Words About Pictures: The Ugly Carnival

Simone Touseau, a French collaborator, being marched through the streets of Chartres prior to the liberation of France by the Allies.

Simone Touseau, a French collaborator, being marched through the streets of Chartres prior to the liberation of Paris by the Allies. Photograph by Robert Capa of Magnum Photos.

I had never heard the phrase “ugly carnival” until a couple weeks ago, when I awoke rather abruptly in the middle of the night, consumed with anxiety about electoral politics in my country, googling search results about an image I couldn’t get out of my head. Whether this retina-burn woke me up or kept me up, its insistence on being resurrected and brought to the fore of my consciousness had both the abrupt stunning characteristic of nightmare and the seemliness of a faint strain of music, playing in a minor key, a menacing leitmotif.

In any case, I woke up thinking about this image taken by Magnum photo agency founder Robert Capa. It shows a woman carrying a baby, her head shorn, being marched through the streets in the most literal walk of shame ever, jeered at (and likely worse) by French partisans closing in on every side of her. She holds her baby to her as both a point of focus and as a means for self-grounding, having her gaze and attention focused totally on the child—perhaps literally transferring herself from the present moment and into one where she exists solely as mother—as she is made to keep walking, and walking, and walking until the surrounding crowd grows bored or tired of the spectacle.

So it is 1:30am Mountain Time. Search terms such as “Robert Capa + French Collaborator” and “Robert Capa + Liberation of Paris” are flying into the search engine, the bright blue glow of the screen eliminating any remaining chance for sleep that night. And then the rabbit hole I began to go down was the one where I discovered that while this image taken by Capa may be the most iconic, it was by far not the only one. And that what happened to Simone Touseau in Chartes on August 18, 1944 happened to a conservatively estimated 20,000 other women in France alone (and I say this is a conservative number because it is estimated that over 80,000 French children were fathered by the Wehrmacht during the four years of the French occupation). The crime for which this punishment was meted out? “Collaboration horizontale” (a term I kept coming across that made me rage-groan) with the enemy during the occupation. Proof was as variable and a matter of convenience as it often is during periods of mob rule and reason: with Simone Touseau the proof was the three month old baby she was carrying. For others it was because they worked somewhere that the German soldiers frequented, like a laundry, or a brothel, or a restaurant. For still others, it was mere baseless but loud speculative accusation, sometimes for the self-interested reason of deflecting attention away from the accuser’s collaborative crimes of similar nature.

I was naïve to think this image was singular, and this event that Capa recorded unique. I came across dozens and dozens of others (sometimes the rabbit hole took me to very dubiously named URLs, with even more not-very-dubious-but-disturbing-all-the-same comments on the entries), and also some much-needed historical context for all of this public display of feminine humiliation and shame. The historian Antony Beevor, in an essay in the Guardian, wrote:

There was a strong element of vicarious eroticism among the tondeurs and their crowd, even though the punishment they were about to inflict symbolised the desexualisation of their victim. This “ugly carnival” became the pattern soon after D-day. Once a city, town or village had been liberated by the allies or the resistance, the shearers would get to work. In mid-June, on the market day following the capture of the town of Carentan, a dozen women were shorn publicly. In Cherbourg on 14 July, a truckload of young women, most of them teenagers, were driven through the streets. In Villedieu, one of the victims was a woman who had simply been a cleaner in the local German military headquarters.

In so many of these images, the tondeurs were gleefully manhandling their…victims? My sense is that this is the only appropriate word. There are sickening sequences where the woman is taken from her home, then dragged to an open and public location, and then held down and roughly shorn. Another very memorable image is one of a group of women being marched to a police precinct, and on the way they are very self-consciously touching the hair that soon won’t be, any longer. A haunting photograph picturing a woman walking with her back to us, arms gripped by a man, walking her onto a public square nearly emptied, save for other women and their discrete puddles of hair that had been stripped from their heads earlier that day. Embedded alongside all of this imagery, in the essays and blog posts that I found them in, were often patronizing, paternalistic and frankly misogynistic commentary either diminishing what was being done to them (“And don’t think the ladies didn’t appreciate the attention! However, that does not mean that collaborators deserve a free pass, not by a long shot,” opined one WWII enthusiast), or the perceived smallness of the punishment (“A shaved head? Big deal. Hair grows back,” offered a thoughtful commentator).

The pictures, and the practice are deeply disturbing, no matter what the context. I am not arguing for or against the reasons, real or imagined, that women had for collaborating with the enemy. I am not arguing for or against lives lost in the holocaust or WWII, or whether such punishment was too little or too much. What I am arguing, and what was keeping me up at night, is that this need and desire to bring a woman—or women, en masse—to heel, to humiliate, publicly degrade and parade that humiliation, and create a marker for  shame that can be easily seen and recognized for a considerable amount of time (so that the shaming and punishment can continue), that there is something deeply familiar about this punitive need, something timely… something Trump-y.

Today is the day that America is in the process of electing for president either a woman representing the escape from such legacies or a man who would seek to reinstate and reignite the partisans among us. With full knowledge that the American electorate and its constituencies have myriad reasons for voting the way that they will, I am and have been disturbed by the apologist language I’ve heard used to describe Trump’s language (“he has diarrhea of the mouth,”), his calls to action (“He’s just seeking the free media attention,”), and his systematic debasement and diminishment of any group or class of people that he deems other, suspicious, or offensive. Women, as a whole, are on that list. Images like the one of Simone Touseau that Robert Capa took, make me feel deep empathy and sadness. I identify with her. For others, the image represents a return to order, the righting of wrongs, justice being done. When I wake up tomorrow and this election is finally behind us, I hope I wake up to the popular majority choosing empathy, even if it’s by the slimmest of margins.