On the female flâneur, the plight of visibility, and why the history of walking requires revision.
In the early-1960s, the anthropologist Robert Levy spent two years in the Society Islands in Tahiti studying the native language and its effect on the islands’ culture. Most strikingly, he found that people in the Society Islands did not have words like “grief” and “sorrow” and thus, when describing the death of loved ones, they claimed not to feel grief or even sadness, but rather to feel “sick” or “strange.” He also found that the islands had a disproportionately high rate of suicide and hypothesised that not having applicable language made them unable to properly process death.
When Levy published Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands in 1973, detailing his experiences on the islands, he invented the term “hypercognition” as a means to explain what he found. Hypercognition, or a society’s inability to coin a word that would otherwise explain a distinct experience, is a term still used by linguists and anthropologists today. As Levy conjectured, without certain words, we cannot have or understand certain experiences—sometimes to serious detriment.
For centuries, the word ‘flâneur’ has burrowed itself into the historical conversation of what it means to intimately know a city, to walk in it, to fully experience it, to be independent within it. The term, meaning a man who saunters around observing society, can be traced back to at least 17th-century France. It was first explained in detail in an 1872 edition of Larousse’s Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle in which the dictionary’s authors define it taxonomically: “flâneurs of the boulevards, of the parks, of the cafés.” In his 1837 novel César Birotteau, Honoré de Balzac called it “gastronomy of the eye.” Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve said that to flâne is “the very opposite of doing nothing,” insofar as it is an intellectual pursuit. Some trace the word back even further back, to 1587, with the Scandinavian noun ‘flana’, meaning “a person who wanders.” And it was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who first used the term in a scholarly context, writing about it in the 1920s and further honing its definition: a flâneur, for Benjamin, was at once an inherently literary character, a man of leisure, and a symbol of the modern, urban experience.
Flâneur became a historically valuable term. For at least two centuries, the word adopted a variety of meanings and contexts, but eventually it became a catchall byword for a modern, educated person. To be a flâneur was to encapsulate the progress and the civility of the Western world. The best-known flâneurs are also some of modern history’s most important writers, scholars, aristocrats, poets, and thinkers: from Thomas de Quincey to André Breton to Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Baudelaire to Will Self.
Google ‘flâneuse’, the feminine form of the word, and one only finds photographs and descriptions of a type of chaise longue. Women are excluded from the term. While this is a linguistic exclusion, it is also very much a historical one. To be excluded from the word is to be ostracised from the history of intellectualism, modernisation, even civilisation.
And yet it shouldn’t be so. Virginia Woolf was walking and learning and thinking; so too were the writers Jean Rhys and George Sand and the intrepid reporter Martha Gelhorn; likewise contemporary women like writer-artist Sophie Calle, artist Laura Oldfield Ford, and film director Agnès Varda. There have been dozens of important female saunterers, but centuries in the making, the word flâneur has failed to find room for them. Their contributions to the progression of modernity have largely been forgotten or rendered less important than those of their male counterparts.
Lauren Elkin, a critic, novelist, and author of the recent Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, believes that the solution to women being omitted from the history of walking is not to try to retroactively integrate them into the definition of flâneur. Instead, she has sought to redefine “flâneuse,” not as a type of chaise longue, but as a female flâneur. In doing so, Elkin has allowed herself—and historians—to reflect on the history of women walking and to properly revise it.
“There have always been women in cities,” Elkin told me on a recent morning at Cream, a café in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. “Women have always been inspired by cities and made art about them and written about the ways in which walking in cities have been emancipating or inspiring, so I thought, Well why do we have to define a flâneuse in the same terns as we define a flâneur? Maybe we could tunnel back and see what women were doing in cities and how they were writing about them.”
The sociologist Louis Huart, in Physiologie du flâneur, first published in 1841, writes about the average, middle-class Parisian men who spent their afternoons idling on the boulevards. Huart’s conclusion is that anyone can be a flâneur: the term is delinked from socioeconomic status, and one only needs to choose to be a flâneur.
Although women have walked and made art about and written about cities, they have done so in a way fundamentally different from male flâneurs: they’ve been highly visible. “Women,” Elkin says, “attracted too much attention to themselves.”
A flâneur is an independent walker, an independent artist, an independent thinker, and he can only function properly if he is left alone. This has rarely been a possibility for women. Women are more visible in public; they have not historically been allowed to meld into the flow of an urban environment in the same way as a man. A woman alone in public was not free to roam and think as she pleased; instead, she was viewed as either in need of (male) help or engaged in something socially unsavoury. The paradox in this is apparent: women are either brought back into the house (they are in need of help) or reviled (they are prostitutes) because they are too visible; and yet they often neither want to be visible, nor have they been visible within the history of walking.
“For a woman to be a flâneuse, first and foremost, she’s got to be a walker,” writes Elkin. But she’s also got to have some degree of independence, some degree of invisibility. If her space and thoughts are constantly being impinged upon, she cannot be as effective as her male counterpart. The flâneur is inherently invisible; the flâneuse is not.
