Sturm, Drang and Laetitia Casta’s breasts – or – Why France bashing is a feminist issue

[Nota Bene: Due to the deeply inane nature of JavaScript, clicking the “continue reading” link may not display images linked to posts. It doesn’t work for me in Mozilla or IE. If you click on the permalink, you will see all the content.]

Reader Christophe Kotowski sends a link to today’s International Herald-Tribune (a.k.a. The New York Times in Paris), in which New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein offers an solution to my earlier confusion about American policy towards France and Germany:

Meet Mr. Germany and Ms. France

It was on display again last week, that old double standard. On camera, Germany’s chancellor got a muscular handshake from America’s president and a meeting that let bygones be bygones. France’s president got the official cold shoulder and columnists’ heated denunciations.

Yet France and Germany had taken the same position on the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Both were offering to help train Iraqi security forces, but not to send soldiers. Both argued that only accelerated Iraqi sovereignty and a larger UN role could secure peace.

Apparently, it sounded different in French. Somehow, to American ears, it always does. At this point in strained trans-Atlantic relations, an obvious explanation comes to mind: In the American imagination, France is a woman, and Germany is just another guy.

The French themselves depict La Belle France as a bare-breasted “Marianne” on the barricades. They export high fashion, cosmetics, fine food – delicacies traditionally linked to a woman’s pleasure. And French has always been Hollywood’s language of love.

Germany, meanwhile, is the Fatherland, its spike helmets retooled into the sleek insignia of cars like the Mercedes and the BMW. It also exports heavy machinery and strong beer – products associated with manliness. Notwithstanding Goethe, Schiller and Franka Potente, German is Hollywood’s language of war, barked to the beat of combat boots in half a century of movies.

Such images simply overpower facts that do not fit the picture – like decades of German pacifism and French militarism since World War II. So what if France was fighting in Vietnam, Algeria and elsewhere in Africa and deploying a force of 36,000 troops around the world, while Germans held peace vigils and invented Berlin’s Love Parade. For Americans, it seems, World War II permanently inoculated Germans against “the wimp factor” and branded the French indelibly as sissies. […]

Frank Costigliola, a historian at the University of Connecticut, gives many such examples in his book “France and the United States: The Cold Alliance Since World War II.” He contends that assigning France negative “feminine” traits has always served to delegitimize French points of view. “Associated with France as a woman is France as hysterical, or France as crazy,” he said. “It really is a knee-jerk reaction.” Robert Paxton, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University, agreed. “It’s an American stereotype and an American strategy,” he said. “There are elements in our culture that the Bush people can play on in stereotyping France as feminine.” […]

To the film critic Molly Haskell, it seems that France has been cast as the femme fatale, “the seductress who’s leading all Europe away from us.” “It’s this insidious evil woman,” she continued, “and the others are probably good guys who are just being led astray.” What does not fit that script is forgotten – like Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der’s pre-election promise that Germany would not take part in a war against Saddam Hussein even if the United Nations authorized it. Or the fact that in his youth, President Jacques Chirac of France made banana splits at Howard Johnson’s in the United States before serving as a French Army officer.

“The Germans are getting away with it because we are so eager to tar and feather France,” said Ann Douglas, a cultural historian at Columbia University and the author of “The Feminization of American Culture.” “The constant need to denigrate France – and feminization has always been the way to go – is because France has always maintained a separate voice.”

A female France is a made-to-order enemy for the Texan in the White House, Douglas contended. With a sagging American economy, and the fear of appearing weak that often underlies aggressive masculinity, she said, French-bashing has new political appeal. […]

Just as stereotyping France is wrong, it would be a mistake to read too much into such a facile interpretation of American views of France. However, the divergence in US policy towards France and Germany seems to make little rational sense, so perhaps one shouldn’t neglect the importance of gender metaphors too quickly.

There is much that is wrong with the mental image people have of France and Germany. For instance, the photo below jives somewhat poorly with the wimp image of France:

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Jacques Chirac, somewhere in the mid-1950’s

I have actually seen film of Jacques Chirac speaking English from back in the days when he was still mayor of Paris. His English is – or at least was – quite good, and he hardly hardly has a record as a knee-jerk anti-American.

In fact, the truth about the French state is very nearly the opposite of this image of a feminised state. Women couldn’t vote there until 1946, and the women’s right movement is still relatively weak in France. Think about it – would a genuinely feminine nation have had a painting of a topless woman on its currency?

