Popa on Mack, 'Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture'

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The following book review from H-Nationalism may be of interest to some H-Women list members.


Mehammed Amadeus Mack


Bogdan Popa

Mehammed Amadeus Mack. Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. 344 pp. $27.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-7461-1; $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-7460-4.

Reviewed by Bogdan Popa (University of Cambridge) Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2019) Commissioned by Cristian Cercel (Ruhr University Bochum)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53452

Sexagon is a necessary contribution to scholarship in queer studies, anti-racist feminist theory, and French studies. What it does brilliantly is deploy a queer of color analytic in the French context with a focus on representations of queer Muslims, in direct dialogue with José Esteban Muñoz, Éric Fassin, and Gayatri Gopinath’s work. The payoff of such methodological choice is to illuminate why the sexagon—that is, the sexualization of Muslims, Arabs, and other people of color—operates in France as a distinct sexual nationalism. To identify what is particular about France, the key claim of the book is that the sexagon builds on the trope of virile Arabs, which incriminates racialized people for being manly. For readers like myself, who are vaguely familiar with debates around non-white figures such as Tariq Ramadan or Houria Bouteldja, the book provides a deep contextual analysis of many public intellectuals’ role within the widespread discourse of French sexual nationalism. In response to such racist rhetoric, the author offers multiple strategies to demonstrate why the performance of virility by racialized queers disturbs French sexual nationalism and colludes with hegemonic representations of Muslim sexuality.

Sexagon does provide an insightful map of debates around sexuality and gender in France in relation to racialization but its argumentative thrust remains attached to a normative desire for the progress and evolution of French society. The interested reader can find a queer of color analytic that gestures toward a better subversive sexual modernity. What the book stops short from doing is to methodologically interrogate epistemic categories, such as coloniality, that underpin the rhetoric of abnormal and queer Muslims. In one of its main polemics, the book engages in a conversation with Bouteldja, a decolonial scholar and activist who calls for the abandonment of the category of modernity. In advocating queer resignifications and in contrast with Bouteldja, who argues for refusing Eurocentric time and an embrace of discarded elements of the past, the author sees the French black and beur (North African French immigrants) as agents of creative change. While the author deploys a queer intersectional analytic that seeks to conserve “the modernity of ethnic virility cultures,” the question that the book does not answer is whether the advocacy of modern virility has primarily positive dimensions given that such tropes as “evolution” and “progress” were key categories for a colonial mindset (p. 269).

The book is organized to dissect French sexual nationalism in its multiple dimensions and to find queer possibilities for revaluing racialized sexual and gender virility. In chapter 1, “The Banlieue Has a Gender,” the author analyzes the production of Muslims and immigrants in public discourse, which builds on the rhetoric of such positive values as gay-friendliness, secular feminism, and metrosexuality in contrast with negative perceptions about immigration and working-class status. Various French commentators and writers demonize the banlieue’s racialized and nonnormative sexualities as not modern enough, and they do so to erase and depoliticize any potential that the banlieue has for sexual creativity. In response to such discourse, the author appeals to two strategies. The queer argument is that women and sexual minorities in the banlieue transform virility into a gender-neutral concept. Also, by drawing on Muñoz’s work, the author shows that queer working-class people dis-identify and disturb conceptions upheld by French writers when they do not call themselves gay or wish to exit the banlieue.

