Flâneuses walking at night

Geschätzte Lesedauer: 10 Minuten

Photo by Alex Rainer on Unsplash

A trip with the Dérive app through Vienna’s darkest hours 

By Laura Elisa Nunziante

It was dark already. The Dérive app had told me to follow a random person on the street until they entered some home. The first glance ended upon – what a classic! – a woman. Middle-aged, dressed in a hijab, walking around the 5th district, looking for something, but not quite. Was I so wrong to have chosen her? According to Anke Gleber, this was most likely not a coincidence. Because we tend to focus on women walking the streets, especially when they’re doing this without any purpose. To be fair, a flâneuse is a modern image: This had only become possible at the end of the 19th century. And even then, it had only been a right reserved to the women of the bourgeoisie, the likes of Virginia Woolf, for example. Even today, women would probably rather run errands than “jogging their imagination“, as Anke Gleber describes this rare phenomenon in her essay Female Flanerie and the Symphony of the City. (Gleber  71)

The Dérive encouraged people to walk the streets in order to reclaim their city based on certain reference points: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.“ (Debord 62) In order to base my participant observation from a gendered perspective on theoretical grounds, I had chosen this tool. Since I had to work during the day, I could only walk at night, which is apparently unsuitable for a Dérive (Debord 64), but the whole idea is to do things differently anyway, especially as a woman, even if it means to ignore instructions from the invention itself. Soon I came to the conclusion that a woman strolling around the city at night, is a rare sight. Especially when they are just looking at things, hands crossed behind their backs, minding their own business; especially when they feel even more vulnerable than during the day.

Women don’t have a choice to blend into a crowd, they’re always being looked at.

Part of this could be due to the visual pleasure our culture is built upon, argues Laura Mulvey in her famous essay from 1975, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Mulvey 14). She claims that the style of Hollywood is based on gaining visual pleasure through the manipulation of what the audience is forced to look at. This objectified pleasure is due to the patriarchal order that women lived in and still live in. (Mulvey 16) Mulvey offers us the term scopophilia, which Freud used to describe as – simply said – the curious gaze of children on other people’s genitals or bodily functions. In general, movies offer us the illusion, as if we’re looking into a private world. (Mulvey 17) It is no coincidence our whole cultural world presents women as sexual objects; the mainstream film only combines this with story and spectacle. Or as Laura Mulvey had put it: “The deterring male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.“ (Mulvey 19)

Even if the Freudian theory is not entirely convincing, it suddenly becomes much clearer why women feel they are constantly being looked at, even if they are not part of some movie, even if they are just walking around the streets. Especially in Vienna, around the central station with the upcoming dark hours, it feels provocative to just hang around as a woman. What I always come across during my nightly Dérives however, is that there’s always some men staring at the women walking the city streets by themselves. These men do not seem to understand how potentially threatening these looks are; but they unrightfully influence the women’s ways of walking. For example: During the night, women in my surroundings tended to walk either faster (5 women), with a mobile phone in their hand (12 women), or with their eyes glued to the ground (3 women). Even if one of them could have been a potential flâneuse, I had no chance to identify them. Centuries ago, the flâneur had been a male figure, mostly white and educated, as well as being part of the bourgeoisie. (Gleber 70) I wonder if since then anything had changed?

It is dark and I am back on the streets. Once again, my app tells me to follow a random person, this time one with a hat. I see a young white woman with a wool hat on, summer has not quite hit the city yet. I cannot really see if she’s scared, but she seems totally aware of being out in the dark. She walks fast and with her smartphone in her hand. She does not stop for more than a few seconds, there is an eagerness in her walk that I don’t see a lot with the men here. Most of them seem to be relaxed, there is no sign in their posture that they might feel followed. Even if Vienna is not known for its street violence, such as Paris and London, there has been a series of femicides at the beginning of last year. This most probably influences the psychogeography of this place for women a lot. (Pausackl o.S.) I decide to oppose the app’s suggestion, however. I will not stalk that woman for the sake of an essay. I remain in a respectful distance, being aware of her personal space. However: On all of my night Dérives, it remains a rare picture to see a woman just standing at a street corner, or just minding her own business. They behave like extras in a movie, but are still constantly being looked at, as if they were the lead in a soft porn.

„Ich starre die Leute an, man starrt mich an“

So declares Ava, the protagonist of Frederike Amalia Finkelstein’s novel Survivre, who walks the streets of Paris – where the flâneur had been invented – right after the attack on the Bataclan in 2015. (Finkelstein 10) Ava has been brought up with the real threat of terrorist attacks; she visits crime scenes instead of sights. She is not only interested in the female dead body, but nonetheless aware of her gendered perspective as a flâneuse. Her feelings towards the city are based on auditory senses, because she cannot look at the dead bodies from the 13th of November anymore: basically, there is nothing left to see outside of the internet. So she describes: “Der Lärm der Stadt war unerträglich, beißend und schmerzhaft. Das Hupen, die Sirenen, die Abgase – sie bildeten das schrille Gemisch einer von Maschinen infizierten Metropole.“ (Finkelstein 63) Ava is not aware of how right she is with that declaration, when she realizes that women are being looked at more than looking at others, or at least that she is part of a game, especially when walking the streets alone. (Finkelstein 103) Later, her strolling turns into an obsession and an act of voyeurism and thus she turns the concept of the male flâneur around for her own pleasure. She is constantly aware of her own death and suffers from street paranoia: „Ich blicke mich um. Ich beobachte die Gesichter. Man weiß nie, wer sich in die Luft sprengen wird.“ (Finkelstein 115) In the end she flees the city in a hurry and travels to Buenos Aires for the funeral of her grandmother. She is driven by the fear of death and death itself.

