American women, Books about Paris and France, Edith Wharton, Elaine Sciolino, France, French Ways and their Meanings, French women, Le Seduction How the French Play the Game of Life, Paris, The New Yorker
(French) Francophiles around the world have been divided about Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in The New Yorker. Filed under the “Humor” heading, it is undoubtedly meant to be satirical, but as is often the case with satires, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling—some might even say hurtful. Consider Rudnick’s first paragraph:
“I am Marie-Céline Dundelle, and I do not need a book contract to reveal that French women are superior in all matters. Our secret lies in an attitude toward life, a point of view that I can only call Frenchy. For example, let us discuss weight loss. The American woman obsesses over every calorie and sit-up, while in France we do not even have a word for fat. If a woman is obese, we simply call her American. Whenever my friend Jeanne-Hélène has gained a few pounds, I will say to her, “Jeanne-Hélène, you are hiding at least two Americans under your skirt, and your upper arms are looking, how you say, very Ohio.”
Funny? Sure, but at whose expense? It’s no secret that American women have been intrigued by French women’s effortless chic for centuries, but there are more constructive ways of exploring this fascination than being lampooned by a male humor columnist. One of my favorite glimpses into the French/American divide is Edith Wharton’s French Ways and Their Meaning, which she penned in the early 20th century while living in postwar France. She makes several astute observations (not the least of which is how one’s perspective about the “other” changes when one evolves from tourist to resident), but what’s most surprising about them is that many of them still intrigue us a century later.
For example, Wharton asserts that the French woman is “in nearly all respects, as different as possible from the average American woman,” but she doesn’t stop there—she wonders if it’s because the French dress better, flirt better, cook better, etc., but she suggests that those simple aspects of French life don’t adequately describe why and how the French got to be that way. Indeed, she says, millions of American women have the same attributes, just not on the same scale as the French. While many American women rival the French in their coquetry, femininity, and cooking skills, Wharton claims that the fact of the matter is that French women are simply more “grown up” than American women – a fact she attributes to their relationships with the opposite sex:
“It is because American women are each other’s only audience, and to a great extent each other’s only companions, that they seem, compared to women who play an intellectual and social part in the lives of men, like children in a baby-school. They are ‘developing their individuality,’ but developing it in the void, without the checks, the stimulus, and the discipline that comes with contact with the stronger masculine individuality.”
This passage brings to mind Elaine Sciolino’s recent publication La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, a book-length rumination based on Sciolino’s decades of experience living as an American journalist in Paris. The main thrust of her monograph is that the art of seduction permeates French culture, from the bedroom to the boardroom, but she takes care not to editorialize and say that Americans should follow suit. Indeed, at one point, she even admits that she (and her husband) “will never think like the French, never shed our Americanness. Nor do we want to.” Whether this comes from a state of stubbornness, national pride, or deflated defeat, I cannot say, but the fact of the matter remains: the French simply do things differently, which isn’t to say they do them better. It’s OK for Americans—men and women alike—to be fascinated by them. Articles like Rudnick’s, supposedly humorous as it may be, do nothing to lift either nationality’s women. It’s important for those of us who are interested in these cultural disconnects to explore them more deeply, a la Wharton and Sciolino, to understand the complex histories that underpin such characterizations, and to pick and choose which ones we’ll let guide our lives.
Kristin Wood graduated from Duke University in 2006 with a major in European history and a minor in English, then moved to New York to receive her MA in Modern European Studies from Columbia University. An enthusiastic traveller, Kristin has lived abroad in Australia and New Zealand and has studied abroad in France and England.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French Impressions: Anne Fontaine’s white shirts and the color of happiness. Anne Fontaine, a Franco-Brazilian fashion designer, entrepreneur, businesswoman and philanthropist, known as the “queen of the white shirt,” brought new faces and unforeseen levels of diversity to the fashion industry. Thanks to her, the white shirt is now definitely a staple on women’s wardrobes as a key piece. Anne shares her rise in the industry and 2011 launch of The Anne Fontaine Foundation, which is committed to the reforestation of the Brazilian rain forest. (French)
French Impressions: Dr. Fatima Araki on the automobile rally, Rallye des Colombes in Morocco, created for women by women. Dr. Araki is the first Moroccan woman to be the president and founder of a motor racing club in 2001 (Union Automobile Club of Morocco) and the first Moroccan woman to organize rallies in Morocco. (French)
French Impressions: Alice Kaplan – the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. Author and professor of French at Yale University, Ms. Kaplan discusses her new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the process of transformation. By entering into the lives of three important American women who studied in France, we learn how their year in France changed them and how they changed the world because of it.
