So it wasn’t bad enough, last week, that 100 prominent French women, some of them soi-disantes feminists, got their expensive lingerie in a bunch over the whole #MeToo movement and decided to write an atrocious letter about it. Now, we get another one, defending said letter. Yes, Agnès Poirier has taken it upon herself to school us impertinent foreigners about the ins and outs of French feminism, and why 100 French women (presumably, representatives of every femme in the land) have expressed (in language shocking even to one who can read French, as I can) their fear that calling out bad men in Hollywood and elsewhere is in danger of turning into a witch-hunt, while simultaneously ignoring the very real problems created by the sexism that they are defending as a “right to importune”.
But I’m getting just a soupçon ahead of myself here. Agnès, s’il vous plaît…take it away:
They spoke their mind in a Gallic manner: straightforwardly, to the point of appearing blunt. The letter was also strikingly badly edited, with clumsy chunks unworthy of their authors. But, in short, they think the campaign by the #MeToo movement to tackle sexual harassment represents a “puritanical … wave of purification”; that “rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cackhandedly, is not, nor is being gentlemanly a macho attack”.
They went on to proclaim that “what began as freeing women up to speak has today turned into the opposite – we intimidate people into speaking ‘correctly’, shout down those who don’t fall into line, and those women who refused to bend [to the new realities] are regarded as complicit and traitors”.
In other words, these 100 French women, representing many more in France, argue that this new puritanism reeks of Stalinism and its “thought police”, not of true democracy. What they refuse to countenance is an image of women “as poor little things, this Victorian idea that women are mere children who have to be protected”, the same one extolled by religious fundamentalists and reactionaries.
Oh, mon Dieu! So the famous letter was merely “strikingly badly edited”, now, and not just ill-thought-out and full of caca from start to finish? That women (outside of enlightened France, naturellement) are now being made out to be “poor little things” and “Victorian children” who have to be “protected” from evil men by “Stalinist puritans” and “thought police” who are long on political correctness and short on freedom of speech? Because from where I sit, here in North America, nothing of the sort that they describe has, in fact, happened. Writing for the selfsame Guardian that published this tas de merde, Van Badham offers a truly useful corrective:
These “things” reported by women and men across the world have included acts of sexual violence, abuse, assault, entrapment, harassment, coercion, blackmail, public sexual humiliation. The accusations include Louis CK masturbating in front of non-consenting women. Harvey Weinstein ejaculating on to a woman’s nightclothes after raping her. “Things” done by men who lied, insulted, threatened, cornered, touched up, fingered, groped, squeezed and penetrated those whose power and status were less than their own, as a reminder that it was. As a delectable indulgence not of sex, but of advantage.
Now Deneuve’s name is among 100 female signatories in a letter to Le Monde, protesting the campaigns with the spurious insistence that exposing abuse and naming abusers “helps the enemies of sexual liberty”. They claim men have been punished merely for “sending sexually charged messages to women who did not return their attentions”. “We are clear-eyed enough,” the group pronounces, “not to confuse an awkward attempt to pick someone up with a sexual attack.”
OMG, ladies: me, too! Me, and all the other women who have exposed the damaged tissues of the shame inflicted on us by our predators are quite “clear-eyed” on the distinction.
That’s why we are so angry – not because we are “puritanical”, as the letter claims, but because we are seeking joy from sexual contact on our own terms, not abuse or exploitation on someone else’s.
Oui! I, too, like my Australian comrade, would like to know just where the depredations of Louis CK, Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, et tous les autres fit into “cack-handed” seduction, or “awkward attempts to pick someone up”. Because from where I sit, being forced to watch someone else masturbate, or having my leg humped, is not exactly emblematic of my own sexual liberté. It is also not a bit seductive. I too am clear-eyed enough to know the difference between a nauseously blatant power-grab by way of the genitalia, versus an actual awkward approach to l’amour. Shit, even here, in the uncivilized wilds of North America, we’ve known the difference for years, and some men have even been addressing it for decades. Here, for example, is a handful of Berkeley Breathed’s ‘toons from the mid-1980s:
As you can see, Binkley’s whole interaction with Blondie is very “cack-handed”, but not once does he take his cack in hand and jack its contents into a potted plant. Vive la différence!
But back to the Mme. Poirier’s touching defence of the letter, which seems to be based on a number of thoughts lost in translation, somewhere over the Atlantic:
As women, we do not recognise ourselves in this feminism, which beyond denouncing the abuse of power takes on a hatred of men and of sexuality.”
