‘No Bullshit’ in the Académie

“Je suis typique bobo quoi”

… Not a phrase you might expect to hear from Virginie Despentes: “figure majeure et controversée du féminisme français”, writer, filmmaker, and former prostitute.[i] But Despentes rarely says what is expected of her. She is well known in France for her controversial views on taboo topics such as rape, porn, and prostitution. Her film Baise-moi (2000) was censored for its explicit scenes of un-simulated sex and violence, and made her synonymous with the movement pejoratively dubbed “New French Extremism” by James Quandt in 2004.[ii] Since then, she has published five books to great critical reception, winning multiple prizes and acting as a member of the prestigious Académie Goncourt from 2016 to 2020. Has Despentes undergone a metamorphosis “from anti-establishment to acclaimed author”?[iii] Has her ascent to the status of an intellectuelle weakened her credibility and authority to criticise?

Sell-out?

Aired on the public television channel France 3 in early June 2017, this interview was most likely arranged for Despentes to promote her book, Vernon Subutex 3, published a fortnight previously.[iv] The format – a cinematically filmed conversation with Ali Baddou, the smooth and professional host of Drôle d’endroit pour une rencontre – lends itself to superficiality. Unusually for Despentes, as a leading light in contemporary French feminism, it is not an opportunity for intellectual debate, but for the writer to communicate her personality to an audience who may not be familiar with her work, or even be watching the programme deliberately. There is no live audience and the use of multiple camera angles in combination with sophisticated post-production give the interview a manufactured feel. The deliberately selected geographical locations (the programme’s USP) and pre-prepared questions, which we can presume are written on the cards Baddou carries around with him throughout the interview, make it seem carefully choreographed. In spite – or in fact because of this – Despentes projects an image of authenticity, a hallmark of her status as an intellectuelle.

Gift of the Garb

virginie despentes
Figure 1
the clash
Figure 2

The programme begins with a wide-angle shot of Despentes striding confidently up to greet Baddou. In full monochrome and unadorned, save two silver rings and black eyeliner, she wears white trainers, black jeans, a black leather jacket and slogan t-shirt (fig.1). The leather jacket, jewellery and eyeliner are symbols of punk; a cultural movement which Despentes says she embraced in her youth, and is the foundation of the sincere, “no bullshit” (3:51) ethos, evident in her attitude and writing. A still inserted (3:24) of the punk band The Clash shows the four male musicians sporting almost identical outfits to the writer (fig.2) and their song The Magnificent Seven is used to transition between sections of the interview (2:30, 5:17 & 10:20), reinforcing Despentes’ association with punk music. Identifying with the sub-culture carries implications of being a social outcast; suggesting Despentes was – and would still like to appear – part of a marginalised group and thus able to ‘speak truth to power’, something Sartre argues is the role of the intellectuel.[v] Her androgynous look, usually completed with a cigarette (à la existentialist philosophers, whose iconic appearances undoubtedly contribute to the longevity of their celebrity) has become Despentes’ trademark, making her distinctive and recognisable.[vi] Moreover, having an “image de marque” is crucial for the intellectuel médiatique to receive invitations to appear on television in the first place.[vii] Despentes’ resistance to performative feminine traits, such as wearing traditional makeup, colourful clothing or carrying a handbag, indicates her refusal to acquiesce to gendered convention, despite her self-admission of now being bobo. This helps preserve her persona of an outsider, able to observe and criticise mainstream society from a distance – a necessary trait of the intellectuelle féministe.

In this first shot, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the white capital letters on her black t-shirt which read: “Fuck austerity”. Despentes uses her self-presentation to bring up confrontational politics before even opening her mouth, and sporting an expletive in public suggests uncompromising resistance to social norms, especially those for a woman in her late forties. When asked about its meaning, Despentes looks down at her chest as though she has forgotten what she is wearing, then replies, “après ces élections [of April 2017, which saw Macron elected as President] je me suis dis que c’est un bon t-shirt” (5:07). Although the interview may have been arranged to boost her book sales, Despentes has chosen to engage with the politics of the time and criticise the President’s policies on public television. Bobo, she may be, but pro-establishment as a result? It would seem not…

From prolo to bobo

Baddou is well informed about his guest; he knows that Despentes’ parents were postal workers and that the first song Despentes ever learned was L’Internationale (0:40). However, there are moments where he appears genuinely surprised by what Despentes says. While showing her a collaborative eco-project, Baddou trails off, asking doubtfully “ça vous parle ou pas?” (1:24), as though anticipating her disdain given her ‘urban’ image and the contents of her writing. When Despentes expresses enthusiasm he defends himself, saying “vous pourriez dire ‘ouais, c’est un truc de bobo…’”. She replies, “moi j’ai rien contre les bobos, je me sens très bobo” and proceeds to list ways in which she fits the stereotype – in stark contrast to the ‘extremist’ content of much of her past writing. This admission undermines Baddou – and perhaps the viewer’s – assumptions about Despentes’ self-image. It shows her integrity and defiance of expectation, as she accepts a label which is most often used pejoratively and seems an unlikely insult for the author of Baise-moi. After Despentes, a heavy smoker, agrees that she misses smoking in trains, but adds it was atroce that one could, he jibes, “Donc même vous […] êtes d’accord avec certains trucs hygiénistes” (6:05). She ignores this jibe, pointing out the humorous painting of former Prime Minister Édith Cresson, rather than taking offence. These moments suggest Despentes has a sense of humour about her own reputation and image. Despite her establishment success as a member of the Académie Goncourt, she comes across as modest and aware of the dissonance between her early life and subjects addressed in her work, and her professional status.