Le Baisemain, a kiss of the hand, a blog that details how the French tradition of le baisemain plays out in American life.
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Great Wharton quotations – and will need to read her on the French now. Thank you.
Thirza Vallois said:
The mystique about the French, women and the rest of it, so prevalent in many countries, and in the US perhaps even more, is simply pathetic. It points to a very limited knowledge of France and of the French, based partly (I suppose) on the category of French people (women and all) visitors are more likely to stumble upon. Of course every country has an identity and a manner, but beyond it are lots of shades and colours. French women visit psychotherapists, have weight issues, get depressed, get divorced, have conflicts with their children… and on and on, just like women in every society. Not all French women are coquettes or chic either. And unless you REALLY know the French language and can follow conversations conducted by French people, you are unlikely to grasp the subtleties that will allow you to take the pulse of the country… Furthermore, France is increasingly a multi cultural and multi ethnic society. France is not just about wineries and restaurants and “femmes fatales” and seduction. It is also about unemployment, immigration, European integration, old age etc… It’s a multi-facetted country, which is what makes it so rich and fascinating. But please, do stir away from stereotypes. There are great women and men (and some less great ones) in every country.
Thirza Vallois I found your comments very refreshing.Have family and friends in Paris and like other Parisians they note that fear Paris has lost is soul and has become Paris Ville-Musée.
How many Americans even venture into the wonderful working class arrondissements? Have met few Americans who have been to the Le Marais area, and rue des Rosiers which is Jewish. Call me odd but its the old cemeteries I love.
Here in northern California most tourists only go to the well know areas in San Francisco, Napa wine country and even Yosemite here in the Sierras.
Jane del Monte said:
I agree with Thirza’s comments, and, as she says, this French mystique is mostly an American thing. I don’t think we can judge what’s happening in Paris by how it’s viewed by Americans, many of whom can’t distinguish between refinement and buying power.
Both countries are multicultural and multi-ethnic. I think there are probably more similarities between two people from the same milieu, but from two different countries, than between two from the same country, but of different social groups. It’s tempting, but dangerous, to generalize.
motherlodebeth, don’t worry, Paris is far from losing its soul. It can’t be judged by the reactions of those who think they need a passport to venture into a double-digit arrondissement (unless it’s the 16th).
I do, however, have to disagree with the comment about the Marais. You can’t get much more touristy than that, and I have never met an American who came to Paris without going there. (I’m sure they exist. I’ve just never met one.) Rue des Rosiers is a destination, if only for l’As du Fallafel.
I do agree with you about cemeteries, if only for the architecture. For something different, have you been to the Cimetière des Chiens at Asnières? Here is a link to a piece I wrote about it several years ago, if you’re interested.
That’s what makes these boards interesitng, that we all have different experiences.
Barbara Redmond, A Woman’s Paris™ said:
I thought it corny not biting but did enjoy Woody Allen’s satirizing Gigi.
Woody Allen Actor Gigi. I want more than anything to be Gigi. To meander, feather- light, down the boulevards of belle epoque Paris in a little blue sailor dress, my sweet face framed by a flat, disk-shaped hat with two ribbons dangling mischievously past my bangs. And I would be squealing, ”Maman! Regardez! Maman!” And my room would be paneled and perfect and cluttered with overstuffed pillows and a Victorian chaise and my bed, meltingly soft, with embroidered silk sheets, and everything would be warmly lit by sconces and table lamps whose globes were painted with buds and floral themes. And I would sit and brush my hair and put it up over my eyes, trying out new styles and giggling. And dinner would consist of a cup of thick chocolate beaten up with the yolk of an egg, some toast and grapes and for breakfast, soft-boiled eggs with cherries in them. (I would awaken refreshed each day in a nightgown and stretch like a kitten, rubbing the sleep from my saucer eyes with my tiny fists.)
And then, joys of joys – Gaston (who had delighted in me as a young girl but never dreamed that eventually I would blossom to stunning womanhood) would come to visit and, unable to believe his eyes, would suddenly realize that I am no longer the innocent, frail wisp of a child he has known but I have, obeying destiny, ripened into a creature of breathtaking loveliness. Now I toss my head, allowing my hair to bounce from shoulder to shoulder, offering Gaston the scent of perfume from my neck. Unable to resist, he cups my delicate face in his hands and asks me to go with him to Maxim’s. From here it gets a little vague and the image of my black- rimmed glasses and shopping bag from Zabar’s intrudes but by then I’m usually radiant and sobbing.
