Les birds et les bees

When it comes to teaching their toddlers about sex, they really do do things differently in France


Debra S. Ollivier
May 12, 1998 4:12PM (UTC)

BY DEBRA S. OLLIVIER | Every country has its cultural stereotypes, and none is woven more
deeply into the fabric of its society than the association of the
French with sex. Few would disagree that the French are more
laissez-faire than Americans in this department. And indeed, while
tales of Latin braggadocio and sexual virtuosity are often more
mythic than factual, the daily reality in which French kids grow up
(and presumably become those virtuoso Latin lovers) is decidedly
different. In other words, the playing fields for French kids and
their American counterparts are far from level. A sloppy French kiss
at elementary school solicits laughs, not expulsion. Naked toddlers,
who run bare-assed on public beaches long after American kids are
required to don suits, are rarely reprimanded for touching one
another at day-care potty central; rather, they're frequently left to
explore the terrain. Later in life, instead of being singled out as
a special subject, sex education is part of standard junior high
school biology in France (in my preteen days, it was presented with
the solemnity of a slightly alarming liturgical rite in
gender-specific auditoriums). This is right around when American
girls fret over training bras, which don't exist in France because,
well, what's there to train?

Even language reveals sexual mores: In Victorian times, France was
considered so libidinous that even the English language couldn't
cope, which explains in great measure our abundance of French sex
words -- from French kissing and ménage-à-trois to the
vulgarities we excuse with "pardon my French." And the French
language continues to bloom with cutely flamboyant diminutives for
toddler genitals -- "foufounette," "zezette," "zizi" -- in stark
contrast to English, which offers little beyond the generic "bottom,"
"pee-pee" or "wee-wee."

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But nowhere do children's sexual landscapes diverge more
flagrantly than when it comes to toys. Consider this: In recent years
Mattel has fitted Barbie's body with unremovable flowered white
panties. Meanwhile, the French doll company Corolle (owned by Mattel)
has been successfully selling a very different kind of doll on the
mass European market for decades. Recently, my friend's French
toddler introduced me to one of these dolls; its name is Fanfan, and
with the fierce pride of someone who'd just discovered a new phylum
of animal life, my friend's daughter lifted up its tiny pants and
declared, "Look! It pees!" What took me by surprise, however, was not
the little drops of phony pee. It was the doll's little uncircumcised
plastic penis. I found out later that these dolls and other French
children's products are players in a bull pit of cultural commerce,
where claims of French promiscuity and American Puritanism
relentlessly butt heads.

For starters, anatomically correct dolls do exist in the States.
You just have to look long and hard for them. You'll find American
dolls that burp, pee, snort and eat, but, as Joanne Oppenheim,
president of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio (an independent guide to
kids' toys and books) explains, "Most anatomically correct dolls
available in the U.S. are for the school market. The few that we've
seen here have been especially unattractive -- with belly button
bandages and baby faces only a mother could love."

As for the lifelike, anatomically correct Corolle dolls, you won't
find them in any mainstream toy stores because, according to Beau
James, director of North American Operations for Corolle, "The mass
market is reticent to sell sexed dolls ... The U.S. is still a
Puritanical society. Sex is something that Americans don't want out
in the open." This statement is laced with contradiction, of course,
because while shielding children from the prurient influences of the
outside world may be high on the national agenda, kids live in a
culture where sex sells everything from mufflers to freeze-dried
coffee. And when it comes to dolls, every day millions of American
children play with bombshell, mass-market Barbie, who's far more
sexual -- panties or no panties -- than a pudgy, anatomically correct
Corolle doll. Then again, as far as genitals are concerned, we're in
the realm of meta-sexuality here. As M.C. Lord points out in her book
"Forever Barbie," Barbie is a "space-age fertility archetype," a
"template of 'femininity' imposed on [a] sexless effigy -- which
underscores the irrelevance of actual genitalia to perceptions of
gender. What nature can only approximate, plastic makes perfect."

So while "fertility archetype" Barbie is made over to look more
like "real life," you can forget the genitals in America and, by
extension, the messy business of having sex and babies. As for those
functional dolls that purport to teach kids about the proverbial
birds and bees, Oppenheim isn't very effusive. "We had a rash of
pregnancy dolls, all of which gave children misconceptions about how
babies were born. There was one with a pop-off belly and a baby
inside -- it also came with a flat tummy and no stretch marks -- and
another doll that moved inside a sack; when the sack was opened the
child discovered if it was a girl or a boy from the blue or pink
ribbon on the doll. Talk about misinformation!"

Clearly, giving American children more of the real thing (and less
"misinformation") could alleviate a certain amount of infantile
embarrassment about the body that may continue to spore in an air of
Puritanism. If nothing else, it would certainly prevent some basic
confusion. I'm reminded of a friend's American husband who was around
8 years old when he first saw an uncircumcised penis. "I was in a
ballpark urinal when I saw this guy peeing," he said. "I looked down
at him and was horrified. I thought the guy had lost part of his dick
in an industrial accident or a war." (Imagine his surprise when he
realized that he was the one who'd actually lost part of his
penis.)

