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The Americas

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In the spring of 1925, Santa Anita's Festival of Flowers seemed to follow its tranquil trend of previous years. The large displays of flowers, the selection of indias bonitas (as the contestants of beauty pageants organized in an attempt to stimulate indigenism were known) and the boat-rides on the Viga Canal, all communicated what residents of neighboring Mexico City had come to expect of the small pueblo in the Federal District since the Porfiriato: the respite of a peaceful pastoral, the link to a colorful past, and the promise that mexicanidad was alive and well in the campo. Unfortunately, wrote Manuel Rámirez Cárdenas of El Globo, "the modern newspaper," the next day, this idyllic tradition was rudely interrupted by a group of audacious, scantily clad women. The culprits were actresses of Mexico City's Lírico theater, who walked around Santa Anita's streets in "picaresque clothing"—stage outfits that left little to the imagination, particularly in broad daylight—and upset visitors and campesinos alike. According to Cárdenas, abuelitas and mamás were shocked by the display, averting their eyes from the female spectacle in fear of "el pecado mortal." Thankfully, for the mothers and grandmothers in the audience, the festival continued in predictable fashion after the initial uproar. Organizers continued with the traditional dances, and judges selected an india bonita from a pool of young, decente mestizo girls to represent the pueblo and the festival.

Unbeknownst to the residents of rural Santa Anita, the daring actresses of El Lírico were part of a new phenomenon that had swept through Mexico City like wildfire, turned the entertainment world upside down, and pushed many to reconsider what constituted female beauty, decency, and lo mexicano. A few months earlier, on February 12th, a grand variety spectacle named Voilá Paris: La Ba-ta-clán premiered in Teatro Iris and instantly sent shock waves throughout the Mexican entertainment world and the larger metropolis. The show featured seminude and nude French actresses, who performed dances and acts that appeared to be a mix of classical ballet, Ziegfeld Follies chorus lines, and tableaux vivants. Within weeks, Mexican copycat productions capitalized on the enormous success of the show, triggering a new entertainment phenomenon named after the original production: Bataclanismo. It also launched a new kind of female star, the bataclana, who came to represent the erotic, and more dangerous, attributes of the flapper for Mexican audiences, and whose body became the site of contested and divergent notions of modernity.

In this article, I explore bataclanismo as a normative discourse that reached far beyond the theater into the practice of everyday life. I do so to gauge the transition of changing ideals of femininity in Mexico from 1925 to 1935, and the influence these changes had on the development of urban space. Drawing on Elizabeth Grosz' and Doreen Massey's insights that place and gender are mutually constitutive, this article examines the articulation between the embodied city and changing gender norms in the wake of both the Mexican revolution and the advent of twentieth-century global capital. Analyzing these relationships from Judith Butler's perspective of gender performance, especially as read through bodies, I argue that a new transnational aesthetic of feminine embodiment celebrated in bataclanismo influenced a distinct urban modernity and sociability in Mexico City. This new ideal female physique that stressed length, height, and androgyny—what I term a Deco body—helped to reconfigure Mexico City in terms of gender, space and race. It ushered in new gender ideals, helped visualize urban modernity, and bridged the gap between two divergent discourses that accompanied revolutionary reform, indigenismo and mestizaje, paving the way for a "mestizo modernity."


This is a post-print version of this article. The version of record can be found through Cambridge University Press.