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July 31, 2003

Puzzle for the Day

Friedrich --

I was reading Ni Vu Ni Connu (here), the blog of a Montreal freelancer named Martine -- tres charmant, and highly recommended. And off the mind wandered ... A good sign, or so I like to think -- certainly, in my case anyway, an indication of a happy mind ...

With verrrrrrry limited -- tiny, really -- experience, I have the impression that I rather like French-Canadians, who sometimes seem to combine what's great about the French (food, style, wordliness, charm, artsiness, sexiness) with what's great about North America (informality, lack of pretention). Another one from the Dept. of Overgeneralizations, I know -- but I'm fond of making overgeneralizations, so indulge me please. And now that I'm thinking about it, I realize for the first time that I don't know French-Canadian lit or art much. Barely at all, in fact, though I do like a handful of their movies --"Decline of the American Empire" and "Mon Oncle Antoine" are certainly standouts. Are you familiar with their writers or visual artists?

The mind wanders further afield ... It's leaving Montreal ... It's thinking about women ... It's thinking about France ... It's thinking about French women ... Well, OK, not thinking but musing ... And it settles on something that has long puzzled me. Which first requires a bit of a setup.

Setup: France is a more hierarchical, more socially conservative place than the U.S. is. Forget the damn nationalized health care for a sec, forget the radical posturing of French intellectuals, forget all the current headlines about immigrants and such. It remains a centralized, tradition-bound, bureaucratized society, anything but the freewheeling go-realize-your-own-destiny, make-of-yourself-what-you-will, land of opportunity that America kinda-sorta-almost is. (Oops: not "America" but "the States." Apologies. Time to attend to the sensitivities of our immense Canadian readership.) Fact: You don't know the meaning of the words "stuffy" and "bourgeois" until you've spent some time in France.

One aspect of this -- the aspect that interests me in this posting -- is that France has much more strongly defined sex roles than we do. Men are supposed to do (and be) this, and women are expected to do (and be) that.

OK, given all that, here's the puzzle: Why, then, have the States had a much more dynamic feminist movement than France has ever had? It's bizarre, non? American women have had much more open destinies than Frenchwomen for quite a long time -- Google tells me that French women couldn't vote until 1945, and that until 1964 they couldn't even open a bank account without hubby's permission.

So where are the French bra-burners, the French lawsuits, the inescapable Women's Studies programs, the endless bulletins from H.R. about what is and isn't permitted? In the early-to-mid-'90s, the States went through a sexual-correctness phase; France laughed. Even granting the existence of the occasional celeb French feminist, the difference in attitudes between here and there is dramatic. Wouldn't you think that French women have a lot more to complain about than American women do? As well as many more legitimate rights to lay claim to? Yet ... yet ... On Frenchwomen go, being Frenchwomen.

I have my own theories and hunches about this mystery. But before springing them, I'm eager to know yours, as well as those of any visitors who care to comment.

Hey, your wife's from Montreal, right? And you get there regularly, right? Interested to hear your impressions of French Canada. Your wife's, too: What's living in L.A. like for a woman who grew up in Montreal?



posted by Michael at July 31, 2003


All I know is that Montreal is where all the savvy young gay men go for fun. Its informal, cheap, and has a licenous anything-goes air (so I've friend spent hours raving about the strippers...they're paid a living wage, so they don't work for its more a actual dance/burluese show without the sleeze)

Posted by: JLeavitt on July 31, 2003 1:56 PM

Which reminds me that I was a fan for a while of a French-Canadian comic strip called (I think) "Melody" -- a woman's autobiographical (with help from her boyfriend, if I remember right) story of a young backcountry woman who becomes a stripper. Group sex. Smalltown goings-on. Infidelity. Pretty engrossing, actually.

Ah, Google tells me I'm remembering correctly: "Melody" by Jacques Boivin & Sylvie Rancourt.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 31, 2003 3:10 PM set yourself up for this. Maybe French men are better chefs and better lovers than their States counterparts, and therefore the traditional female role has more, ummm, perks. Maybe in their case, the screwing they're getting is actually worth the screwing they're getting, as they say. Just a thought.

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 3:15 PM

No offence taken! I'm sure you're on to something.

(Just between you and me, my hunch is that Frenchwomen get something from playing the role --if they didn't, they'd protest. Where American women often go from one looking-for-fulfilment thing to the next, none of which ever quite pay off in the hoped-for way. So maybe l'amour is a big part of a Frenchwoman gets from life. Oh, yeah, and the food thing too.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 31, 2003 3:28 PM

FvB's column on "Animal House" might also shed some light here. He pointed out that the right to the pursuit of happiness is a uniquely American notion, and therefore, maybe life isn't so much better for French housewives (darn---I hope it is!) but maybe they just think "c'est la vie." Nothin' you can do...pass the chardonnay. And if American women have taken some wrong least they're still pursuin' and deserve some credit...

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 4:04 PM

Michael, your theory parallels mine--perhaps French women get more out of the role. This is just a guess, but maybe there's something in French culture which lets women think they're beautiful enough. American women are more apt to be perfectionists, and thus to never believe that they can relax and enjoy being admired.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on July 31, 2003 4:37 PM

Annette -- Hey, American women rock.