Lauren Elkin shares similar thoughts with her readers. She is walking around Paris, very aware of the soldiers with machine guns everywhere, this is right after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But, comparing herself to the famous flâneuse George Sand in a nineteenth-century Paris, she feels that the present Paris is still better than that of nostalgia. (Elkin 117) Her observations are very different from those of the flâneur, who was identified as someone blending into a crowd, observing more than being part of the spectacle. There is no way to argue that men don’t feel the same terror walking the city at night as women do. But there is a sense of women being more aware of their compromised position as females and therefore being exposed to the threat of potential male violence. This is psychogeography at its worst. Lauren Elkin, who wrote the book Flâneuse. Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, claims that the experience of women walking the streets differs very much from that of a man, too: „We would love to be invisible the way a man is. We’re not the ones who make ourselves invisible (…); it’s the gaze of the flâneurthat makes the woman who would join their ranks too visible to slip by unnoticed.“ (Elkin 13)

In the foreword from the female editors of Flexen – Flâneusen schreiben Städte, the editors chose a different term than Elkin. Flexen for them inherits the freedom of presenting the walking experience of marginalized women, queer and transgender persons and people of colour. It is very clear from the beginning that they do not want to lean on the male concept that is entirely based on an image “mit Spazierstock und Zylinder auf den großen Boulevards (…).” (Dündar, et al. 9) The aim of the project is to be able to walk around in general – at any given hour during the day or night – as a woman and talk about it, or in this case, write about it. The writers we follow in these essays are from different parts of the world, of different sexes, and some of them genderless. They want to rewrite the city on their own terms, they want to confront the reader with their very own fear of the darkness: „Es ist kurz vor Mitternacht. Außer Neha Singh sind jetzt nur noch Männer auf der Straße. Viele Männer.“ (Lauter 115) The night is an issue for the flâneuses, no doubt.

I am still not sure if I should follow women

As the app suggests to me. I feel like a stalker, I feel like I am invading her space. But if I change my gendered perspective and take another historical example of stalking within the field of the flâneuse, the power structure changes once a woman follows a man. The French artist Sophie Calle did exactly that. She started following random people on the street and then focused on a man she had chosen randomly after she’d met him at an art gallery. She even followed him to Venice and took notes, from which we learn how foolish she felt with that specific art project. Elkin asks herself what kind of flâneuring that project must have been, if „a flâneuse is a liberated woman, determined to go where she isn’t supposed to, what would it mean for her to follow someone around?“ (Elkin 141) She believes that Calle was not a passive woman. That for her the whole project was a game, not necessarily art. She was not a follower; she was a tracker. Elkin mentions Poe’s short story The Man of the Crowd (1840) in this context,in which a man is being followed all night by the protagonist. So, the genre is basically the same, it’s just the gendered perspective that makes it more transgressive. Elkin even sees something subversive in Calle’s following into her own submission. She is stalking that man alright. But it doesn’t end there, the whole story doesn’t end. He’s supposably just “sparing her the feeling of being ’lost’“, argues Elkin: “(…) she’s exactly where she needs to be.“ (Elkin 144)

It doesn’t feel like the women who walk the Viennese city streets at night seem to be of the same opinion, but there must be hope. “Go North and find something to draw hope from for the future”, is the instruction I get from the app. I find it in the first Bezirk, a rather safe and posh address, to be fair. But the women I see here – sitting provocatively on the stairs, laughing loudly, taking selfies– act differently. They must be around 30, they seem happy and confident. Once I get closer, always respecting their space, I want to know what is happening. How could they have become so liberated on the streets at night, when almost all of my former Dérives had suggested an entirely different theory? I wondered: Are they drunk? For a moment, they do not look at the men around them or seem to care about anything else. They just walk around, jump around, they have fun; later they dance a little. They enjoy the public space of their city – and it seems as if the whole space of Vienna belongs to them. „One can dérive alone, but all indications are that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups (…) who have reached the same level of awareness (…)” (Debord 63). The women seem empowered by being part of a collective group.  Suddenly, the future seems bright again.

Dieser Text entstand im Rahmen der Vorlesung „Spezielle Felder: Flanieren als kulturwissenschaftliche Praxis“ der Dozierenden Cornelia Dlabaja und Işıl Karataş, und wurde für den von ıl Karataş geleiteten Teil „Gendered Perspectives and City Symphonies” geschrieben. Weitere studentische Beiträge aus Lehrveranstaltungen sind hier zu finden.


  • Debord, Guy. “Theory of the Dérive”.Internationale Situationniste, 2/1958, pp.62-66
  • Elkin, Lauren: Flâneuse. Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Chatto & Windus, 2016
  • Finkelstein, Frederika Amalia: Überleben. Suhrkamp Nova, 2018
  • Gleber, Anke: Female Flanerie and the Symphony of the City. In: Von Ankum, Katharina (ed.): Women in the Metropolis. Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture. University of California 1997
  • Mulvey, Laura: Visual and Other Pleasures. Indiana University Press, 1989
  • Pausackl, Christina: “Frauenmorde in Österreich: ‚Ich schlachte dich wie ein Schwein’”, profil.at, 14.01.2019, https://www.profil.at/oesterreich/frauenmorde-oesterreich-10590171