A Few Notes on Fantômette

The blog post is intended to provide some context and background to the article I wrote on Fantômette that was recently published in Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures.  Fantômette, a French media character, appears in 50+ books, 2 television series, some graphic novels, and an encyclopedia. I’ve come to think of her as a cross between Nancy Drew and Batgirl, only younger. (See Mille Pompons! Fantômette, the Famous, Unknown, Schoolgirl Superhero of France. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures12(1), 168-183. Retrieved from https://jeunessejournal.ca/index.php/yptc/article/view/519)

A French professor, Dr. Alisa Belanger, mentioned her to me. I had just co-organized a conference on women and gender in science fiction and fantasy and she said “Oh, you’d love Fantômette.” I had never heard of Fantômette. But, as I found out, very few people in the North America had, and very few libraries in the English-speaking world owned any of the books.

So off and on for a few years I researched the character, who she was, what she did. I bought some used copies of the books online. (Good luck finding new copies on this continent.) What I found appealed to me for a variety of reasons. One being that Fantômette is just cool (more on this later). A second is that having taken French in high school and college and visited the country a few times I maintained an interest in the language and culture. I have the Le Monde app on my phone, some French language books on my bookshelf, and part of my morning routine is playing 7 petits mots, but it would be incorrect to say I am in any way fluent. The idea of using primary and secondary sources for a research project became a “bucket list” item. This presented an ideal setting to dig in. I used the Cairn database (www.cairn.info) to find articles published in French in European journals that would not necessarily be findable in databases created and marketed in the United States.

True confessions: I had to look up a lot of words and sometimes resort to Google translate, as I always do when using French materials, but I could get enough of the gist to figure out what the author was saying. Unfortunately, one downside of this is having to figure out how to put diacritics into the text and the bibliography. Also, I was too clever by half trying to include vague translations in the text. Eventually I took most of them out because I didn’t think they were that good. Moral of the story: don’t try to show off and know what your limitations are.

But the more I found out about Fantômette the more certain I was that this character deserved to have a wider North  American audience, and that North America really needed to know about her. I mean, just look at some of the book covers (here and here). In other titles she goes into space, she crosses the desert, does all sort of interesting things. She fights bad guys, solves crimes, and still gets to class the next day. If I had had access to these books as a young girl I would have devoured them all.

One or two journals rejected the article, which was depressing, but I kept revising it. Before sending it out again I went back to the beginning and looked at some of creator Georges Chaulet’s original drawings and some of the later book covers show her with a darker skin tone than her friends have. This is especially noticeable in some of the illustrations in Les Secrets de Fantômette, an encyclopedia on the character. This is something that no one else that I could find had noted. So far, this point has created the most interest among readers, as least the ones that I have been in contact with. I would have liked to included some of the drawings from the encyclopedia but the thought of trying to get the rights was daunting. My theory that the character may have had a mixed racial heritage seems to be a novel one.

Another point of discussion in the article is why the books were never translated into English. I could see them being very useful in high school and college French classes, either in the original French or excerpted as English translations, especially in an era where pop culture is acceptable in educational settings. While they have been translated into other languages, they’ve never been translated into English. I have theories on this. One being that the main character spends a lot of time with an unrelated male. That sort of thing tends to be viewed with suspicion.

The main point, however, was simply to introduce a new audience to the character. I hope a few more people will track down the books or watch some of the episodes of the shows that are on YouTube. Certainly I enjoyed the process of researching the character, learning new resources, and stretching some academic muscles. I am also grateful to Jeunesse for publishing the article.

About juliemstill

Julie Still has a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Library Science from the University of Missouri, and an M.A. in History from the University of Richmond.  She is currently enrolled in Penn State Harrisburg's doctoral program in American Studies. Librarian by trade, writer by choice, once (and future?) Girl Scout leader and community participant, she reads history (all kinds), science fiction / fantasy (ranges from Scalzi to McKillip), mysteries (varied), and more.
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