Never Mind the Bollocks

Figure 3
Baddou
Figure 4

Baddou seems surprised again by Despentes’ reaction to his question about why she created a male protagonist for the Subutex series. She begins, “je me suis pas trop posée la question”, raising her eyebrows and slightly puffing her lips as though she genuinely has not thought about it (fig.3). She then explains that “c’est beaucoup plus facile à accueillir chez le lecteur” (7:56). Baddou looks genuinely fascinated, asking “c’est vrai?” (fig.4). In defying the expectations of her interviewer, Despentes introduces a welcome element of spontaneity to Baddou’s otherwise highly scripted performance, ultimately allowing a rapport between the two of them, and thus the audience, to develop.

tv interview
Figure 5
baddou 1
Figure 6

Although the final cut of this interview is rather polished, it still retains a sense of intimacy. The pair move on to their third location and sit down in retro TGV seats, knees symmetrically spread in notoriously masculine fashion. This conveys an equality between the two, despite the interviewer-interviewee dynamic, which is also reflected in a lack of deference to the writer. The only time Baddou brings up Despentes’ achievements are to make fun of her being an académicienne embourgoisée (2:07), which they joke about together. The conversational format allows Despentes to interact with her interviewer, capturing some organic, unscripted banter between them. This provides some insight into Despentes’ off-screen, therefore unposed and unselfconscious personality. Her relaxed body language – standing with her hands in her pockets; gesticulating energetically while explaining herself; and slumping in her seat, contribute to this informal, and therefore honest, impression. Moreover, Baddou’s occasionally stilted performance – for example at one point he breaks the third wall (fig.3) – serves to emphasise her contrasting candour and absence of showbiz gloss.

Should She Stay or Should She Go?

Although she may now be recognised as intellectuelle by the establishment, Despentes has held onto her ‘no bullshit’ ethos, which keeps her critical, engagée, relevant, and free not to get trapped in her own stereotype: to be bobo now, as a rebellion against her past and her body of work. Within this televised format where visual aesthetic can take precedence, Despentes uses her image to communicate her personality and political views in a seemingly uncontrived way, even when the media format she participates in is quite the opposite. In 2015 she said, “J’ai beaucoup changé et j’aime changer. Je ne résiste pas.”[viii] This rings true here, as Despentes communicates apparent authenticity, despite the accolades she has accumulated, suggesting the main quality for which she made her name as an intellectuelle has not paled, despite her new socio-economic status. As Baddou remarks (1:43): rafraichissant indeed.


Further Reading

  • Christian Delporte, ‘La télévision fait-elle les intellectuels ? Intellectuels et télévision, des années 1950 à nos jours’, Modern & Contemporary France, 17:2 (2009) 138-151
  • Drôle d’endroit pour une rencontre (12/06/2017) Interview de Virginie Despentes depuis « Les Grands Vergers » de Paris – Drôle d’endroit < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgBDWKIWL5w&ab_channel=Dr%C3%B4led%27endroitpourunerencontre> [Accessed 12/11/2020]           (Figures 1-6 are screenshots from this video)
  • George Cotkin, ‘French Existentialism and American Popular Culture, 1945-1948’, The Historian 61:2 (1999), 327-340
  • Jeremy Ahearne, ‘Public Intellectuals and Cultural Policy in France’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 12:3 (2006), 323-339
  • Michèle A Schaal, ‘Introduction to Special Issue on Virginie Despentes. From Margins to Centre (?)’ Rocky Mountain Review, 72:1, (2018), 14-35
  • Nadia Louar, ‘”Deux cents mots et un gros marteau” Virginie Despentes’s Skillful Construction of an Authorial Posture’ Rocky Mountain Review,72:1 (2018) 125-145
  • Tanya C Horeck, Tina Kendall, The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2011)
  • The Clash, 1980 ‘The Magnificent Seven’ Sandinista! CBS, B00002MVQR
  • Virginie Despentes, (2019) ‘Virginie Despentes – Meuf King Kong’ Les couilles sur la table [Podcast] < https://open.spotify.com/episode/5QpUVK9eBGLG4FS8a2fmYN?si=cU_r_LDRRDaNtLXGTLrLWQ> [Accessed 12/11/2020]
  • -, Vernon Subutex 3 (Paris: Grasset, 2017)
  • -, King Kong théorie (Paris: Grasset, 2006)
  • Dir. -, Coralie Trinh Thi, Baise-moi 2000. Film. Pan-Européenne. 
  • Virginie Sauzon, ‘Virginie Despentes et les récits de la violence sexuelle : une déconstruction littéraire et féministe des rhétoriques de la racialisation’ Genre, Sexualité et Société 7 (2012)
  • Phillippe Azoury, 2000. ‘Affreuse, sale et méchante’ Libération, 18 May < https://next.liberation.fr/cinema/2000/05/18/affreuse-sale-et-mechante_326400> [Accessed 12/11/2020]

[i] Sauzon 2012, p.1.

[ii] Horeck 2011, p.2.

[iii] Schaal 2018, p.14.

[iv] Despentes, 2017.

[v] Ahearne 2006, p.335.

[vi] Cotkin 1999, p.331.

[vii] Delporte 2009, p.145.

[viii] Louar 2018, p.125.

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