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.
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