This is an example of what has always distinguished French feminism from the American and British versions: the attitude towards sex and towards men.
Ah oui, le chauvinisme français. That charming Gallic trait that assumes a natural Gallic superiority over tout le monde, constantly and oh-so-charmingly forgetting that égalité and fraternité are also in the national motto, and for reasons good. I know it all too well, having seen examples of it (which I’ll get to in a bit). Continuez, s’il vous plaît…
Partly lost in translation, the letter was vilified on social networks, its authors accused by some of being “lobotomised” by their “internalised misogyny” (according to Asia Argento), and more generally for being “rape apologists”, “too old and decrepit to understand women’s issues today”, for being “over-privileged”, for being “stuck in the 1960s and 1970s”.
Deneuve and Catherine Millet, the art critic famous for The Sexual Life of Catherine M, suddenly became the faces of what was seen by many younger feminists in France and abroad as a retrograde bunch of over-privileged celebrities and intellectuals both totally unconcerned by the plight of all those anonymous victims of rape and sexual harassment and too preoccupied by their sexual freedom and defending the French way of gallivanting about.
The letter’s authors did not do themselves any favours by writing of men’s “right to pester” women. This clumsy and unacceptable line poured more oil on the fire and reinforced prejudices and cliches about French women. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1947: “American women have only contempt for French women always too happy to please their men and too accepting of their whims.”
This is a real shame: the letter puts forward strong arguments. And it does so by being overtly French; in other words, by sounding authoritative – and rude. Heated debate is a passion, considered healthy in France. As the highly regarded 89-year-old French historian and feminist Michelle Perrot, partly critical of the Deneuve letter, wrote: “They are triumphant free women who show a certain lack of solidarity with the #MeToo victims … But they say what they think, and many people share their point of view. The debate is real and must be recognised.”
Duly noted, mesdames. And I’ll grant you this, the US-Americans ARE a puritanical lot; their first English-speaking settlers brought over some seriously backward notions about women and sex in general. We much more liberal, progressive Canadians are constantly rolling our eyes at them, believe me.
But this is not just some prudish younger Americans bashing their French elders for their retrograde attitudes; even in France, younger feminists have, as Mme. Poirier notes all too fleetingly, begun to criticize their compatriotes’ clinging to outmoded (and frankly, male-centred) notions of what constitutes sexual freedom. Somehow, though, the French equivalent of #MeToo, #BalanceTonPorc (“call out your pig”) was not deemed worth mentioning here. Even though it matters, and matters intensely, to a great many jeunes françaises… Inquiring minds are wondering pourquoi, Mme. Poirier…
In France today, different feminist groups coexist: the main one is a feminism following the steps of De Beauvoir, one that is not at war with men but rather with machismo culture, gender inequality and the inherent misogyny of religions.
And there is a rather recent American import of feminism, one that often comes across as opportunistic and “man-hating”, one that turns a blind eye to religious misogyny, for instance defending the wearing of the hijab. They present themselves as the new vanguard of French feminism, the new blood, except they can sound to some like Stalinist commissars, or Robespierre in culottes, passing edicts about what is acceptable conduct. We would be wrong, however, to think that the current debate shows a generational fight. Many millennials have signed the Deneuve letter. The divide is political, ideological even.
And again, le chauvinisme rears its head, and claims to be speaking for all the French féministes, including the much more critical-minded younger generations thereof. Worse, it taps into a false strain of “feminism” (note the quotes, there for a reason) that attacks the “religious misogyny” supposedly inherent in Islam, while doing no such thing about that of Roman Catholicism, France’s still-dominant main religion. Do I have to dredge up, once more, the hypocrisies of those who scream about the evils of the burkini and try to tear hijabs off French Muslim women’s heads, while leaving similarly-clad nuns to frolic unmolested in the same surf on the same beaches? Do I have to point out how very strange it is that those who purport to defend secularism keep turning a blind eye to their own favoritism when it comes to Catholicism? And do I have to point out, once again, how far from feminism it is to force women to (un-)dress in ways that make them feel uncomfortably exposed, just so they blend in with what is deemed chic and pleasing to the eyes of (some very chauvinistic) men?
But wait, we haven’t even gotten to the most ridiculous part yet. Don’t worry, we’re getting to it…
According to Perrot, “the authors of the letter fear that the #MeToo movement dents creative, artistic and sexual freedom, that a moralist backlash comes and destroys what libertarian thinking has fought hard to obtain, that women’s bodies and sex become again this forbidden territory and that a new moral order introduces a new censorship against the free movement of desire”, and concludes: “There is indeed reason to share their fear.”
