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Philosophical Thought

Construction of the systems of gender power: the peculiarities of the discourse of favoritism

Sharov Konstantin Sergeevich

PhD in Philosophy

Senior Educator, the department of Philosophy, M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University

111401, Russia, Moskovskaya oblast', g. Moscow, ul. 2-Ya vladimirskaya, d. 15, korp. 4, kv. 30

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Abstract: Using the example of gender power relations structured by Marquise Jeanne-Antoinette de Pompadour, mistress of the French King Louis XV, most famous favorite in history, the article analyzes the female power discourses and complex systems of the gender social roles that were developed by the mistresses – women who possesses a “shadow” social and political power. The goal of this work lies in examination of the typical strategies of gender power, structure by the royal favorites, using the example of Marquise de Pompadour, in which a male was included into the decentralized system of female authority. The article determines the basic regularities of establishment of the system of gender power roles by the mistresses and codification of a number of social statuses. It is demonstrated that the system of the formation of such roles corresponds to the Lacanian triad: Symbolic-Imaginary-Real. The symbolic level of the gender roles for a mistress that possessed shadow authority is the language field. The imaginary – is the formed by woman cultural traditions. The real – is the created by a woman social and political administrative strategies that include the involvement of males as the subjects of female decentralized authority into the system of gender power relations projected by a mistress. It is concluded that favoritism as a complicated social, psychological and cultural phenomenon is one of the most successful methods of manifestation of the female “shadow” authority in history.  


Gender, power, gender-power relations, gender social roles, royal mistresses, Marquise de Pompadour, female royal favourites, Enlightenment, favouritism, shadow power


When we speak about the history of the development of women’s social statuses in the entire society, it should be emphasised that both in historical reality and culture, the power of women was often dominant. This power was discriminated by men in the traditional European patriarchal system of power; but men were often forced to recognise this political and social female power. This female dominant power can be well understood on the basis of the phenomenon of favouritism. Traditionally, it is believed that the most striking example of the female favourites (royal mistresses) is Madame de Pompadour [1].


The purpose of this article is to analyse the power strategies of Marquise de Pompadour as a typical example of the implementation of women’s power strategies, in which a man was involved in the system of decentralised female power. I should like to emphasise that this article is not a historical or historiographical study of the life of the Marchioness nor the historical events of France and Europe, related to her, but a socio-philosophical and psychological treatise devoted to the study of strategies of gender-power relations that could be built within favouritism as a complex social, psychological and cultural phenomenon.


The methodology used in the work includes the method of historical reconstruction; psychoanalytic approach of Lacanism; structuralist method of analysis of communicative practices; semiotic method of analysis of cultural signs.

Psychoanalytical approach

In order to explain and systematise the system of gender-power relations built by Marquise de Pompadour as a typical female favourite, first we shall turn to some psychological concepts.

The famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan offers the concept of triple structure of the psychics: the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real, and shows that at the level of the unconscious, there is an insurmountable gap between the Symbolic and Imaginary, while at the level of the Ego such gaps may not exist [2, p. 46f]. In other words, even if a man reflexively wants to be completely like the woman he loves, he is still automatically saved from this by the mechanism of a breach in his Id. For a man, the Imaginary, and this do we see in many Lacan’s works [3; 4], is a constant possibility of non-recognition of a part of the female power, i. e. the incommensurability of the symbolic demands of women as well as instability and unpredictability of its appropriation. The male symbolic “name”, i. e. a set of symbols of the male psychics, never reflects the female’s imperious request, but is integrated into the performative process [2, p. 84, 133f], which is in any case destroyed in the breach between the Symbolic and Imaginary dimensions of psychics in the transition from the symbol to social mythology. The male Imaginary, of course, is captured by the law of female power, structured by this law, but does not obey it completely – otherwise a man would never be able to become himself, and would only be an application to a woman.

The gap between the Symbolic and Imaginary means the break of the female power discourse [5], and the beginning of the possible inversion of the male power relations; if the inversion is not present then at least the male and female struggle begins, the gender duel, endlessly lasting in the cultural and social dimensions; the non-individualised male and female duel and the specific (individualised) male and female duel. That is why a man has complete freedom to become what he wants, to become himself, without instructions from a woman who always seeks to narrow the gap between the Symbolic and Imaginary by blurring the male imagination. The discursive or symbolic formation of a woman’s identity of a man, when it reaches this gap, undergoes a transformation into a certain power strategy, formed both by the man and woman.