A century ago, women were visible because, alone in public, they were seen as breaking social mores. For a woman from a notable family who lived in a city, like Marie Bashkirtseff, for instance, who lived in Paris with her family in the late-19th-century, it would have been subversive to go outside of her house alone without a man. “I long for the freedom to go out alone,” Bashkirtseff wrote in 1897 in her journal. “To go, to come, to sit on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries, and especially to go to the Luxembourg, to look at the decorated store windows, to enter churches and museums, and to stroll in the old streets in the evenings. This is what I envy. Without this freedom one cannot become a great artist.” Today, the act of women subverting expectations of visibility does not begin with going outside in public, but instead with going outside in public and claiming her space as her own.
Particularly adventurous women have attempted to turn the tables of visibility by making themselves invisible while rendering men unknowingly visible. For a photography exhibit called Suite Vénitienne, the French experimental artist Sophie Calle followed a man she had met at a party in Paris to Venice, where she stalked him on the train and throughout the city, secretly taking his picture, writing about him, fantasising about him, imagining herself in love with him. “If she had been a man doing that to a woman it would’ve been, well, creepy, but it would’ve also been literature,” says Elkin. “It’s basically André Breton in Nadja.”
“There is still this element of transgression for a woman to walk in public and claim her space and claim her right to be there without being spoken to or troubled or commented on or even looked at with anything other than neutrality,” says Elkin. Women bothering or stalking men on the streets—like Calle—tend to be seen as subversive or crazy; men bothering or stalking women on the streets, by contrast, are seen perhaps as unfortunate but to be expected. The flâneuse has always had to deal with this unequal expectation. Her accomplishments, therefore, have been even harder won.
In Flâneuse, Elkin takes the reader from Long Island to Manhattan to Paris to London back to Paris then on to Venice and to Tokyo before coming back to Paris and New York once more. It is in Tokyo that she finds herself able to be most invisible. Invisibility in far-away places is a sentiment reflected often in films and literature, from Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation to D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Certain cultures allow certain people to be invisible. For Elkin, she was invisible in Tokyo because, she says, “I didn’t register in terms of the general idea for beauty. The only men who noticed me would be men who were into Western women.” And it is with this increased invisibility that one can often feel most free.
In Paris, by contrast, Elkin told me of how she was recently accosted by two different men on the same day, each of whom followed her as she walked with her headphones in, telling them to please go away; but they only repeated, “Hello, hello, hello,” and “Madame, madame, madame.” It is a common story, one that women know well and that men are often unaware of. Expecting to be visible in public, expecting even to be bothered is a fact of life for women. Social subversion comes from continuing to walk in the face of this, trying day in and day out to be invisible even when she so often comes up short.
Still, as Elkin readily admits, a city is defined by the way people interact with one another and if everyone were entirely invisible, never interacting with one another, a city would be a dreary existence. (In essence, this is the plight of suburbia.) The allure of cities and of walking is rooted in human interaction. Total invisibility becomes eventually lonely. Feelings of freedom all too often sour into feelings of isolation.
Indeed, the cities through which we most desire to walk are defined by interaction. While critics like Geoff Nicholson or Will Self might say any city is “walkable,” there is an important distinction between a city that is walkable and a city that is enjoyably walkable. “An enjoyably walkable city must have interests and life and integration and interaction,” Elkin says. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes that a successful city “mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets.” The trouble is that integration and interaction often lead to unwanted visibility.
There is, therefore, a fine distinction at play. One should be able to choose when he or she is visible. The male flâneur can easily do so; he will rarely be accosted or interacted with against his will. The female flâneuse, contrarily, is dependent on the men around her to choose not to accost or interact with her against her will. In both instances, it is men making the choice of whether to be visible and whether to respect another person’s preference of visibility.
“Paris is a city of that desiring look across a metro car. I wouldn’t want to get rid of that; it’s nice that people react to each other,” Elkin says. “But I still have the sense that women are forever being interpolated in the city in a way that men are not.”
Even the construction of most modern cities tends to make women feel out of place. They are often unaccounted for in even the most basic ways. As Elkin and I were getting ready to leave the café where we spoke, she told me about the day before when she had been waiting for the métro down the street. With some spare time, she went to sit in the green chairs that dot the quays and found that her feet didn’t touch the ground. “I’m just under five-foot-five,” she says. “I’m just sitting back, relaxing, a little tired, and my legs dangle, like a child.” It made her feel at once vulnerable and as though Paris was not built with women in mind. When I walked down the Rue de Belleville and entered the station to wait for the Line 11, I sat down. My feet were planted firmly on the ground. It was a fact I’d not noticed before.
If there is a newly-awakened social understanding that throughout history women have walked alone in public, reflecting, being inspired by the city, and doing all of that independently and alone, might that change how we view women walking alone today? Might the social desire to draw women back to the safety of the home or to see women as opening themselves to conversation when they step into the public sphere change? If women out walking are understood to be independent, contributing to art and culture and modernity and civilisation just as much as their male counterparts, will we be less likely to interrupt them, to interact with them against their will? If we’re to believe Elkin and the theories of hypercognition, the best place to start is with a word.
By popularising and redefining the word flâneuse, history might rearrange itself around the notion that women have always been walking; to see that Woolf and Sand were just as important to the history of flânerie as was Baudelaire. And by revising the history of women walking, the stage might be better set, that women in public are respected as artists, as writers, as philosophers, as independent humans reflecting on the world around them, able to move through cities unbothered, invisible, if they so choose.
The photos that accompany this piece are Matilda Hill-Jenkins’ visual meditation on women walking in White City.
Principle photograph courtesy: H Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images