The Cultural Implications of Performance

Christine Adams

Christine Adams has taught at St. Mary’s College in Maryland since the fall of 1992. She has published primarily in French family and gender history, including two books: A Taste for Comfort and Status: A Bourgeois Family in Eighteenth-Century France and Poverty, Charity and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France.


Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube have created a world that effaces the line between real life and performed reality. Academics refer to a particular type of performance as performativity: on social media, we share photos and posts that not only reflect who we are but that also construct the identity we wish to communicate. Performativity is heavily gendered, and the stakes for young women are both different and perhaps higher than for their male peers. Today, in a world dominated by social media, young women in particular seek empowerment through performing for both their friends and a wider world that often treats them as little more than sexual objects (Note 1).  Some are celebrities, some are wannabe celebrities; some are simply looking for the gratification of public approval for their self-presentation while others have broader aims. We all act in a specific historical, political, and now technological context, which affects the nature of the image we try to present of ourselves as well as how it is received.  This impulse to perform (and to judge those performances) is nothing new (Note 2),  but conditions of and incentives for those performances are historically specific and help us understand the spectacle of social life and the consequences for the individuals who are part of the show.

And yet, despite the fact that we recognize the omnipresence of performance in our own self-presentation as well as that of others, we also claim to value transparency, sincerity, and authenticity—on TV shows such as “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” in the United States, the participants always profess to be searching for that ever-elusive “sincerity” in a potential partner. In the 2016 political campaign season, one of the biggest criticisms of Hillary Clinton was her lack of authenticity. In fact, political pundits regularly suggest ways in which she could more effectively “perform authenticity,” which seems like an oxymoron. In fact, it appears that Clinton’s awkward wonkishness was indeed authentic. When she tried to perform the emotions that audiences clamored for, it came across as inauthentic. Celebrities, who act for a living, are better at performing those “authentic” emotions than Clinton was; not surprisingly, the most successful politicians today are often those who can enact “authenticity.”

Because celebrities can effectively display emotional authenticity in support of a cause, many young women in the public eye today have entered that liminal space between culture and politics. Celebrities of all sorts frequently use their visibility toward political ends; it can be quite explicit, as in the case of Emma Watson speaking in support of feminism at the United Nations or Beyoncé using her musical performances to draw attention to fraught racial and gender issues. However, it is not only famous women who put themselves on display with a political goal in mind. SlutWalk is another kind of performance with an unambiguous political message. But for women, the simple decision to put oneself in the public sphere, to perform, and to claim a public voice can be a political act. Cultural critics have recognized the political intent in these assertions of female agency, even if, as Andi Zeisler suggests that “celebrity feminists (and the media that flocks to them) seem more comfortable with feminism as an identity than with its substance” (Zeisler 2016).  Sometimes the substance of the political statement is subsumed to the spectacle of the performance.

Today in the Western world, we are used to women, famous or not, who put themselves on display. While the self-promotion of social media denizens and other celebrities is hardly universally celebrated, few see the choice to do so as dangerous, despite the real and sometimes genuinely menacing presence of misogynistic trolls who threaten outspoken women on the Internet. But the danger is far more acute in conservative settings where performance and self-display are considered not only explicitly political but also highly threatening. In a recent notorious and chilling case, Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch’s brother murdered her in an “honor killing”; he believed that her provocative videos, posted on line, brought disgrace to her family. In a country that denies fundamental rights, such as education, to many women, and enforces sexual modesty through violence, Qandeel’s life and death had enormous political resonance. According to BBC news, “…The fact that many of Qandeel’s videos went viral suggests a titillating fascination with confident female sexuality – along with fear of its power and of her assertion of independence” (BBC 2016).  While these fears may be more intense and dangerous in traditional cultures, they exist in the Western world as well.

As a historian, when I want to better understand modern phenomena, I turn to the past. These links between celebrity, performance, and politics may seem modern and specific to our age of social media, but they have a history. As a scholar of gender in early modern France, I frequently find echoes of the present in my research. Our fascination with celebrity spectacle and the performance of gender as well as concerns about authenticity, politics, and female empowerment through sexual assertiveness are nothing new. Through the examination of moments in the past when the public obsessed about performance, authenticity, and fears of female power and sexuality, we can better understand the forces of the present that create a similar moment.

