All little girls have a favorite super-heroine. That’s why pop culture is full of interesting female characters to whom you can relate. From Disney Princesses to Marvel comic characters, we all have admired a heroine because of her physical appearance, personality or powers. Society shows us different figures of women through a wide range of media such as books, movies, TV shows, advertisement and more recently, the Internet. I would argue that our society is a “society of images” where we are constantly confronted with a myriad of representations of women. It seems like Platon’s famous cavern could easily be applied today as we are heavily influenced by what we see – and it can be either bad either good. Therefore, I feel little girls need to find a role model. Most of the time, they are attracted to fictional characters as heroines take part in extraordinary adventures. Let’s not forget the « marketing » approach of them: Disney, for instance, developed the “Disney Princesses” brand in order to sell many types of products such as dresses, toys and dolls with different colors for each princess. This crystalizes the idea of “role model” or “favourite heroine” that nurtures the creativity of young girls. It is also important to mention that heroines evolved through years and have become stronger than before. Again, this is demonstrated in Disney’s movies. There is a significant change in the way we see women nowadays. Moana, for instance, appears as a feminist heroine who does not need a man to travel around the ocean and defeats a massive monster all by herself – which is way better than “whistling while you work” like Snow White, isn’t it ?
And I suppose you are all curious to know who is my favorite heroine. Although I love Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and have dedicated one full year to studying this fairytle for my Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature, she is not who I consider to be my favourite heroine. Indeed, my favourite heroine is not a fictional character, but someone who existed and who was a member of my family: my great grand-mother, Marie-Jeanne. I have never had the chance to know her as she died before I was born. However, my grand-mother enjoyed talking about her mother’s adventures during World War II when I was little. Consequently, Marie-Jeanne was like a super-heroine from a novel or a movie to me. I must point out that she looked like a Hollywood actress – and that is why it is almost difficult to imagine that she was like you or me: red lips, subtle eye-liner, lovely short brown hair and these incredible brows that you’ll never get even if you make an appointement each day at Benefit’s Brow Bar. Marie-Jeanne was a mix of Greta Garbo’s mystery look and Marlene Dietrich’s strong features. She was also a “fashion addict” who created her own dresses and was particularly keen on hand bags. Not only was she extremely beautiful, but she was enough brave to defy German soldiers.
Yes. Marie-Jeanne was not your average French beauty that you could watch in a black and white Jean Cocteau movie. Conversely, you could maybe see her in a little house in the middle of the scary “provencal” forests near Aix-en-Provence, staying silent because she was regurlarly threatened by the curfew or encountering Nazis. And I want to emphasize this dominant feature of her personality because it is what characterizes her the most. When the Germans soldiers started to invade the South of France during World War II, Marie-Jeanne was married to a Spanish immigrant, my great grand-father, Marcel, who is also a war hero. She had four children and worked for British and American soldiers by designing their army outfits. Marie-Jeanne had so much work to do that she used to sew until late at night – Marcel would stay by her side, reading her books so she would not fall asleep. I am sure she looked unflappable albeit slightly anxious. Marie-Jeanne knew her family was in danger and remained conscious of France’s desperate situation. Nevertheless, her children and her husband were more important to her than her own fears.
When Marcel was made prisoner by the Germans for being part of the Resistance, Marie-Jeanne realized she had to fight alone for her family and her freedom. Each night, she resisted the curfew and ran through le Montaiguet (a huge hill between Aix-en-Provence and Gardanne, a little town in the South of France) in order to exchange some cigarettes for meat to feed her family. This particular passage of my great grand-mother’s life greatly inspired me. I can just imagine this little woman, lost in the darkness of the night, struggling through the scary forests where the tree branches looked like human arms trying to grab at her legs. She would fall on the ground, tearing up her tights and classy skirt. Yet, she would stand up, pushing the branches away, looking straight ahead and everything around her would disappear. They could attack her. They could say she was just a weak “ little French woman”, but Marie-Jeanne would still run, face the rain, the coldness, the terryfing noises you could hear in the moutains and any other unforeseen threat. For instance, one day, she got caught by Marcel’s best friend who threatened that he would tell everything to the Germans if she did not give him meat. To the seven-year old me, Marie-Jeanne would always defeat the wicked trees and the “villains” because she was strong and fearless.
As I grew older and started to understand my role in society as a woman, I further realized why Marie-Jeanne embodied the perfect super-heroine figure. She is an inspiring “character” because she is not a “character” at all. Marie-Jeanne was a real person who lived through a difficult time period. She had many issues and her situation was certainly not the easiest. I admire her because every woman could relate to her – even if we don’t live in the fifties anymore. Marie-Jeanne never claimed to be an extraordinary super-heroine. She had no powers and did not fly in the sky like a French Wonder Woman. She also cannot be compared to Hollywood stars either as she was not a famous actress that we could still watch on TV today. Her entire life is based on unfortunate but true events – they are not a part of a drama. So, who remembers Marie-Jeanne’s bravery today ? Who knows her name ? Most of my cousins don’t even care about her. I have only been able to keep her ring and some photos thanks to my grand-mother. The sad reality is that Marie-Jeanne’s stories seem to have faded for some members of my family. They simply dismiss the fact that Marie-Jeanne was a feminist who contributed to what we know today as the “girl power”. She dismantled every cliché people had about women in the fifties. Certainly, you would not find my great grand-mother in an advertisement for household appliances with a big fake smile on her face and a man giving her orders. If Marie-Jeanne was capable of slaying the game in a sexist society, I am pretty sure that women today could follow her path. There are many wonderful women that we don’t know about whom surround us. Devoted mothers, amazing wives, brave labourers, intelligent businesswomen, inspiring artists… I thus realized how much Marie-Jeanne influenced me in my childhood, in my teenage years and even today as a young woman. She played a key-role in introducing me to feminism. It has always been clear in my mind that I am a woman and society will always try to shape my body, my ideas and my mind to preconceived disgraceful standards.
There is a lot of « maybe » in Marie-Jeanne’s story. My grand-mother does not remember every detail about her – she even told me that Marie-Jeanne was rather mysterious. Although I never had the chance to share a cup of coffee with her (a cup of coffee without sugar as she apparently hated it!), I am under the impression I have always known her, that she never left this world. It’s like I was in front of a movie watching this woman running in this horrid forest, falling on the ground, her knee bleeding through her black tights. And she would stand up. And she would face German soldiers, loneliness, and life. And I would be there. In the same setting. She would look at me, smiling and would take my hand. I would follow her into the dense dark fields of Provence, fearing the wicked trees, crying a little bit when I would hear a noise. And then, I would understand that I had a duty, a goal. I needed to get out of this hell – no matter what. And I would walk by her side until she would let me go. I think this is what she would like. An independent young woman, walking alone in this declining society and still finding a way to be in the spotlight.
Marie-Jeanne never died. She still lives on my heart and in my story – like an eternal figure of heroism.