October 8, 2009

French Femininity and Elsa Joly.

Meet Elsa Joly.

Elsa is Xavier's cousin. Elsa is, quite obviously, magnetically beautiful. Impressively, her personality is equally pulling. Elsa is the most accurate apotheosis of French femininity I know of. Personally. She does it so well.

French femininity has always eluded me. From the day I arrived in France I bristled against the depictions of women everywhere - the classic issues of feminine representation: impossibly thin, perfectly sculpted, ridiculously seductive - all of it looked like simulated femininity to me - the gross production and reproduction of some myth. These images are everywhere - not just in France, but there exists a special institution surrounding these images here. I didn't understand why French girls don't play sports (then I realized that French boys don't either). I was amazed that gender roles have been left untouched, despite the fact that so many women are in the work force. I was astounded that when I mentioned the word 'feminism' French women would immediately respond with distance. Most of all, I had the distinct impression that femininity had very few forms in France.

All of this is complicated by the fact that in many ways, I fit a classic representation of femininity myself. It has always been a squirmish struggle for me - how I do gender. I hate the idea that a feminist has to look bedraggled. But I also hate the idea that a woman must look femininely beautiful in a prescribed way to be a woman. I was fascinated in France that liberation for women has never involved stripping femininity of its meaning, as it so often has in the Anglo-American context. I've personally always just wanted an expanded version of what the notion of femininity meant - a greater stretch of possibilities in expression and performance...of how gender is 'done,' in the classic Judith Butler-ian sense. French women seemed, to me, to be so reigned in by femininity in its most time-honored form.

When I was a student at Brigham Young University I spent time as the president of the feminist club there. One of the issues we took up was the long line of beauty queens donning the walls of the Wilkinson Center (student center). We wanted the portraits down. The problem wasn't so much that they were hanging there, but that they were some of the only hanging women at Brigham Young University. I remember the pursuing conversation - the printed editorials in the papers that claimed that I and the others must be fat and ugly to take issue with the beauty queens...that it was an issue of jealousy. I was highly amused by this take, but it was symptomatic of the running belief that anyone who is a feminist must be a woman who simply can't do femininity.

So, in a country where femininity is embraced and patrolled, above all, by women themselves, I've been fascinated to exhume what exactly it means in France and whether it is discordant with emancipatory politics for women.

Hence, I turned to the best representative of French femininity I knew: Mlle. Joly.

This summer we spent time together in the south of France and I remember a specific conversation about a woman whom Elsa described as being not feminine. In fact, according to Elsa, it was her chief deficiency. I was absorbed by Elsa's description just of this woman's hair. Hair, as Elsa described it, is the root of a woman's femininity. It is the soul of her femininity - how she uses it, plays with it, has it cut. There were other things too - this woman's insecurity, her unease with her body, etc., which all added up to equal this woman's lack. For Elsa, femininity is not on a continuum with masculinity - the girl was by no means masculine either.

So, after this conversation, I decided to sit down and ask Elsa about the subject. I went to Elsa's house last night to chat (where her new baby puppy was such a splendid distraction).

I think the most fascinating part of what Elsa described when she talked about femininity is that there was never any tension between a very traditional idea of femininity - of difference between men and women - and equality. Elsa opened her story of feminity with an insistence that being a woman is something inherent, something deep inside. She said that women give life - and that this quality is instinctive in their interactions well beyond birth itself. She also said there is something carnal, even animal chez les femmes. She went on to say that women are sensitive beacause they understand the true nature of things and also because they are weak - they have weakness. In her weakness she also finds her strength, said Elsa.

Then we moved on to beauty. Elsa claimed that fashion and makeup - tools of beauty - are a huge advantage for women. My eyebrows raised when she said this, having heard so many times the divergent view that these things are harnesses women bear.

Her idea of femininity and its uses were based on inherent and well accepted differences between men and women. So much of the feminist struggle (at least in Anglo countries) has been about denying or minimizing or explaining away these differences. Difference has often been seen as the justification for unequal treatment or for injustice. In contrast, the French, like French Elsa, have not denied difference. Femininity in France has the same definition today as it had in the 1950's or 60's. Interestingly the connection between difference and inequality has not been conscripted as the problem.

So, here is Elsa and her version of femininity. Here am I, sitting across from her, listening to her words. I like Elsa's take - shockingly, it amuses me. I can find too many examples of women and men who don't fit into these descriptions to embrace it wholeheartedly, but her telling is compelling.

I am most amused when I ask Elsa how she found women in New York while she lived there. She replies, 'masculine - very sexy, but masculine.' She also says that most French men think that these women will eat them. They are not sufficiently playful, subtle or submissive in their femininity.

So, I haven't solved the quandary. Femininity, to me, remains baffling and thorny in France, equally so in America and most of all in me.

(The top photo is from Elsa's collection. The other two I took of her last night).


Anne said...

Incredibly thoughtful post. Thank you.

Aralena said...

Wow. Such an interpretation is so interesting, and of course rife with problems.

I came across this ad this morning. It illustrates one of the major issues I have with one of the French versions of femininity: the eternal little girl.


I know we have the same hypocritical obsessions with the virginal, the school girl, in the U.S. but I also like to think there's more of an awareness of this schizophrenic imposition on women.

richard said...

Your post made me think of a book by Sri Aurobindo entitled The Mother. In it he describes
the vedic perspective of the feminine aspects of God from Sariswati (the perfection of beauty) to Kali (the destroyer of ignorance)and it occurred to me that France has always had a special relationship with "Notra Dame".
I thought that you might find it an interesting perspective.Thanks for your delightful blog.

Andrew said...

I enjoy your post...I've always thought femininity comes from within. I've met women with the perfect hair and look, but as soon as they open their mouths...
I think we as women can all be more thoughtful with how we represent "beauty" or "femininity"

Emilie said...

Richard, thank you for your recommendation...I will definitely have a read. Very interesting. Our Lady indeed...

Aralena, great link ma cherie. The virginal school girl - oh, le pire.

Jill said...

I've always liked the idea that differences don't need to translate into 'unequal' but the rest...it's a lot to think about. Thanks for the very interesting post, as usual.

sariah said...

I was at BYU when the beauty queen issue came up - and with it those ridiculous accusations.

I think I am actually more comfortable with the French take on femininity than the Anglo-American. That isn't to say that I am completely comfortable with it, but I have come to think that a universal, comfortable idea of femininity / feminism is impossible. There are simply too many ways to "be a woman."

(I've spent a perfect morning reading all of your blog. I'll miss experiencing Paris through your words and photos, but I am thrilled you'll be in New York. I harbor a dream of meeting you.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...