Frenchwomen: Still cooler than you

Oh, chouette, yet another book that essentializes Frenchwomen to tear down American ones

By Kate Harding

Published October 23, 2009 6:24PM (EDT)

"Can people stop writing books about unlocking women?" asks Feministing's Samhita, regarding "What French Women Know" author Debra Ollivier's recent guest post at the Washington Post's Short Stack blog. I'll second that request and add a more specific one: Can expat writers quit acting like living abroad for a decade makes them both experts on another culture and free from the taint of an American upbringing?

Either that, or somebody needs to give me a contract to write "Canadian Women Don't Do All That Shit You Hate About American Women" because I, too, lived 10 years of my adult life in another country -- and even have dual citizenship to bolster my not-really-American cred -- so I'm certainly as qualified to take pot shots at my fellow countrywomen by essentializing my other countrywomen as Ollivier is. (Or as qualified as "French Women Don't Get Fat" author Mireille Guiliano -- a bona fide Frenchwoman with an American husband and a part-time home in New York -- is to do the reverse.) Canadian women: They're polite! They dress for the weather! They can wrestle a moose better than any American not named Palin! They're sort of British, which means they don't get their girly emotions all over everything, and they're sort of French, which means they eat, drink, socialize and brush their teeth in secret, sophisticated French ways! Come on -- you know this has bestseller potential.

According to Ollivier, Frenchwomen "are self-possessed; even slightly defiant" and "think in degrees of passion and possibility." They also "generally prefer men to be in the picture, not out of it," are averse to restrictive rules, "simultaneously romantic and realistic," "more interested in having a life than making a living," and "matter-of-fact about the body." When it comes to beauty, "au naturel is de rigueur, and less is truly more" (I had no idea L'Oréal, Lancôme, etc., were relying entirely on the déclassé American market!), and French femmes "enjoy being grown-ups." Wow, those sound like some terrific women! And also like a lot of American women. And Canadian women. And, you know, human women. Apart from a couple of phrases commonly used in English anyway, I'm not seeing anything intrinsically French on that list, and I'll bet you a buck -- or a euro, if you prefer -- that there are even loads of genuine Frenchwomen who don't identify with Ollivier's broad (ha!) outlines of their peculiar femininity.

Of course it can be fascinating, educational and humbling to explore the real differences between cultures -- hence the discipline of anthropology and the enduring appeal of travel (not to mention narratives about it). But this trend of using mostly flattering stereotypes about Frenchwomen to underscore mostly damaging stereotypes about American women is nothing but a shallow international catfight staged for readers looking to have their own biases confirmed, not challenged. Which raises a sincere question about what's wrong with American women: Why are so many of them buying this merde?

To read Debra Ollivier's response to this post, click here.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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