I’ve been reading The Secret Life of France, by Lucy Wadham, Faber&Faber, 2009, on the differences between French and British culture [part 1 is here]. It’s not only an interesting insight into France but also into the way an Englishwoman sees life and liberty. This post is not so much a coherent whole but a series of fragments which stand out in her account.
The cults of Pleasure and Beauty are allegedly why French women don’t get fat. This, of course, is simply not true – there are plenty of fat French women about and as fast-food invades France, they’re getting more and more numerous. Obese people make up around 10% of the population in France, whereas they make up about 20% in the UK.
Incidentally, they made up about 1-3% in Russia in 1996 in the under 30s but the kids were getting far more obese by 2008, with the influx of western culture – maybe 10% obese by 2008 and the others at varying stages of fatness, something unheard of even half a generation before .
No self-respecting girl would have let herself get that way, unless she’d wanted to end up a spinster. This coincided with the onset of Feminism in Russia and an increasing number of women ceasing to look after themselves any more.
The French gynaecologist is usually a self-appointed sexologist too. Every time I went for a check-up, my gynaecologist would look up from his notes and ask: “Et, la libido – ca va?” I admitted that things were a bit sluggish in that department …
Even French GPs concern themselves with their patient’s sexual health.
There is an entire sub-genre in French cinema which deals with frigidity … [there is] an entire category [as well] known as Femme Fatale films, for which the French seem to have an inexhaustible appetite. At the time, I couldn’t believe that my new husband, a man with three university degrees, could have fallen for such drivel.
French women do pout … widespread pouting among women is a reflection of the belief that women are allowed to, expected to, behave badly … Pouting is also the specialite of the femme-enfant, a label which would be highly inappropriate in Britain but which has wide currency as a compliment in France … e.g. Bardot …
Another classic that Laurent took me to see was Le Septieme Ciel. It’s about a woman, Mathilde, who cannot reach orgasm … To solve her problem, she goes to see a hypnotist.
On this point, I agree with the Englishwoman and in fact, this occupied a few paragraphs in my second book. The new gf said, up front, that she simply didn’t come to orgasm anywhere near the extent her predecessor appeared to and that he should not make demands on her that way, that he should not expect such things all the time. The Englishman accepted that but I wonder if a Frenchman would.
Having been brought up in post-feminist Britain …
“Post?” “Post?” There ain’t no “post” about it, Lucy – just look at the Harmans and similar, just look at the draconian man-bashing rife in this country. You’re a little bit out of it here, I’m afraid.
… it took me almost a decade to adjust to the experience of being a woman in France.
Ha, ha – I bet it did – I can just see you in the company of Frenchwomen.
Since France appeared to have been bypassed by the feminist revolution …
I silently give thanks to the One some of us consider is still Above.
… women appeared, to me, woefully unemancipated, still pitted against one another and trapped in the archaic, patriarchal model of sexual competition.
Sigh. Poor, poor woman, sad soul.
They seemed to have no interest in conversation and would invariably gaze past me at parties …
Now why would that be, Lucy dear? Did you perhaps consider that you were only tolerably passable in your French language, you were an outsider anyway and your overall frumpiness might have had something to do with it?
Ho hum – let’s move on:
… Recently, I had lunch with Hortense, one of those Parisian women whom I had found so icy and who has, over the years, become my friend. She was interested to hear that she had terrified me …
“You frightened me!” she said. “You were so open … so different … you have to remember that here, the pleasure all lies in the business of being a woman. That’s where real life is played out – in our love affaires.”
I’m wondering here how far the author is putting words into Hortense’s mouth, to suit the point she’s trying to make. This is reinforced a moment later when Lucy gets to the bottom line, through Hortense:
“We have an obligation to our femininity. In our company, a man should feel like a man. There should always be a spark of mystery.”
It goes on in this vein for sometime, Lucy showing that, if afflicted by any femininity whatever inside, it must be like a jail sentence, an impossible yoke around the neck, a ball and chain around the feet.
Dress in sackcloth, dear and let that underarm hair luxuriate.
Lucy finally leaves off the topic but then keeps returning to it every few pages – even on topics such as politics, entertainment and education. It would be entirely out of order to say that she is fixated by the British “frigidity” she keeps on about, so I won’t say anything about that.
