To Parse a Purse (and a Person)

May 2, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In French, a “sac” is a bag. The phrase “vider son sac” – literally, to empty ones bag – is roughly equivalent to the now ancient “to let it all hang out” or “to tell all” but with the added connotation of confession and catharsis.

“Sac” also serves as a shorter version of “sac à main” just as in English, women’s handbags become merely “bags.” For women, the literal and figurative meanings of “vider son sac” may be indistinguishable. The handbag and its contents are a representation of the self. At least, that’s part of the message of French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, last seen in this Socioblog for his study of bare breasts on the beach. He has, of late, turned his gaze to women’s handbags inside and out, and published Le Sac: Un Petit Monde d’Amour.

There’s a bit of the showman about Kaufmann. He passes off pedestrian observations as profundities or sociological analysis. For Elle magazine (several French women’s mags reported on Kaufmann’s book), he even does a cold reading, assessing the personality of two women by parsing their handbags (video here).

Then by coincidence, same idea, same time, same place. Photographer/videographer Pierre Klein (son of photographer William Klein) was talking with a woman friend when she accidentally upended her handbag, spilling its contents. As she picked up the various objects, he asked, and she told. In the few minutes it took for her to restock her handbag, he had learned more about her than he had in the previous months of their acquaintanceship. “Each object was linked to some anxiety or fear, with a story of its own. Once the contents were spread out on the counter, I saw the makings of a photo.”

Make photos he did. It became a gallery exhibition – “Elles vident leur sac.” Fifty women, fifty handbags, fifty photos. (That’s Klein in the picture below, reviewing his photos before they went up on the walls.)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

When he asked women to empty their bags for a shoot, he also interviewed them, and they spoke freely about the things in their handbags and about themselves. And in keeping with the confession/catharsis theme, they all said that they liked the experience. (In this video, push the slider to 3:50 – “Debriefing.” Even if you don’t speak French, you’ll get the idea. If you do have any French – and my French isn’t all that good – watch the whole thing.)

Here are five of the photos. The pictures stand by themselves, sans interview, though you can see brief clips of five of the sac-videuses in the previous video link).

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The objects themselves are not particularly intimate or revealing, and the women did not feel that Klein was intruding on their privacy. Instead, as Klein says, it is in talking about the the things in their purses that they vident leur sac. It suggests a new strategy for sociological interviews: start with tangible objects.

(A Guardian article about the exhibit is here).


Anonymous said...

So sad to discover that stereotypes last so long! "every object was linked to some anxiety or fear"(and not pleasure, curiosity, need for distraction?)...You guys as sociologists should have analysed the gender constructed part of the exhibition! And not just simply quoted the guy :-\

Jay Livingston said...

You're right. The problem is that Klein provides very little evidence that you could look through to evaluate that claim. In the brief video that includes bits and pieces of interviews with five of his subjects, some of the objects seem to elicit no anxiety or fear. For example, one woman dips in her purse, pulls out a condom (still in its wrapper), and says matter-of-factly, "une capote." Was that the end of it? Did she go on to talk about it in terms of pleasure and curiosity? Or fear and anxiety? We don't know.

Unknown said...

You might be interested in knowing that I've been working on this topic for almost 12 years now, coining in 1999 the term "habitele" for a anthropological theory of wearable identities and making some field study using the method of the bag. You may have a look at the Flickr group called What's in my bag (20000 tagged pictrues of bags content ) and many others exist. You might read the blog I begin right now about habitele
along with an international program of research to start in 2012.
This will help you understand how much Kaufmann miss the point ;-)
Best Dominique Boullier scientific coordinator of the médialab at Sciences Po Paris