This week sees the publication in the UK of an indispensable book by Mylene Desclaux - “Who?” I hear you chorus: well, apparently she is a French blogger - offering tips for women on how to be happy in your 50s. From the press coverage (the book itself is not yet available) this appears to be a euphemism for how to pull eligible men once you are “over the hill”. This forthcoming literary milestone caused me to wonder whether national stereotypes might really be true.
British women are not alone in their fixation on the reputed glamour of the French. And it is hard not to envy the sheer grit of a nation of women who manage to stay (on average) much slimmer than their international counterparts despite having to walk past a baker on every street corner and negotiate the obligatory cheese board at every meal. I can attest from distant past experience that if your average Friday evening post-work diet is three large glasses of chardonnay and a packet of Doritos, the scales move pretty fast in the wrong direction. And yet, part of the cultural identity of young working British women - as encapsulated by Bridget Jones – is based on that model of excess rather than the French version of self-conscious restraint. Our relationship with ideas of French womanhood is as a result somewhat conflicted, ranging from envy to dismissal of a culture that seems less egalitarian and less tolerant than our own of women who drink and eat and make as much noise as their male counterparts. When you dig a bit deeper, as with other stereotypes, a number of paradoxes reveal themselves. French women are much more likely to carry on working full time throughout their child-bearing years than their British counterparts and around 84% of French women are in the workforce, versus 70.8% of British women. At the same time, they are often prepared to tolerate a culture that attaches traditional stereotypes to them. In general French women more willingly collude with attitudes that downplay their competencies, over-emphasising instead their appearance and sex-appeal, or rather those traits are considered essential feminine competencies. I regularly hear women discussed in terms of their looks rather than anything else and they often seem more reluctant than their British counterparts to abandon more traditional ideas of the game or art of seduction in favour of more straightforward, egalitarian dynamics.
Desclaux’s book is marketed as falling at the extreme end of this category (although peppered with a light sprinkling of French “ironie”). For her, the key to happiness lies in how you play the dating game and is premised entirely on artifice: lying about your age, covering up your grey roots, even changing your name – obviously on the assumption that if you are a Brit called Doris or a French woman called Jacqueline you are unlikely to persuade a potential date that you are anything under the age of 60. She even proscribes wearing glasses on a date, something I would absolutely not endorse if you hope to read anything on the menu or take a good objective look at the man on the bar stool next to you, wrinkles and all (my anecdotal experience from female friends on the UK Tinder scene, by the way, is that he is much more likely to lie about his age than she is). But for Desclaux the focus appears to be on whether she is pleasing to him rather than vice versa and - in line with the stereotype - eating is probably not on the menu for her in any event. For both those reasons, what I shall call the doormat model (or “modèle de paillasson”), would work neither for me nor for most of the women I know.
The reputation of French women took a much-publicised beating when Catherine Deneuve – seemingly exemplifying the doormat model - signed up in 2017 to a public letter endorsed by 99 French female stars suggesting that the #MeToo movement was puritanical and an attempt at criminalising seduction and chivalry. I heard this view endorsed by a number of my French male and female friends and I suspect there may be a fair few British men who would covertly agree with them, but no self-respecting Anglo-Saxon woman would endorse it. This Franco/Anglo divide is long standing. Back in the 1940s Simone De Beauvoir described American women’s criticism of their French counterparts who were “too happy to please their men and too accepting of their whims and they are often right about this, but the tension with which they cling to their moral pedestal reveals as big a weakness.” In other words, the more aggressive, almost man-hating feminism of the Americans was as faulty as the French version and a healthy balance might lie somewhere in the middle. De Beauvoir herself certainly didn’t let her feminist views get in the way of a good time with men. But, she fought for and relished the right to do so as an independent spirit on her own terms.
As might be expected from a nation of philosophers, the French critiquing of #MeToo is deeper than the news headlines suggested. Deneuve has been advocating for women’s rights for decades and was co-signatory back in 1972 with De Beauvoir and other prominent French women of a declaration that they had undergone abortions at a time when to do so was still illegal in France. The immediate media response was to dismiss them all as “salopes” (sluts). In a blatant demonstration of “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose,” the response to Deneuve’s stand on #MeToo 35 year later was in essence very similar. In an interview with Harpers Bazaar in July 2018, Deneuve described the challenge for modern men and women as “knowing the limit and to understand the difference between flirting and going too far.” Even if I don’t agree with where she chose to place that line, thinking about how to navigate those boundaries is an important topic of conversation for my children and lots of other teenagers I would imagine as they develop in the frequently narcissistic and confusing environment which they inhabit. Speaking on the BBC, Elizabeth Moutet, a co-signatory of the French letter (for want of a better term) criticised intolerance of ambiguity and a lack of nuance in the #MeToo movement. The immediate response of #MeToo’s proponents to decry and stereotype Deneuve and her co-signatories as rape apologists, goes some way to proving their point, simplifying the letter’s purpose and failing to engage in a potentially meaningful debate on the boundaries and grey areas that surround the #MeToo movement’s central tenets.
So, perhaps Desclaux’s contribution to our understanding of women’s experience will be equally profound, although I am not optimistic and its reception has been withering. But, whilst my engrained preference is for my ostensibly woman-power British culture where raucous “girls nights” are a regular feature and many women can hold their alcohol at least as well as their male counterparts, I am reassured and inspired by the many French women I know who prove every day that you should never judge anyone by a prevailing stereotype and that approaching cultural differences with an open mind can only enrich your life. In that spirit, I offer up as a response to Desclaux the words of her nuanced compatriot, Simone De Beauvoir.
“In any case, the more the traits and proportions of a woman seemed contrived, the more she delighted the heart of man because she seemed to escape the metamorphosis of natural things. The result is this strange paradox that by desiring to grasp nature, but transfigured, in woman, man destines her to artifice.” (The Second Sex).
Artifice is a loser’s game (as most women over the age of 50 already know) and, according to De Beauvoir, a form of enslavement to men’s desire to avoid their own mortality. For her the only way for a mature woman’s life not to become a parody of its youth was never to give up the search for real meaning in it. Easier said than done, perhaps, but it’s a much more appealing version of mature French womanhood than one measured by time spent in bars with strangers, trying to remember the age you purport to be and the latest name you invented for yourself.