Nancy -- There must be something satisfying about playing that role, don't you think? Which would imply that sex roles per se aren't awful, or at least aren't automatically frustrating, wouldn't it? Hmm. Plus you're certainly right to point out that French culture is open to many more kinds of beauty than American culture is. But why should that be, especially given how rigid they are in so many ways and how open we are in so many ways? I have a semi-hunch that it may be because we're so free -- maybe people get lost in all that freedom, and respond to that by clinging to a very narrow set of ideals. Where maybe what a more tradition-bound culture can offer is a set of very-likely-to-be-satisfying options. However strict the option set, maybe it's still a bigger one than what we offer ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 31, 2003 4:50 PM

>There must be something satisfying about playing >that role, don't you think? Which would imply >that sex roles per se aren't awful, or at least >aren't automatically frustrating, wouldn't it?

The sex roles still might be frustrating, but not so frustrating that a substantial number of people feel they must be changed.

That gets to something which might help explain both women's perfectionism in the US and the rise of feminism here--the feeling that one has an obligation to change things if they aren't satisfactory.

> Hmm. Plus you're certainly right to point out >that French culture is open to many more kinds >of beauty than American culture is. But why

The American thing, as I see it, isn't that we only have one or a few ideals of beauty, but that there's a feeling that no appearance is quite good enough not to be picked at.

>should that be, especially given how rigid they >are in so many ways and how open we are in so >many ways? I have a semi-hunch that it may be

I'm going by stereotypes here, but I think they actually want to enjoy themselves, and we don't trust pleasure. Again, a fast generalization, but I think Americans are terrified of anything that might make them want to stop working.

> because we're so free -- maybe people get lost >in all that freedom, and respond to that by >clinging to a very narrow set of ideals. Where maybe what a more tradition-bound culture can >offer is a set of very-likely-to-be-satisfying >options. However strict the option set, maybe >it's still a bigger one than what we offer

I won't say it's a bigger set, but it could well be options that our theoretically complete freedom doesn't include.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on August 1, 2003 10:35 AM

Well, given the state of the French economy, giving themselves permission to stop working does seem to be something they've accomplished. But why would a traditional female role with all its limitations, and which is so "defined" by others, be something that people who wanted to enjoy themselves MORE would embrace??

Posted by: annette on August 1, 2003 11:40 AM

It's nice to see that I made someone's mind wander! And how interesting that it went from "les québécoises" to "les françaises", a subject that never seems to stop puzzling me. Despire our French heritage and the fact that we are considered to be more latin then the rest of Canadian women, "les québécoises" couldn't be more different then French women, which is why I think it's funny that my blog made you think about "nos cousines".

Our society is a very matriarchal one. Québécoises women have a reputation of being strong, of having moved on to the post-feminist age, and of giving a hard time to the few machos left in the province!

I'm not sure I want to risk an explanation as to why things haven't changed that much in France. It's an older society with a very strong sense of history, and the men and women of France tend to act in a less rational way then we do in America, at least in their relationship to each other. Ça reste un mystère...

Oh, and your link to my site (the Martine one on the left of this page) isn't working. But I still appreciate it!

Posted by: Martine on August 1, 2003 3:38 PM

Nancy -- Our hunches about this are very close! I wish I could put it as well as you do. Americans do often seem to be clinging to something and holding out hope for something (money? fame? some fantasy of redemption?), and in doing so seem to frustrate themselves. They (sometimes, often, occasionally) seem terrified of dropping down into the textures of life. I'm guessing that the traditional roles Frenchwomen move into and assume actually engage them in the material of life in a way they find reasonably satisfying. So where American women sometimes find themselves flailing and looking around for "fulfillment" (and never quite finding it), Frenchwomen often find fulfillment to be part and parcel of the texture of daily life. Which may (not that I'm advocating anything here, just musing out loud) have a little something to say about traditional sex roles, or at least some of them ...

Annette -- Heckuva a question. I wonder ... I find myself wondering if "wanting something more" might sometimes have the effect of jinxing the quest -- one may want something more, semi-get it, but also wind up experiencing a lot of unwanted strain. (Which can in turn leave one reaching for yet another "something more"...) Think there may be anything to that?

Martine -- Oops, fixed the link, sorry. And many thanks for the info and ideas.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 1, 2003 4:25 PM

Well, Michael, I knew a therapist once who would most certainly agree with you, and, actually, you've made me pause quite a bit with your observation. I'm not sure if limited roles, or limitless roles, is really the issue. As a general rule, I think greater options give people the greater opportunity to find fulfillment. The opportunity, though, does not automatically translate into the result. "Enjoying the fabric of life..." certainly does seem to have something to do with the achievement of it, doesn't it?? Sounds so easy, sometimes so hard.

You know---you've also reminded me of an essay written by none other than the very American Gloria Steinem, called "A Little Education is a Dangerous Thing" which said that American women from traditional working class backgrounds who did not go to college, married, stayed home and raised kids often were found to have HIGHER self-esteem than women who went on to college and "moved to the big city" so to speak. It was because they fulfilled the role they understood and that was valued in their world. Women who go on to pursue all their "options", including higher education and freedom, often feel they have no "touch points", few role models (this is getting better, but was very true when I came up) and no longer no how to measure or value what they are doing. Again, I believe this is evolving and will get better and better the more women learn to deal with "options."

The question, though, that you started with is why did French women never need this experiment in the first place??

Could it also be that the traditional French female role was never, to begin with, as repressed as the 1950's American housewife was?? Maybe they never got as psycho about vacuuming as we did, you know?

Posted by: annette on August 1, 2003 9:06 PM

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