in French as Les Écrans de l’intégration.
Swamy applied the “Page 99 Test” to Through the Keyhole and reported the following:
Marcela Iacub’s Through the Keyhole traces the history of the word pudeur (modesty, often translated as decency in the legal context) as a specifically legal term used in Article 330 of the old Napoleonic Penal code, which regulated “modesty” in public space and thus sexuality in general. The deletion of this term from the French legal vocabulary in 1992 represented not only a semantic shift but also an epistemic rupture, which Marcela Iacub explores in this work.Learn more about Through the Keyhole at the Manchester University Press website.
We discover how the law has long divided the visible world between domains that are considered legal and illegal with regard to certain acts and behavior, thus transforming real (and sometimes indistinguishable) spaces into institutional and political spaces. Rather than read the final disappearance of pudeur from the French legal, and perhaps cultural, lexicon as a liberation (and thus progress), Iacub shows how anxieties of the post-Napoleonic period that produced the very concept of decency allowed for the construction of a sexuality that was controlled through spatial dispersion. Yet, over time, this control of sexuality through a tight regulation of space (by defining what constituted public or private) gave way—through a series of legal judgments from the nineteenth into the mid-twentieth century—to a sexuality that is now articulated through what she calls the politics of Sex. Thus, Iacub’s text lays out the underlying stakes for contemporary French society of this semantic and indeed conceptual shift from pudeur (decency) to Sex.
Page 99 describes how the courts in the early to mid-twentieth century parsed the definition of public decency to distinguish between “chaste” nudity and obscenity in an effort to allow space for artistic freedom:This rule would be applied for nearly forty years in Parisian music halls. The public powers remained impassive in front of performances of live nudity when a minuscule opaque triangle covered just the genital split, without showing any more, the pubis itself being shaved and made up—without a doubt, in Roger Doublier’s words: “to give to this part of the body the ‘pallor of statues’ that the police commissioner so appreciated on 9 January 1935.” The decision handed down by the judges of Riom not only invoked art but also hygiene as being a good reason to be naked. The judges doubtlessly were alluding to French nudist practices, which were beginning to be seen with a great deal of benevolence by the authorities. But what seems the most groundbreaking in this decision is that it was no longer a question of motion or motionlessness, of art or the absence thereof to make it such that nudities were not obscene. On the contrary, for there to be obscenity, it was necessary for the exhibition of genitals, or breasts for that matter, to be accompanied by lascivious attitudes. Obscenity was like a piece of clothing that made nudity unacceptable. This implied a radical change in relation to the theories in force at the turn of the century.The importance of this book, then, stems equally from its content as its method: Iacub both demonstrates the link between juridical decisions and the ways in which the ethics and morality of (French) society have evolved, and offers us a mode of interrogation that might prove productive for other legal systems and societies.
However, some years later, on 8 November 1950, the Tribunal of Saint-Lô punished a stallholder at a fair who had been presenting inside his stall, in a glass box, one naked woman with only a G-string, on the grounds that this spectacle could not have presented any artistic character. For this tribunal, as opposed to that of Riom, the veil of art was indispensable to protect the spectacle of all obscenity.
This debate was to be central during the period when the new fashion of the monokini would be judged, for the fact of knowing if, to be legal, bare breasts must be covered or not would determine the fate of this new bathing suit in communal spaces such as beaches, streets and in open public. This question would also be decisive in making fashion compatible with law.
Indeed, historians of fashion and culture have not stopped foregrounding the indisputable fact of the progressive baring of women, but also of men, in communal public spaces since the beginning of the twentieth century.
In this sense, Iacub’s perspective on the power dynamics at play in the construction of gender and sexuality resonates with the work of several Anglophone scholars in the fields of sexuality and gender studies. Our debates about acceptable (sexual) behavior often rely on unarticulated definitions of private and public. Whether or not the construction of those spaces differs significantly in the Anglophone world, Iacub’s critical and legally-grounded framing of such questions as what constitutes such divisions, and how they impact our understanding of sexuality, lends scholars in these fields a clearly tenable method to approaching the way we view gender and sexuality within our own societies.