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If dolls help kids make sense of their world, then books help mold
their perception of it. And here, too, a Franco-American divide seems
to cast our cultural differences in stone. Our living room is a
fitting example: It's strewn with lavish French toddler books --
Rabelaisian tales, lush illustrations, fanciful foldouts and plastic
overlays. At first glance you might think they look innocent enough.
And you'd be wrong. "We've grown accustomed to Americans requesting
incredible changes to our books before they're launched in the
States," says an editor at French publishing giant Gallimard. "This
has been going on forever." Her sentiments were echoed unanimously by
those I spoke with in French children's publishing, all of whom had
things to say about books that were tweaked, modified, ignored or
flatly rejected because of material deemed inappropriate for
children. While in a few cases it might seem evident that, for
Americans in particular, the line between art and pornography is
blurred -- take, for example, the elegant toddler Louvre museum book
simply called "Breasts" that features memorable mammaries by masters
like Goya, Gauguin and Botticelli and that begins with "When I grow
up I'm going to have breasts just like Mommy" -- most of the changes
described by publishers were indeed hard to fathom.

The latest case at Gallimard -- "a classic example," offers the
Gallimard editor -- are two books in their famous "Mes Premières
Découvertes" (My First Discoveries) series called "Before Birth" and
"Birth" that use animals to explain the basics of reproduction. From
snails to whales, a vast cross-section of the animal kingdom is
depicted in small, graphically correct illustrations at (fore)play,
mating, brooding and being born. The books were launched at last
year's Frankfurt book fair and, says the Gallimard editor with a
touch of tempered incredulity, "They were extremely well-received
by all publishers except the Americans, who categorically refused
them on the grounds that they were erotic."

One of the many Gallimard books that did make its way across the
Atlantic, albeit with significant changes, is called "The Body." A
sort of bio-anatomy lesson for toddlers, the book uses simple but
lifelike illustrations of a boy, a girl and a baby, with plastic
overlays describing everything from molecules to intestinal tracts.
Before the book could be distributed in the U.S., Scholastic,
American publisher of Gallimard books, required design changes that
put clothes on the two toddlers and diapers on the baby (despite the
fact that the baby's genitals are not apparent at all in the original
French version). The book is distributed with no design modifications
in roughly 10 countries, including South Korea and Taiwan, which
makes America the only country in the world except for Islamic
nations such as Iran (which banned the French 100-franc bill because
it features Delacroix's bare-breasted Liberty) to censor material of
this kind.

My inquiries at Scholastic were passed through two editors and
wound up with the V.P. of Communications, who sent off a short,
faceless corporate missive: "When adapting books, all books, for
our market, we may make modifications as needed to avoid questions or
protests ... Scholastic does not make moral decisions, nor do we
consider ourselves the arbiters of what is or is not permissible in
the American marketplace." Who, then, is doing the arbitrating? As
one of the world's largest publishers and distributors of children's
books, classroom magazines and educational products, is Scholastic
not exercising a de facto moral decision by clothing children in a
bio-anatomy book, even if its unilateral disclaimer is "meeting
customer demand"?

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The waters of book censorship are rocky and complex, and I leave
it to others to tack their sails against the gale. Meanwhile,
there's reason to believe that publishers may overestimate
American readers' prudery. A case in point: Chronicle's
surprisingly successful and visually forthright book "Mommy Laid an
Egg: Or Where Do Babies Come From," which features kids' drawings of
the crazy coital ways that mommy and daddy "fit together." And the
French continue to rail against what they call "the terrible
incorrectness of the politically correct." With a certain virulent strain
in his voice, Arthur Hubschmed, an editorial director at École des
Loisirs (publishers of some of the most artistically progressive
children's books around), sums up what seems to be a general
consensus not only in France, but in Europe as a whole: "Americans
systematically censor anything that is vaguely scatological or
sexual. [Anglo-Saxon] children's books live in a nursery ghetto where
man is good and sex does not exist."

Back in 1957, Roland Barthes wrote: "The adult Frenchman sees the
child as another self. All the toys (in France) one commonly sees are
essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are all reduced
copies of human objects ... The fact that French toys
literally [Barthes' italics] prefigure the world of adult
functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all,
by constituting for him even before he can think about it, the alibi
of Nature."

Is Barthes right? Could it stand to reason that a toddler growing
up in this context might be predisposed or primed to be more
open-minded about sexuality as an adult than his or her Anglo-Saxon
counterpart? Ever since the infamous Marquis de Sade put France on
the world's sexual map, the country has been a refuge for Americans
fleeing the Puritanism of their compatriots. As Victoria Rock at
Chronicle points out, "The largest perspective gap on sex may be that
between the French and the Americans." And as long as that's the
case, the French will continue to boldly live up to their sexual
stereotypes. Meanwhile, Americans will continue to do the same, while
fixating on the genitals of dolls and presidents alike -- a
preoccupation the French shrug off as a deeply strange and peculiarly
American form of child's play.

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Debra S. Ollivier

MORE FROM Debra S. Ollivier

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