Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Putting the "femme" in feminist

I got my first dose of French sexism during my semester in Nice in 2008. Our grammar teacher, a spry, elfish old man for whom I had a lot of respect, had a habit of asking questions that required a very specific answer. If we couldn't produce the exact answer he was seeking, he would often refuse to move on in the lesson until we did. There was one instance of this, when, after several minutes of our tentative guesses and mounting frustration, my friend Matthew (the only boy in the class) finally happened upon the right answer.

"YES! Finally. It's a good thing we have a man in the class to help out all of these empty-headed girls!"

The remark, accompanied by an eye-roll towards us and an esoteric wink of fraternity to Matthew, was delivered without a second thought. Even when I shot him a laser glare of feminist rage, he didn't pick up on the fact that what he had said was at all inappropriate. Because it wasn't, by France's standards. Although it's not always so overt, I've been encountering the same phenomenon this semester. My nineteenth century professor, who seemed to like the four of us women last semester, now acts differently with a guy in the class; there was an instant "chumminess" between them, and he continues to hold a sort of teacher's pet position in class discussion. In the section of my class at Paris III that is taught by a man, the French girls tend to adopt a Minnie Mouse voice, bow their heads and bat their eyelashes when speaking during class, as if they have been culturally conditioned to be coy when interacting with men.

Subtle opportunities for sexism continue beyond education. French CVs demand a photograph and often a relationship status, and after speaking with a few French women it seems to be generally understood that while not required, wearing a sexy skirt and boots will never hurt you in a job interview (regardless of the position). The scary thing is that, while they are quick to accuse African/Arab immigrants of being inherently sexist, the French are slow to recognize its signs within their own culture. My Paris III teacher brought up "la condition feminine" in reference to 18th century literature, only to conclude that "mais evidement, ce n'est pas notre querelle" ("but clearly, this has nothing to do with us"). Similarly, my female literary tutor challenged the idea of studying "the figure of the woman" as unnecessary and reverse-sexist in a modern-day context (although she was eventually won over when we pointed out how dominant studies of male characters are, it's just not as obvious because they're rich and dynamic and not reduced to a spokesperson for their gender).

All of this seems to stem from the fact that the French shun the American notion of the politically correct. While I'll be the first to admit that Americans can get a little too sensitive at times, the upshot to being easily bristled is that we have methods of recourse built into the system--we have noticeable attempts at the primary school level to educate children about tolerance, and clearly defined standards and processes to deal with things like sexual harassment. France, on the other hand, tends to operate under a "meh, don't take things so seriously, ladies!" method of operation, and then end up with anti-tobacco ads like the ones below, that make light of sexual abuse through suggestive imagery and the caption: "to smoke is to be Tobacco's slave"

I get it. Eye-catching. But seriously?

As it turns out, domestic violence and sexual abuse are HUGE problems in France right now, at least when compared to other Western nations. 160 French women are killed every year by violent boyfriends or husbands, accounting for more than half of the female homicide cases nationally. Due partially to the activism of NGOs like SOS Femmes and Ni Putes, Ni Soumises ("neither whores, nor submissive"), the notoriety of the statistics has gotten to the point where the government has finally had to start paying attention. However, while tracking bracelets and attention to the psychological toll of abuse are steps in the right direction, there's a cultural mindset that needs changing, and a generation of French women that need to put their fashionably-booted and heeled feet down. After all, it was largely French feminist activists/writers that inspired American feminism, so there has to be some woman power left lurking here somewhere...

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