She returns to it on the very next page, asserting the Anglo-Saxon woman’s mantra:
With the sisterhood in England and America, we’re taught to put our female friendships first or at least, make sure we appear to do so.
Note that word “taught”. Anglo-Saxon women needed to be “taught” by the Friedans and Greers and so on, they needed to take “Women’s Studies” [see the Frankfurt School posts], in order to realize their potential as women.
They couldn’t just be friends naturally, as women in less frigid countries manage to be, drawing comfort and strength from those friendships but without any apparent misandrist edge.
There is no sisterhood in France and for many years, this was something I missed profoundly …
… With time, I realized, as I did in most areas of French life, that in losing once thing, I’d found another …
What’s this? Immediately she has my attention.
… I learnt that the extraordinary female friendships I’d known in Britain were part of a wider landscape, not so pretty – a landscape ravaged by a low-level and persistent war between the sexes.
I had to pick myself off the floor here. An Englishwoman actually understanding this? Could it be true? N-o-o-o-!
Avidly, I read on.
The absence of gender conflict in France has become a source of comfort to me.
Hallelujah! Eureka! Breakthrough!
Once I had overcome my prejudices, I learned that the constant flirtation … was a pretty harmless thing, compared to the deep-seated resentment that seems to infect gender relations in Britain.
There is no tradition of gender segregation in France because men enjoy the company of women.
Can’t believe I’m reading this from an Englishwoman. Continuez, Lucy, continuez:
Stag parties are a recent aberration imported by Anglophiles [at elite level] … there is no such thing here as a “ladette” because French women are happy to be admired for their femininity.
Sadly, having pierced to the very heart of the matter, she now loses it again:
I had imagined that the hostility between the sexes in Britain began with feminism but I now think it must have been a more longstanding feature of British life. You only have to look back at 17th century … misogyny …
Feminism, when it came, sat much better in our two Protestant cultures [UK and US] than in Catholic France.
She’s only just finished saying [in earlier, unquoted pages] that France was not religious at all but aggressively secular. However, she does make this caveat about Feminism:
In our otherwise laudable quest for transparency, we have managed to sabotage one of the greatest pleasures of life – the enjoyment of being a woman in the company of a man or a man in the company of a woman. In Britain and America, this pleasure has become shot through with a whole new kind of post-feminist guilt.
“Post”? Lucy, what’s with this “post” you keep on about? Otherwise, your observations are spot-on.
It is, I think, significant that [in discussing gender relations] in French, you are forced to use the words “man” and “woman” – les relations hommes-femmes. Even though Simone de Beauvoir inaugurated a flourishing and highly intellectual feminist tradition in France and even though many of the mothers of feminist tradition are of French nationality and culture, anyone wishing to take a course in Women’s Studies would probably have to do so outside of France.
The practice of decoding the myriad power struggles that exist between men and women has not become the national pasttime [in France] that it is in Britain. The French are too romantic for that – even the most seemingly hardnosed among them. Perhaps the fixation with gender politics is simply Puritan Britain’s way of taking the sex out of sexuality.
In France, the war between the sexes simply never got off the ground. Somehow, social evolution brought about changes in the status of women without ever giving men the impression that they were losing anything.
Amen. No problem whatever with women enjoying status and having rights – it’s the gender war which is iniquitous.
While French women are just as eager to secure their social and political rights as their British sisters, they do not wish to give up the experience of being loved for their beauty, sexual power, mystique or indeed, any other of the illusory qualities for which they are admired.
Had to get that Anglo-Saxon Feminist barb in at the end, didn’t you? “Illusory”? How about “core” and “fundamental”, Lucy? How about the notion that French women might be closer to what a woman is meant to be than the lost British equivalent?
And without realizing it, she actually got it in one when she wrote of the worship of Beauty and went on to say that Feminism never got a look-in in France.
This is all about”Beauty – inversely proportional to Feminism”, the latter most ugly indeed, in the Frankfurt School desire [as stated by those sociopaths] to uglify society.
They sucked in the Anglo-Saxon world but somehow didn’t make the inroads in France. Is that down to the arrogance and exaggerated nationalism of the French? Who knows?
To her credit, she now moves onto other aspects of French culture, to be covered in later posts.
This is one of the few posts from Nourishing Obscurity crossposted at Orphans.