But from the point of view of Lacanian psychoanalysis, it may happen if a man enters into a duel with a woman. In the case of King Louis XV, his favourite Jeanne-Antoinette de Pompadour deliberately brought him out of the communicative space of the psychological duel, placed in a symbolic prison space created by herself. This makes it possible to understand how Marchioness built the system of her power. In the following sections, we shall shew how the Lacanian triad “Symbolic – Imaginary – Real” may be reflected in the social communicative strategies of a favourite, in our case Mme de Pompadour.

Results and discussion

Symbolic dimension of communication (Lacan I)

On 14 September 1745, Louis XV officially presented his new mistress to the court [6]. The court accepted her in a very cold way: she was not highborn, so she got a nickname “la grisette” (a cheap street prostitute in French); and the entourage of the King clearly gave Jeanne to understand that they did not see any difference between her and a simple street prostitute. Jeanne, this notwithstanding, was constantly creating her communicative stratagems with everybody in the Court very courteously and politely, and at the same time made the King tied to her more and more, and he truly believed in her feelings. It seems that it is with the aid of subtle conversational practices that Jeanne soothed the hatred of the French Court and gained the complete trust and carte blanche of the King, although this viewpoint has not yet been expressed in the academic literature. It was a manifestation of symbolic communication, i. e. the use of verbal and non-verbal practices by a favourite whose power was gradually growing.

Jeanne knew that her position at the Court was very fragile and depended not only on the preferences of King Louis, but on the entire Royal entourage, so she surpassed herself in the subtle and skillful use of a symbolic language of communication both with the King and many other residents of Versailles that had an access to the political power [7]. She also understood that the King was a jaded profligate to whom she would soon become not interesting in a sexual meaning and he would begin to search for new lovers. Here, in her speech and non-verbal practices, Jeanne utilised the Symbolic dimension of human being psychics: she influenced the King and his entourage representatives’ psychics by means of symbolic exchange created and maintained by her. A new language, the language of the Imaginary, a new communicative practice, a new power strategy that would allow the favourite to strengthen her position, was urgently needed, because a simple body language, as the Marchioness noted in a witty manner, would not lead to her acquiring the political power. This strategy transition is in a full accordance with the assertion put forward by Jacques-Alain Miller [8, p. 68] that direct sexuality is unable to construct the psychological level of male Imaginary.

Imaginary dimension of entertainment (Lacan II)

Thus the royal mistress created a strategy of entertainment for the King. Since that moment, the true era of Marquise de Pompadour in France began. Beautiful, charming, not only surrounded by courtiers but also sincere friends of the King who, as noted by P. Gaxotte, suffered terribly from unbearable boredom [9], Jeanne saw her main goal in entertaining the King, and she brilliantly carried it out. Sometimes she had to entertain the August person all day and night long; here she needed all her talents and abilities. She sang, danced, excellently played piano and clarinet, was engaged in painting and engraving of precious stones [10]. Twice a week she gathered in her salon artists, writers, philosophers. Jeanne with her growing political resources paved the way for the Enlightenment, first, Diderot and d’Alembert, with their “Encyclopedia” and, of course, Voltaire, La Mettrie and d’Holbach [11]. In the Palace of Choisy, by the orders of the Marchioness Castle Petit Trianon was created, which later would serve as an entertainment place for Queen Marie Antoinette; it was intimate, refined, delicate, just for forty spectators [12]. In this Castle, the King could sit on a chair, forget about the etiquette and just watch the theatrical shew where the Marchioness was the first actress [13].

However, I think, Jeanne was always pursuing not this purpose. She continued to be obsessed by the dreams of the absolute power. The role of amusing person, most likely, was becoming more and more disgusting for her. Nevertheless, endless celebrations in Versailles did apparently their job, and Louis XV was completely enchanted by the Marchioness and forgot his spleen [14]. The constant entertainment is essential for manipulating of our Imaginary, as Lacan persuasively demonstrated [15].

There was only one difficulty, the King was constantly looking for intimacy with Jeanne, but she seemed to have little pleasure in it, as Marquis d’Argenson suggests in his diaries [16]. So, she started to find new lovers herself, mini-favourites for the King [17]. I believe that at that moment the Marchioness realised that it was high time she had moved to the level of the Real in building her political power.

Real dimension of politics (Lacan III)

While King Louis, having completely abandoned the administration of the country, indulged himself in pleasures and raptures created by Jeanne, the favourite ruled the country by herself, as it is noted in the diaries of her chamber lady Mme d’Hausset [18]. Her influence on French politics cannot be overestimated, although some especially English-speaking historians often tend to downgrade the Marchioness’ influence on French politics [19]. I will give some examples to refute such points of view.

