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Remaking the Male Body

By Joanna Bourke | Posted 10th June 2014, 12:32
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Remaking the Male Body
Masculinity and the Uses of Physical Culture in Interwar and Vichy France
Joan Tumblety

Oxford University Press   272pp   £68

Gaston Doumergue, president of the Third Republic from 1924 to 1931, would wake at 5 am, throw himself into a vigorous regime of physical culture before taking a brisk hour-long walk, believing it helped him cope with the rigours of presidential office. Around the same time, working-class Marcel Hansenne was growing up as a scrawny, knobbly-kneed child in the industrial town of Tourcoing, north of Lille. Friends and bullies sarcastically nicknamed him ‘Hercules’. He later claimed that athleticism was responsible for his success as France’s 800m Olympic bronze medallist. Or, as another Frenchman recalled, although his mirror reflected the ‘pathetic spectacle of my sloping shoulders … my spindly calves on which my socks fell down’, in the interwar years he was encouraged to dream of ‘strength and beauty’. Throughout this period French men embraced a politics focused upon the male body: France’s regeneration depended upon the systematic practice of gymnastics, physical culture and sports. The athletic, male body was to transform their floundering nation.

Joan Tumblety’s book encourages us to interrogate physical culture in interwar and Vichy France. It is the first book-length exploration of the purported relationship between male athletic prowess and national virility. The bodies of French men needed to be toned and strengthened in order to invigorate the race. Men were bombarded with images of taut, strong bodies in sporting poses. On the political right and left a better society was believed to require the development of a specific type of male body. Not surprisingly, French physicians were prominent in campaigns to enhance the physical training of young men in schools, as well as in the army. They quickly realised that there was money to be made through self-help manuals, gymnastic equipment and ‘natural’ potions promising corporeal miracles. Largely because masculinity was assumed to be unstable, even vulnerable, it required support, help and policing. 

Although Tumblety is immersed in the specificities of French history and politics, the questions she addresses are not only of interest to people concerned with modern French culture. For instance, I am a modern British historian of the body and masculinity and found many of her arguments familiar. Tumblety does not deny this, but neatly draws out what was distinctive about the French physical culture movements. For instance, anxieties about depopulation were particularly sharp in France and neo-Lamarckian ideas about the heritability of acquired characteristics meant that French reformers placed more emphasis on positive eugenics. The body ‘strong-and-beautiful’ could be passed on to future generations. Although Tumblety emphasises the links between French body-traditions and those of other nations – and she admits that there was great admiration in certain French circles for models of athleticism emerging in fascist Italy and Germany – she disagrees with historians who assume that the interwar cult of virile masculinity in France was fascist. She is able to demolish this ‘reductionist view’ by showing that the worship of the athletic body had a prewar history in France and shared features with other European nations, including Britain.  

Controversially (but convincingly) Tumblety suggests that the link between athleticism and social success actually did cross the boundaries of class, political adherence and sexuality. She also tackles head-on problematic questions about whether individual men ‘internalized the normative codes of manliness’ that were being pressed upon them from all sides. 

Tumblety is a careful, nuanced historian. This is her first book and I am already looking forward to her next one.

Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London. Her latest book is The Story of Pain: From Prayers to Painkillers (Oxford University Press, 2014)


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