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Delacroix – Liberty leading the people

Before the euro, this was on every 20 franc note, if I recall correctly. “Marianne” (I have no idea how the woman in this painting ever came to be called that, but that’s her name) is such an important symbol of the French state that she is generally portrayed just as you see her here: top down and perky. France even has an official pair of breasts which define the proportions used in official statues of her. For many years, Marianne’s form was based on measurements of Brigitte Bardot (taken back when she was a young hottie) and later Catherine Deneuve, but since 1999, Laetitia Casta has been the bearer of the official French bust.

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Well, at least they’re nice knockers

All this strikes me as about as feminine as Penthouse magazine.

George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, has for some fifteen years been advancing the idea that human thought is driven by metaphors. There is a good on-line site for this branch of cognitive science at the University of Oregon. Lakoff, however, has drawn a great deal of attention to his theory in recent years by promoting it as an explanation for American politics, starting with this fairly famous open letter published during the first Gulf War and this article subtitled Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. His articles, and particularly his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, are rife with examples of exactly the sort of metaphor that the IHT is exposing here.

The question is, is this merely a rhetorical device, or do people really think this way?

Defending France from “femininity” is not something I’m terribly interested in doing, and that is why my “defence” of France is at least half condemnation. But, if this logic really explains francophobia, then France is under fire not only because of dubious perceptions of it but also because there are still people who believe that women’s politics are not legitimate.

Ms Bernstein, however, concludes her article on an optimistic note by taking the France-as-woman metaphor and running with it:

Still, said Kupchan, now a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University: “Deep down inside, Americans feel deeper affinity for France than Germany. If France is female, there’s also an attraction, a lure, a romance.”

France will survive. America is not as powerful as its promoters might believe, and scowling in Paris’ general direction is unlikely to make very much difference in the end, except perhaps by encouraging Europeans to return American stereotypes by conceptualising the US as a petulant child. However, the gender politics that this new francophobia implies – within the Bush administration and the general public – are probably more troubling than francophobia itself.

16 thoughts on “Sturm, Drang and Laetitia Casta’s breasts – or – Why France bashing is a feminist issue

  1. Scott,

    pictures work fine in IE6/98. Great post! As for the feminist issue, as opposed to many, mostly American feminists, French feminists would, in my opinion, never seriously object to Marianne. In my opinion, and experience, they have found a pretty unique way to assert there independence while retaining a specific idea of femininity. And here’s more gender politics: I once did a market study for a unisex perfume among young French and German females. French girls (all their 20s) liked the perfume because of the sporty image it conveyed. They would only use it for such occasions. German girls, however, would use it in order to appear more masculine, emancipated…

  2. Patrick: Believe it or not, I always think of Pepe Le Peu when I think of a typical American stereotype of the French.

    I tend to think that Nina Rothstein’s essay is a rather flip dismissal of American criticism of the French. It’s no secret that she is an inordinate Francophile, as her articles have indicated in the past, and so is most of the senior editorial staff of the New York Times (not all of their columnists, though).

    Tobias: I didn’t quite understand what you said. What kind of an image is a sporty image for a French woman? Did your market study indicate that French girls like to wear perfume during sports?

  3. Your sentence on “Europeans (who will go)… conceptualising the US as a petulant child” made me smile. Sometimes I find myself doing that but these kind of metaphors are imo worthless. Concluding on the strength of French feminism by looking to their former coins is like judging the Netherlands (one of the worlds most secular countries) as very religious because of “god be with us” on our coins (on “our” Euros even!). Interesting to study in a sense of funnOy but of no importance for real (international) politics.
    Altough. Reading posts like (these makes you think the strangest kinds of reasoning can be found with George Dubya. We can keep speculating on this however as long as he lives; it’s no use.
    Is there a way we (Europeans) can help the US voters to get rid of the fellow? (US-help to get rid of Chirac and Balkenende would be fine too)

  4. Frans,
    There are five ways that Bush can be “gotten rid of”.

    1. He could be asked/forced to resign, like Nixon was
    2. He could be impeached, or possibly convicted of a lesser crime (accessory to a felony, perhaps)
    3. he could not be nominated by the republican party for the 2004 election (frex if defeat was certain).
    4. He could lose the 2004 election.
    5. for completeness, but I would strongly recommend against it at this stage, he could be assasinated.

    the first three of these five options can only be done by the republican leadership, though if public sentiment continues to sour, they might well do so.
    the fourth option requires waiting until november 2004, but it has a high probability of succeeding. The fifth option has no citizenship requirement, but it is illegal.