In the following two chapters, the author investigates sexual nationalism in French psychotherapy and gay French literature. Chapter 2, “Constructing the Broken Family,” shows that a psychoanalytic discourse about immigration and Islam, which evolves around the lens of a broken family, has contributed to the exclusion of racial minorities. In particular, three figures became central in this rhetoric of pathologization: the juvenile delinquent, the veiled woman, and the impotent father. The chapter offers a genealogy of such rhetoric by tracing it back to colonial psychiatric experiments in Algeria and stereotypes about sexual aggression that were part of the Algiers School of Psychiatry. Rather than calling for family reconciliation, such rhetoric leads psychotherapists to promote family divorce and atomization. In chapter 3, “Uncultured yet Seductive,” the author offers a survey of representations of the Arab male that range from “exploited” in colonial settings to “unassimilated and difficult” in contemporary France (p. 130). Like in previous chapters, to queer such discursive production, the book argues that writers Abdellah Taïa and Bernard-Marie Koltès offer a critique of the globalization of homonormative discourses. Unlike them, who interrogate the trope of the difficult Arab boy, Renaud Camus, Roland Barthes, and Patrick Cardon are French gay writers who traffic in the figure of the racialized Arab. In contrast, Taïa offers in Le rouge du tarbouche (2005) a scene of seduction where the Westerner seduces a Moroccan protagonist but turns it into an interrogation scene that investigates the economic and power differentials between the two characters. Like Taïa, Koltès shows a different view on nonnormative Arab masculinity by politicizing issues of class, race, and colonial memory “in profoundly sexual ways” (p. 162). In doing so, he not only escapes patterns of demonizing virility but also gestures to an alternative history that shows how immigrants have made France a better country.

In the last two chapters, the author analyzes sexual nationalism as part of French cinema and ethnic porn. Chapter 4, “Sexual Undergrounds,” explores the trope of sexual clandestinity of Arab men, which is addressed by film directors André Téchiné, Jacques Audiard, and Sébastien Lifshitz. Unlike coming out, to act in clandestine ways is to interrogate the role of the unspoken and withholding in sexual exchanges, which speak to a practice of “generating eroticism” (p. 182). An original argument that the author makes is that the virile trope has produced its specific rhetoric of inclusion in French cinema. While auteur directors have rehabilitated the vilified Arab body, the casting of Arab actors in gay roles led to new practices of assimilation, such as Arab men demonstrating their commitment to sexual tolerance by taking on roles that allegedly contravene their cultural customs. In short, to prove worthy of representation, Arabs have to become queer. Chapter 5, “Erotic Solutions for Ethnic Tension,” investigates the production of a new genre, porno ethnic, in commercial pornographic representations. The author’s argument is surprising because it values a much-attacked genre, porn, that is considered sexist and commodifying. In contrast, the book claims that racialized pornography “tackle[s] issues of undigested colonial memory and contemporary race relations in a much more forthright way than do the traditional journalistic media” (p. 223). For instance, instead of heightening racial anxieties, gay porn brings about “a strange, and strangely effective, civic therapy” because it uses exaggeration and honesty to talk about the causes of ethnic segregation. Gay ethnic porn has been effective in providing politically subversive images, such as the banlieue as “a space of cleverness, creativity, pleasure and harmony” (p. 248).

Given that the book primarily defends a subversive sexual modernity, a stronger engagement with the analytic of coloniality could have offered a pause to full endorsements of progressive ideals, such as harmonious racialized banlieues. A queer of color critique has become a dominant frame to understand gender and sex in Anglo-American studies, but should it not also be interrogated as part of a hegemonic global academic orientation? If this is the case, then the concept of dis-identification can queer the assigned role of racialized minorities, but the banlieue and its queers can also offer methodologically something new to queer Anglo-American theory. For such a project the category of modernity may stand in the way. If Anglo-American queer studies are the embodiment of subversive modernity, such an interrogation is hard to execute. Also, French discourses around virility and pornography in the French context are directly related to a long history of colonial racism. For instance, Carolyn J. Dean’s The Frail Social Body: Pornography, Homosexuality, and Other Fantasies in Interwar France (2000) sees discourses of virility and pornography in the interwar period as the expression of a new normative self for elite French men. It would have been important to find out how queer of color reclamations of virility are different from the interwar French discussions of virility. The distinction between a long colonial history of virile Frenchness and “other” virilities could have clarified what is at stake in an anti-racist project of revaluing ethnic manliness.

Citation: Bogdan Popa. Review of Mack, Mehammed Amadeus, Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53452

Categories: Review
Keywords: Book Review