Except that nothing exists to confirm that this fear is even remotely reasonable. So far, the perpetrators of the worst have merely been censured, and their works interrogated, but left untouched. Nobody has been jailed for life on the mere say-so of one outraged woman. Nor have their movies been pulled from circulation to face the censor’s scissors. What has happened is that women have finally felt free enough, despite American and all other puritanism, to come forward and talk about their abuse at the hands of men in power. Nothing more.
Meanwhile, though, we see just what a strange notion of “censorship” passes for definitive among certain soi-disantes féministes in France:
This is probably the most interesting and sharpest argument made in the Deneuve letter. As Sarah Chiche, a 41- year-old psychoanalyst and author who signed the Deneuve letter, explained: “The #MeToo victims’ personal stories have proved a powerful magnet and very popular with the public. It has almost become a new norm in public discourse. Unfortunately, this is becoming insidious: now books need to be rewritten, films reshot.”
Last week an opera director in Florence decided to change the end of Bizet’s Carmen so that Carmen now kills her murderer. Ridley Scott edited out Kevin Spacey from his latest film and reshot his scenes with Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World. Art critics questioned on the BBC whether to boycott the Gauguin exhibition in London because the painter slept with under-age Tahitians. Others want to rewrite Sleeping Beauty so that the final kiss is a consented one.
Since Deneuve signed the letter, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour has suddenly been described as a rape apologist film, to be banned from cinemas. “This new feminism is now serving the interests of cultural revisionism and doesn’t know when or where to stop,” says Chiche.
It is a French tradition to disturb, to question, to critique, to set ablaze the conflict between two freedoms, that which protects and that which disturbs. Sexuality has become the new battlefield. “Today, in 2018, Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses and Nabokov’s Lolita would never see daylight because of both reactionaries and self-proclaimed progressives who invoke the fate of real victims to shut us all up,” says Chiche.
Did you catch that? Sarah Chiche opposes “censorship”…by supporting actual censorship. And she maintains the French tradition of tearing things up…by opposing anyone trying to actually tear things up. What else can you call it when someone decries “cultural revisionism” by calling for the stifling of reimagined cultural icons before they can even be created?
Écoutez bien, mes soeurs: There is nothing wrong with rewriting old fairy tales with new endings. Popular stories are constantly being rewritten or recast from new angles, and have been since time immemorial. Shakespeare was a notable rewriter of Plutarch, for example. Even the the most “classic” of fairy tales is but a revision of some older story that has grown unpalatable to its current admirers. It’s only slightly newer to have them revised from the underside to show the point of view of those oppressed, but trust me, it’s been going on. Lolita, for instance, has been reimagined from the viewpoint of the sexually abused titular heroine. (And was unsuccessfully “defended” by a stab at censorship, too.)
It’s even happening in France. Kamel Daoud’s marvelous reimagination of Albert Camus, for example, in which he gives names and voices to the Algerian victims of the pieds-noirs Meursault’s murderous foray into forbidden freedoms. He didn’t insist on butchering Camus, he just wrote a whole new book to show what Camus left out of L’Étranger. Would you rather he be silenced in the name of preventing “cultural revisionism”?
Oh wait, I suppose you would. C’est typique…
For all the talk about Deneuve, little has been said of the initiator of this public letter. Her name is Abnousse Shalmani. She is a 41-year-old French-Iranian, born in Tehran. She grew up under Ayatollah Khomeini until her parents fled to Paris in 1985. In a book she published in 2014, Khomeini, Sade et Moi, she revealed that she was the victim of a rape, but also said French authors such as Colette, Victor Hugo and Marquis de Sade taught her how to be free, as a woman and a sexual being, far from the Islamic veil she was forced to wear as a girl in Tehran.
Perhaps we should listen to her when, amid the furore, she tried to make herself heard on French radio: “We do not dismiss the many women who had the courage to speak up against [Harvey] Weinstein. We do not dismiss either the legitimacy of their fight. We do, however, add our voice, a different voice, to the debate.”
One should always listen to the French difference.
Well, madame, consider the “difference” duly heard and noted, along with the above-mentioned chauvinism and hypocrisy that underpins it. (We’ll leave out just how far from libertarian the Mad Marquis was, eh?)
It’s clear that the French way is superior to that of les Américaines, and that’s why French women have a certain je ne sais quoi, and also why they never get fat. But I still think this embarrassing letter is unworthy of them. And even Catherine Deneuve has since apologized for it.
Funnily, though, I don’t hear anyone saying we should listen to that part of French feminism.