  5. @Patrick. “At this stage” ?
    Wow. How easy it turns out to be to be completely misunderstood. While I wrote “as long as he lives” I did not imply to contemplate on his dead coming within the next 20 years. I meant to say that this speculation on Bush’s motives could go on even long after he was out of the White House!
    Please don’t do this Patrick; in no way bring up that “academical possibility” “for completeness”

  6. Frans,
    I would condemn any American or European who attempted to assassinate President Bush.

    But if an Iraqi were to do it, I couldn’t do so because Bush himself opened himself up to such an action by authorizing the same for Iraq’s head of government.

  7. I have no idea where this notion of “stereotyped French femininity” comes from; one rather suspects the psychological confines of Ms. Bernstein. As previous commenters have noted, Pepe le Pew, or more accurately, a cartoonish image of Maurice Chevalier, is the standard American archetype for France. The American “official” image of France is the Eifel Tower – as erectile in its way as the Washington Monument is in its own. If you asked the American man-in-the-street what or who “Marianne” was, he’d probably guess something to do with fashion magazines.

    In short, the American stereotype of France is one of a charming, oily, masculine, sexual predator.

  8. Men who like women too much are basically queers. Americans understand that. We are heterosexual because that’s the normal, macho way to be, but we don’t go on and on about amour and jouissance and shit like that.

  9. “that’s the normal, macho way to be”

    Funny, I never thought of american men as ‘macho’, and I never thought of ‘macho’ as normal. Whatever happened to Cary Grant and James Stewart?

  10. Cary Grant and James Stewart may have been queers. Their sense of style, good manners, and attentiveness to women are the tipoffs.

  11. “Cary Grant was a Brit”.

    OK,OK so I just put the first two names that came into my head. Regardless of whether he was British or not he was perceived as the perfect galant by a large number of US women. I could have made more of a fool of myself and said Rock Hudson, but this would only have allowed zizka to be even more ironic with the ‘women prefer gays’ argument. The point is not how things are, but how they are perceived to be.

    And while we’re on the subject of how things really are, I would just love to see some qualitative assessment from US and French women on the image and reality of the performance of their respective men as lovers.

  12. The American male ideal historically was more the John Wayne type. Cary Grant was to get women to go to movies. I didn’t say that American women, back in the day, liked the way things were then. There was in fact a whole mystique of the Latin lover.

    I remember that in 9th grade history (ca. 1960, and we used obsolete texts) I came away with a distinct impression that the French were defeated on the Plains of Abraham and elsewhere because they were too sexy and epicurean. And then, around 1980 I got a clear impression that the hottest coeds were majoring in French and Spanish.

    Times have changed. My 30-y.o. son has probably never seen a cowboy movie.

  13. Cowboy movies? Speaking of sexism, lol. But seriously, every one-man-army movie out there is spun off of the same rightous hero path you can find in any cowboy movie. There is no way a 30 year old hasn’t seen at least ten of these.
    Anyway, an American can see France as a bird chested, fake accented, queer little man; while America itself is engaged in a happy marriage with several infant children. But then they suddenly are forced to realise the truth, that their wife has taken the next plain to follow the little man while the children hold her husband just to get even with him.
    So? Does this metaphor sound familiar? The difference is either an unbearably hot women that we adore making our life like an episode of Cops, or a completely out of character cartoonish insult doing their worst. You people should be ashamed of yourselves for accepting the latter.
    But nobody is ever really going to think of France as an oily man.
    BTW, the consensus of America will always agree that masculin is considered the most common trait of sombody that is really homosexual, male or female.
    The whole Latin thing was just a phase, eventually life got better in its respective country and those who moved in on Americans just thinned out through the generations. Or, instead of going for the average strong woman they adopted American customs and went for those considered more desireable through showboating and very poor grammar, not the most admirable of characteristics.
    If any womanizers read this get your laughs out while you can still feel all of your legs.

  14. Americans have little problem with Germany because the Germans, for the most part, have paid their pennance. We dislike France, though, because of the Parisians. I am originally from Germany, but have been living in the US the last 21 years. Never once have I passed through France and not been given hell by the Parisians or French officals. Personally, I have a problem with people who assert that they are better than I am just because they are French (I was actually told this by not just one, but several Parisians over coffee) when Germany has been using France as a road to Britain for, oh, about 2000 years. The Germans know who spanked them during the second World War. The French, on average, seem to have completely forgotten that were it not for the US, their beloved city of Paris would be either a pile of rubble, or Germany’s easternmost capital. How could you possibly expect the American people to give two shits about what the French people think when they have the gall to desecrate the graves (at Normandy) of our soldiers who gaves their lives for their freedom?

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