In early modern France, the members of the French royal court, especially the royal family, performed under the gaze of other courtiers, and perceived their daily lives as unfolding on a kind of stage. Contemporary writers often spoke of “the theater of the court,” and considered the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King (1643–1715), the most theatrical of them all. In this context, women—for example, royal mistresses—could often exercise political influence through social networks and the performance of beauty and power.  But with the onset of the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century came a new insistence on the authentic and the natural. The French, under the influence of philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, called for greater transparency in government as well as sincerity in interpersonal relations, and rejected the artificiality that had been an accepted element of court life. The elaborate dress and cosmetics of courtiers symbolized the affectations of aristocrats. The Rousseau-reading public rejected the appearance of artifice and touted instead the beauty of the simple and the “natural” in appearance and modes of interactions, especially for women—although of course, this was as much of a performance as the “artificiality” of earlier times.

As Revolution broke out in 1789, and especially during the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), restrictions on female behavior intensified; now, women were expected to act as modest citoyennes, open and honest, devoted to their families and supportive of democratic change, unadorned and dressed simply in white. Writers accused women who wore cosmetics and elaborate clothing that masked their true appearance of dissimulation as well as secret royalist sympathies, and exhorted them to leave behind the artifice of make-up and expensive attire. Women who could not perform Republican femininity successfully might face the guillotine.

As the puritanical political regime that stoked the Reign of Terror came to an end in the summer of 1794, during the Revolutionary month of Thermidor, women sought to reclaim a voice and assert their power and individuality in the newly relaxed atmosphere through a new kind of performance. According to François Gendron, “In reaction to republican austerity and the suffocating dictatorship of virtue, Paris was shaken by an explosion of indulgence and frivolity. With the end of the Reign of Terror came roars of laughter, a riotous race for pleasure, and a lust for life” Gendron (1993).   Historians have traditionally described French society post-Thermidor and under the new government of the Directory (1795–1799) as hedonistic, in large part because of the activities of newly assertive young women in the public view who rejected the previous strictures on their dress and behavior.

These young women who emerged on the social and political scene were known as the Merveilleuses—the Marvelous Ones—and took society by storm under the Directory (Note 3).  They performed beauty in a highly theatrical fashion, similar to modern-day celebrities. The historical moment was ripe for these women to make their mark; according to Caroline Rossiter, “There seems to be an obsession with visibility and the idea of seeing and being seen in the public space” under the Directory, much as there is today (Rossiter 2009:57).  Fashionable and somewhat scandalous clothing played an important and explicitly political role as women rejected the modesty of the previous few years and put their bodies on display in a way that shocked contemporary observers. Most popular was the “robe à l’athénienne”, a light, high-waisted, Greek costume, made of muslin or gauze, “which was white and practically transparent.  Greek-style sandals, and rings on the toes were fashionable accessories for such an outfit” (Lyons 1975:143). Observers were most fascinated by the see-through effect of the new clothes, highly flattering to those with an attractive figure. Many criticized the sexually provocative dress of these women, but the Merveilleuses and the Incroyables (the Incredible Ones, their male counterparts) created a new mood of glamour as people crowded around to watch these new celebrities attend theater performances or gather at the Tivoli Gardens. The public and the burgeoning press examined their activities and appearance with fascination, as did politicians, many of whom resented their defiant flair that seemed to reject the serious business of republicanism.

Like the celebrities who perform for us today—the Kardashians come to mind—these women were beautiful, glamorous, fashionable, and omnipresent.  Basking in their wealth, beauty, style, a riveted media and a fascinated public, the Merveilleuses drew attention from both the political class and a popular audience (Note 4).   Their frequent appearances at the Frascati gambling house and gardens, as well as Tivoli and Longchamps, were recorded in the press, and crowds waited to see them arrive at these venues. One imagines a red carpet in the breathless descriptions recorded in a wide variety of new journals that played the role of our modern paparazzi and social media platforms, commenting regularly on the fashions and activities of these women.

Women associated with the Merveilleuses, such as Thérésia Tallien—described by Elizabeth Amann as “queen of the merveilleuses, the arbiter of chic and the cynosure of Directory society” (Amman 2015:50) —and her companions such as Joséphine de Beauharnais (future wife of Napoleon), Madame de Château-Regnault, Fortunée Hamelin, Aimée de Coigny, and salonnière Juliette de Récamier—became shorthand for the period as a whole. To make reference once again to the Kardashians, they sometimes seemed famous simply for being famous. But there was also a political intent in the carefully honed performances of the Merveilleuses, who were, in some cases, suspected of royalist sympathies. Aileen Ribeiro has argued that the revealing outfits that fashionable women wore in the years following the Reign of Terror “were a direct mockery of established morality and the almost bourgeois virtues advocated by Robespierre during the Terror” (Ribeiro 1986:117). Further, the choice of these women to showcase cosmetics, expensive clothing, and other luxurious items was also a political statement, seconding the efforts of the French political elite to revive the national economy and lighten the political mood at a time of war and deprivation (Note 5).   They promoted the conspicuous consumption that undergirds a capitalist society, and the display of their almost naked bodies in their transparent dresses was a new kind of “authenticity.” Fervent Jacobins, who resented the frivolity and overt sexuality that replaced earlier Revolutionary mores, fulminated against Madame Tallien’s “illegitimate” control over public opinion in late 1794, (Note 6)  and the Merveilleuses played an important role in the salons that continued to proliferate under the Directory. Until Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799 and limited the social and political influence of women, the Merveilleuses occupied an important political and cultural position.

