At some point I will do a round up of all the books and blogs that pore over the style and outlook of French women. For now I’m just wondering if the appeal is straightforwardly superficial – the appeal of well-heeled, well-dressed, mainly bourgeois women? Or does it say something more about women and identity today?
This article hints at some of the appeal of Mireille Guilliano describing how the “pleasure-oriented approach to staying thin” in her first book French Women Don’t Get Fat “combined classic principles of Gallic gastronomy, time-honoured secrets of French women and common sense”.
Mireille Guilliano wrote her latest book Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility “as a guide to balancing work life with life life”. This is why her business book not only covers “important workplace skills and strategies” but “also covers style and food and wine and entertaining: because you can’t disassociate work from life. The book I wrote is as much about ‘art de vivre’ as it is about getting ahead.”
The aspiration to live life like a French woman is based on the narrow cultural stereotype of French woman = beautiful, elegant stylish creature and rightly has its critics. Zoe Williams sees in the proliferation of “themed diet books” a discourse that “both reveals and keeps alive a way of talking about women that should have been dispatched by now”.
Just as a lot of subtle racism slipped in under the guise of anthropology in old-school National Geographics, so a lot of misogyny slips in under the obfuscating, colourful gauze of Studies in French Etiquette.
Samara Ginsberg, writing on the FWord agrees:
I’m glad I’m not the only woman who gets pissed off about the idea that in order to be elegant, sophisticated and “feminine”, I am supposed to be wearing Chanel, smoking Gauloises, pouting a lot whilst sitting outside cafes, and not getting fat. How many women actually have the money and inclination to buy designer clothes? And since when has smoking given you anything except yellow teeth, chronic bronchitis and a greater-than-average chance of dying a hideous death?
Recently published books on French Women include Debra Ollivier’s‘s What French Women Know Leaving aside the wrangle over copyright with another blogger Polly-Vous Francais? there Debra Ollivier publishes a list of Twenty things that she thinks distinguishes French women.
This fascination with the (idealised) French way is says Zoe Williams a “cliche of French womanhood” that “is retrogressive and seems to have halted circa Dangerous Liaisons”.
But why are so many women in the US and UK in particular turning to “time-honoured secrets of the French”? It’s not just whether this is a new guise for oppression of women I’m interested in, it’s also what it says about what women are looking for. Whether the prescription is a good one, does the search reflect a desire for something more resonant in womanhood?