Posted by Mimi Taylor with her permission.
Jane del Monte said:
I thought it was funny — or was it the image of Woody Allen in drag as Leslie Caron? Now I can’t lose that picture.
Janet Hulstrand said:
“…what’s most surprising about [Wharton’s observations] is that many of them still intrigue us a century later…”
I use Wharton’s French Ways and Their Meaning in my literature and culture classes, and I think it’s pretty interesting that much of what she had to say nearly a hundred years ago still holds true today. Though of course some things have changed on both sides of the ocean, many fundamental things have not!
I haven’t had a chance to read Sciolino yet. I want to: thanks for reminding me about it.
As for the Rudnick piece. Well, I laughed out loud, and I smiled in a few places. It’s satire, and it’s funny. (And I think some of it is a rather clever response to some of the flap about Bringing Up Bebe.)
But to me, the last line was over the top. I mean: Joan of Arc? Really?! Is nothing sacred?!
A lot of people don’t get the humor or satire Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report do on the Comedy Channel.
Highly recommend Elaine Sciolino’s book if for no other reason than she educates Americans on the word seduction, which is not about sex as Americans seem to see sex.
As I noted in a review of her book ‘As the author refreshingly notes, French seduction is bound tightly with what they call plaisir or the art of creating, and relishing pleasure of all kinds. Thus the anticipation.
Jane del Monte said:
I read Rudnick’s piece, and I wanted to laugh because it was cleverly written, but it was boringly predictable, drawing on the same old stereotypes.
Whenever I read anything written about the French by an American, it is usually obvious it is filtered through their own personal, past experiences.
This is no less true when I read something by Elaine Siolino, a competent writer when she is reporting something, but whose editorial opinions tell me she probably spends more time with her compatriots than with the French. (This is true of many Americans in Paris.)
Back to the topic at hand — French and American women — after spending a lot of time in France, most recently living, studying and living for five years in Paris, I found I had more in common with most French women than I have ever had with Americans.
I do agree with motherlodebeth’s comment about the nastiness of certain American women. If a French woman has a problem with you, she will probably ignore you. Her American counterpart will try to diminish you.
I miss my friends.
Barbara Redmond, A Woman’s Paris™ said:
It’s refreshing to hear such commentary from a woman who has spent a significant amount of time living in (and apparently identifying with!) a foreign culture. I, too, agree with motherlodebeth’s assessment of the nastiness of American women. Such female cattiness is undoubtedly perpetuated (and lauded by) by modern pop culture. Satirical pieces such as Rudnick’s do nothing to promote mutual understanding amongst women (regardless of nationality), and certainly do nothing to encourage a more profound exploration of what’s behind certain stereotypes and/or misconceptions about others. Pieces like Wharton’s and Sciolino’s, as imperfect and biased in their own ways as they may be, are at the very least more thoughtful projects.
Thanks for your comment!
Anyone who thinks a French woman is harsh when speaking of American women,hasn’t been around American women who can be down right nasty when speaking of other American women. Sadly, this meanness is worse in my view amongst the under age thirty females.
Read Facebook/Twitter comments sometime. Even ads aimed at this same age group denote inferiroity if one isn’t like certain ‘reality’ tv personalities. And look at the number of young females who have killed themselves because of female on female bullying.
As for flirting etc. It’s the old love hate Puritanical mentality that many Americans still have. And as Elaine Sciolino notes in her book La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life ”Séduction and séduire (to seduce) are among the most overused words in the French language. In English. ‘seduce’ has a negative and exclusively sexual feel; in French, the meaning is broader. The French use ‘seduce’ where the British and Americans might use ‘charm’ or ‘attract’ or ‘engage’ or ‘entertain’. Seduction in France does not always involve body contact. A grand séducteur is not necessarily a man who easily seduces others into making love’.
Barbara Redmond, A Woman’s Paris™ said:
Thanks for your comment – I couldn’t agree more. A major concern of mine regarding Rudnick’s piece was the notion that a male author was playing upon these damaging stereotypes of women of both nationalities. Perhaps his intention was to point out the pettiness of such female squabbles, but I simply don’t think satire is the best way to begin repairing such misunderstandings.
Thanks for reading and responding!