Friday, October 15, 2010

France, Its Women, Their Children: A Disjointed Paean from the NY Times

Several days ago the New York Times published a compelling article on the status of French women, especially as it concerns their child-raising practices. Its author, Katrin Bennhold, has written extensively on women's issues as part of a series published in partnership with the International Herald Tribune. Her piece is, predictably, of a staunch pro-feminist bent. It's also trenchant and largely well-done, yet Bennhold yields to the powers of cliché (or her editor) in profiling French women as the super-sexual beings they are assumed to be, both at home and abroad.

The piece begins with what would surely bewilder the sensibilities of the American heartland, and not a few courtesy-minded Europeans. The lead exhorts the reader to ask him or herself, "could anything be more French?" than the image that follows it, describing a state-subsidized post-birth program of "vaginal gymnastics," "electric stimulation devices" and "nimble squeezing," all for the purpose of "making love again soon and making more babies." 

An accompanying series of photographs shows a woman doctor, in a tight blouse and short skirt, sitting with crossed legs prominently displayed... with one hand between the legs of a patient on her back. The association of French femininity and overt sexuality -- and the casually provocative illustrations of her doctor's visits -- perpetuates just the kind of stereotypes that have badgered women in the feminist era, and does little to foster the respect for them that men are asked (or demanded) to concede. 

This certainly violates the all-important French civic ideal of "la discrétion," the rigorous protection of privacy that dictates many of the related codes and norms of France's art de vivre.

I'll break tone here and give a personal but no less valid case-in-point. In college, I became friends with a French female while she was studying abroad in the U.S. Less than a week after her arrival to a leafy, middle-American (and overwhelmingly conservative) college campus, she became the unwilling recipient of blatant appeals by male students asking for sex. Flabbergasted, she asked several of her would-be partners, 'Why are you asking me?' The single response was repeatedly given, "Well, I heard you were French..."

This anecdote reflects the greater cross-cultural fallout of French femininity as it's been projected in the mass media age. With no apparent sense of irony, Bennhold's article gives nods of feminist respekk to icons from Simone de Beauvoir to Brigitte Bardot. The latter is hardly a torch-bearer in the feminist march of progress; after all, she launched to fame playing the über-sultry lead in 1956's And God Created Woman, in which she spent a great deal of time semi- and fully nude, and completes the film in a ten-minute-plus tantric dance holding her skirt above her head.

-- But let's get back the article: We read on to learn about France's aggressive family-promotion programs and the playing-out of those programs in modern French family life. Bennhold praises the invaluable public service of the "école maternelle," a no-cost daycare scheme available everywhere. The schools allow women the logistical ability to work full-time. While the author praises the system's convenience, she nuances with an interviewee's quip that the schools are "called 'maternelle' for a reason," and that French women are compelled by tradition to juggle a double-load of home and work life. 

Another of Bennhold's interview subjects was Valérie Toranian, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine's French edition. Toranian had this to say about the harried pace many French women struggle with:
“French women are exhausted,” said Toranian. [...] “We have the right to do what men do — as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner and look immaculate. We have to be superwoman.”

This argument and others from the piece are legitimate. The author is not immune to over-reach, however, as evidenced by arching claims like "French women appear to worry about being feminine, not feminist, and French men often display a form of gallantry predating the 1789 revolution." She supports this thrust by quoting Bernard Henri-Lévy (known in Europe by the rockstar shorthand "BHL"), the pseudo-serious philosopher playboy who laid it on, like, real intellectual when he said, “France is an old Gallic macho country.” 

Grounding an argument on BHL's respectability is not the way to win over American readers, as media force Garrison Keillor has argued ascerbically and hilariously.

Let's circle back to the casually provocative tone of the article. What's prevalent is the careless reference to female anatomy, found at the piece's very beginning, which probably turned off more readers than just me. One wonders how many moderates reading the article browsed over the tangy lead, then didn't finish, assuming the rest would follow in the same spirit. What kind of feminism is to be promoted, if the rules for dialogue are not those that apply to men? What happens when men talk about their bodies -- or, come floods, women's bodies -- with an attitude that teeters on indecency? The answer, of course, is sexist and inconsiderate interaction between men and women -- and it goes both ways -- which I'm sure many women and quite a few men can relate to, either in the example of the French student above or in personal experience.

Transatlantically speaking, what happens when the notion of Bardot-like French-women-as-sexpot, or at least very-fertile in Bennhold's case, hits the public debate across the pond? Things like the caveman-esque pick-up line, and the conflicted mother-career woman. Or both. 

Maybe what we need is balance: women should be not be pressured to work, or stay at home; men could acquaint themselves with the carpool and dirty dishes. And common courtesy would go a long way to smoothing gender equality's progress in the meantime.

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