To come back to the issues of performance, display and authenticity, I began this essay by suggesting that this notion of life as performance is nothing new; William Shakespeare famously wrote “All the world’s a stage,” even before French courtiers wrote about the “theater of the court.” Although most individuals are conscious that they perform for others, they tend to behave in ways that social pressures dictate. It is when an individual’s performance is new or challenges those norms that we take notice; when Qandeel Baloch asserted her right to perform sexuality, Pakistanis and the world were riveted. For the individual, a transgressive performance may be more “authentic” than adherence to social norms, and is often empowering and politically resonant. But “empowering and politically resonant,” especially in the hands of women, can be threatening, especially at particular historical moments. Revolutionary France was a particularly fraught historical moment, and it’s not surprisingly that the new and visible role that women asserted for themselves under the Directory created a backlash in some circles. More generally, the efforts of the Merveilleuses to draw attention to themselves and to insert themselves into the cultural and political arena undercut the clear gender boundaries that male revolutionaries had tried to draw at the very moment the French were engaged in a heated debate about the role of both women and men in the new political system. Revolutionary politicians argued that their skillful deployment of beauty and fashion might distract men from the important work of politics, and allow women to insert themselves into the debate. It is not surprising that Napoleon eventually took steps to limit the influence of women. Against a highly politicized backdrop, all public—and even private—actions have political resonance.

The same is true today. Young women have more opportunities than ever to put themselves on display and to use their physical presence to shape political and social discourse in ways that can make the guardians of tradition unhappy. Performance itself, whether authentic-seeming or highly stylized, is a political and often empowering act for women—and certainly, it can challenge gender boundaries in a way that makes many uncomfortable at a time when those boundaries are under attack as never before. Qandeel Baloch probably recognized this, but continued to assert her right to be seen and heard. It can be dangerous to claim the right to perform, to occupy space, to influence public discourse, and to show a more “authentic” self than others are ready to accept.



Photo Credit: By eigenes Foto (Privatsammlung) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. For a review of two recent books on this topic, see Zoë Heller (2016).
  2. William Egginton (2003) argues that the culture of spectacle that emerged        with the Renaissance court and theater dramatically changed our experience of the space we inhabit and created a world in which space became theatrical. In this world, individuals became performers for a larger public.
  3. I examine some of the issues discussed below in Adams (2014)
  4. Gendron particularly emphasizes the influence of these individuals in the post-Thermidor era in The Gilded Youth of Thermidor.
  5. (Spang 2002:110–25) suggests that the efforts of the social elite to seek pleasure and luxury was at least in part an effort to restore the economy and to soothe political anxieties following the tensions of the Reign of Terror and at a time when the French economy was still experiencing the effects of war.
  6. See for example, the Journal de Paris, no. 102, 12 Nivose Year III (January 1, 1795), 412.



Adams, Christine. (2014) ‘Venus of the Capitol’: Madame Tallien and the Politics of Beauty under the Directory. French Historical Studies 37 (4): 599–629.

Amman, Elizabeth. (2015) Dandyism in the Age of Revolution: The Art of the Cut. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

BBC News. (2016) “Qandeel Baloch, Social Media Celebrity ‘killed by brother’,” BBC News, July 16.

Egginton, William. (2003)  How the World Became a Stage: Presence, Theatricality, and the Question of Modernity. Albany: State University of New York.

Gendron, François. (1993) The Gilded Youth of Thermidor. trans. James Cookson.  Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Heller, Zoë. (2016) ‘Hot’ Sex & Young Girls.  The New York Review of Books, August 18. <;

Lyons, Martyn. (1975) France under the Directory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ribeiro, Aileen. (1986) Dress and Morality. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Rossiter, Caroline. (2009) Early French Caricature (1795–1830) and English Influence. European Comic Art 9: 57.

Spang, Rebecca L. (2002) The Frivolous French: ‘Liberty of Pleasure’ and the End of Luxury. In Taking Liberties: Problems of a New Order from the French Revolution to Napoleon, eds. H.G. Brown and J.A. Miller. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Zeisler, Andi. (2016) Has Celebrity Feminism Failed? The Guardian, May 16. <;