She had achieved everything she wanted, and in her hands she had all the levers of social and political control, while Louis, because of her interference, became a spineless monarch. In the scope of the Lacanian Real, he was not able to create a psychologic duel with his strong-will favourite. No paper sent to the Royal office might pass Jeanne, so she was well informed of the political and social situation; she also had her own personal staff of spies who regularly reported all suspicious persons and activities to her. Without her consent, the King could not sign any law or regulation. She dismissed ministers unpleasant for her and appointed her own ones, in such a way she brought Cardinal de Bernis and Duke de Choiseul to the supreme power, as duke de Luynes states [20]. She did not wish to be an explicit ruler of the state; many political pawns and executors of her will, were necessary to her.

The favourite completely administered the State Treasury and established the policy of the national Bank. She declared war and concluded truce; in the Seven Years’ War so destructive to France, the country was pushed by the Marchioness [10]. She interfered in the affairs of other European states; she forced even the Pope to obey, forbidding the activities of the Jesuits in France, which is mentioned by Marquis d’Argenson, Minister for Foreign Affairs to Louis XV, in his diary [16, v. 2, p. 156].


Many feminist contemporary writers argue that women started to achieve the desired level of social and political power only by the end of the twentieth century [21-24]. But we can see that women could enjoy the political power much earlier, with Mme de Pompadour being an excellent example of shadow power when a female ruler does not stand visible but remains in social darkness.

The King transformed to a subject of female power created by Jeanne. At the Symbolic level of the psychological, this female power was created by means of verbal and non-verbal language. At the Imaginary level, it was decentralised power spread across a lot of social practices and communication situations, primarily entertaining. Finally, at the Real level, the man transformed in Jeanne’s marionette. Despite he was very much depressed by the situation of female dominating over him [1], he did not do anything to break the ties with Jeanne. Her power was even more fascinating if we take into account that during 3/4 of her twenty years at the peak of power, she obviously did not have any sexual relationship with the King [25, p. 51f]. She made him submissive but not due to the body techniques; she utilised psychological procedures of manipulating his Ego. The King could not make use of the breach between the Symbolic and Imaginary (whose properties are described in the chapter “Psychological approach” of the article) that could have given him the means of conquering the Marchioness symbolic power.

Instead of standing in the sight, the Marchioness ruled the country, remaining the “grey cardinal”, in the shade [26]. Instead of demanding the crown (perhaps she would have done it if she wanted to), she preferred to remain the royal mistress. She subtly calculated that no one expects the favourites to interfere in the affairs of the state and such political ambition as hers. Using this logic, she manipulated the people artfully but never made her power explicit; no one has ever seen her at any meetings of the Cabinet or Parliaments [27; 28].

It’s uncommon for a woman to achieve such a power. From the own words of the royal mistress, we know that acquiring such power was her ultimate goal; she sacrificed her life to obtain the position in the society that could give her the freedom to create her own gender social statuses [29; 30] This confirms the fact that, despite many assurances of modern feminists about the forced expulsion of women by men from politics and power, a woman could achieve even greater success in these areas than a common man. The situation of Mme de Pompadour is a bright and inspiring example, but yet just one example of the tradition of European favouritism. We demonstrated the main psychological stratagems of female favourites to obtain shadow social and political power.

The structure of the article reflects a consistent analysis of these levels. First, for a woman with the authority, a purely Symbolic level of new gender roles creation, is the field of language, a common verbal language or non-verbal language understood as an indirect non-verbal communication. The language becomes the material of symbolisation on the part of women and an automatic vector of gender strategies in the field of the social, which was usually undertaken by the favourites at the beginning of their relationships with the monarchs. Second, an indirect communication displayed in the system of the symbolic exchange has a highly developed simulation component and is represented in the Imaginary part of new gender roles construction. The sign and imagination are the two main components of many entertainment strategies arranged by the favourites. Thence it becomes clear that the entertainment created by the female favourites is a manifestation of the collective Imaginary that could be made use of by the favourites themselves. Third, the Real gender social roles dimension is embodied in the formation of a system of gender-power relations as well as the construction, maintenance of functionality and permanent reproduction of power political strategies. The political and social power acquired by the female favourites at the late stage of their shadow rule clarify the completeness of their Lacanian triad materialisation.

All the three Lacanian levels of the reproduction of the social space through the psychological (Lacanian triad), the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real, on the incorporation of female social strategies, have accurate representation, signification, ideologisation and materialisation in the activities of European favourites. Mme de Pompadour personal story may serve a classical example of the implementation of the favourites’ indirect power strategies in history.

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