Sex and the Colonial City: Mapping Masculinity, Whiteness, and Desire in French Hanoi

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michael G. Vann, California State University, Sacramento
This gendered reading of the colonial encounter in French Indochina uses previously untapped sources from the pre-1954 collection in Vietnam’s National Library. Engaging critical theories of masculinity and whiteness, I argue that imperialism’s racial, gender, and class hierarchies combined with the Third Republic’s paternalism and misogyny to give French men unprecedented power over their Asian subjects, especially Vietnamese women. This intersectionality of privilege created an openly predatory sexual culture in the overwhelming male white community of colonizers. In the 1890s, the cheap, locally produced weekly and bi-weekly newspapers in colonial Hanoi contained caricatures, cartoons, and poems about life in the colonies. Produced by bored French officials, soldiers, and settlers, the topics were jocular critiques of local politics, life in the colonial tropics, and tales of the cities’ illicit diversions such as drinking binges, opium use, and prostitution. Despite their dubious contribution to the history of French letters and art, they are useful for cultural historians of empire. As artifacts of conversations amongst colonial French men, they display an openness and frankness lacking in official documents. These banal documents reconstruct how white men saw Hanoi as their sexual playground. French men felt entitled to the very bodies of their colonial subjects, be they prostitutes, concubines, or victims of sexual assault. These cartoons can be linked to specific locations in the Hanoi, providing insight into the lived experience of the colonial city and information to literally map these white men’s sexual desires in the city. The open discussions of predatory behavior stopped in 1898 when Hanoi became the administrative capital of French Indochina. As hundreds of administrators arrived with their wives, daughters, and mothers, changing gender demographics and bourgeois social norms made such discussions unacceptable. Predatory behavior did not stop. Rather Hanoi’s new cultural atmosphere drove such conversations into the “locker room.”
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