by Jedidja van Boven
When world-famous tennis player Serena Williams was forbidden to wear her black ‘catsuit’, designed to prevent blood clots after her pregnancy, to the French Open in 2019, online comments were quick to defend Williams against tennis federation president Bernard Giudicelli, who argued that “one must respect the game”. Some people were reminded of a 2015 incident where women wearing flat shoes were denied entry to a film screening at the prestigious Cannes film festival, despite the official dress code having no clear rules about footwear.
These instances only scratch the surface of a debate in France that started when #MeToo went viral for the first time in October 2017. The hashtag and its accompanying movement, where women discuss their experiences with sexual harassment, was criticized heavily in France, most notably by a group of influential women led by actress Catherine Deneuve.
In an open letter to Le Monde, Deneuve expressed her fear of the movement going too far in exposing the accused men and foresaw the possibility of women’s bodies becoming forbidden territory once more as today’s feminists criminalize sexuality and flirting. She chided #MeToo for being an outlet of ‘’American puritanism’’ and said that feminism had taken on a form of man-hating that she could not find herself in.
The difference in attitudes towards feminism and sexuality between the French and the Anglo-American position is something today’s French women have also noticed. They are apprehensive about Deneuve’s letter: UCR students Mathilde Eon and Alice Fournier agree that Deneuve comes from a different generation that might see the #MeToo movement in a dissimilar light and subsequently react to its influence more critically. However, there are other reasons why the viral hashtag has attracted so much negative attention in France.
Both, Eon and Fournier, deplore the ‘Francization’ of #MeToo- the movement’s distinct name was changed in France to #BalanceTonPorc, which translates to ‘expose your pig’- a much more direct vilification of the men who are accused of harassing the victims. ‘’I was disappointed when I found out about the name change’’, says Eon. ‘’I found #MeToo more sisterly, it was more focused on the actual victims’’.
As the original hashtag had already exploded in the US and UK, Fournier notes that France was relatively late to the game. She describes how many people brushed #MeToo and even feminism in general off as a short-lived fad, ‘’like a fashion trend’’. In addition, she finds that France is very static in its willingness to open up to other countries: ‘’Having been an empire and the heart of Europe, there is a certain fear of losing that status (…) so they try to clutch to the remainder of everything French’’. The infamous rivalry between French and Anglo-American culture also plays into the French repudiation of the crusade against seduction. The French language and the refusal of many to anglicize the French culture is a testimony of the isolation and the perpetuation of stereotypes, according to Fournier.
Flirting is more inherent to French culture than Dutch culture. ‘’Here, I can be just friends with a guy- in France, there’s always an undertone to it’’, Eon explains. Fournier adds that politeness and following etiquette are expected of French women, which in turn can be confusing for the allegedly much more direct Dutch: both women recall instances where their friendliness was interpreted as flirting by a non-French person. There are generally many notions about the ideal French woman: she must be chic, cute, wear expensive clothing, wear makeup, and have the all-important French elegance- in this sense, the common belief that French women are sexually liberated is false, says Fournier. ‘’French women are very much sexually ‘made’; they are customized to look and act a certain way as much as other women’’. Eon recognizes the amount of pressure about looks that girls in France face, and she expresses her relief upon finding a more relaxed atmosphere abroad.
Eon and Fournier describe the difficult questions that the #BalanceTonPorc debate created for them. “I wondered, should I be okay with a man opening the door for me? I think anyone should open the door for anyone, not just because you’re a woman’’ says Eon, who also stresses the importance of manners and ‘gentlemanliness’ in her culture. ‘’In France, I was stared at more often and I got catcalled many times, but very few people actually intervene in these situations’’, Fournier remarks: ‘’Feminism was not taken seriously by those around me’’.
Eon describes moments where her brother would use the word ‘feminist’ as an insult when they fought. ‘’He changed his mind later, and I was really proud of him’’, she laughs.
Though both women are critical of the changes made to #MeToo in France and understand its flaws, they agree that it is needed. “Lots of people think femininity and feminism are mutually exclusive, but you can be feminine and a feminist’’, Eon explains. Fournier, gesturing to her A-line skirt, adds: “Many French girls have a feminine appearance, but I think it’s important that France opens up to the rest of the world so that women dress however they want to, rather than how they are supposed to”.
Jedidja van Boven, Class of 2020, is a Politics, Law, and Anthropology Major, from Oosterwolde, Netherlands
Featured Image: https://wearyourvoicemag.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/22march8-superJumbo-1000×600.jpg
Mathilde Eon, Class of 2020, is a Law and Politics major from Angers, France.
Alice Fournier, Class of 2020, is an Art History and History major from Marseille, France.