The French are waking up to the idea that Americans love them. Or, more narrowly and perhaps more accurately, that American women tend blindly to admire French women and want nothing more than to know exactly how to do things just like them. There is a whole cottage industry of French Women Do Everything Better publications, and the news about it has finally made it back to France. Where the French are, well, a little bewildered actually.
The reactions are coming out here now because of the December 24th publication of the latest book in the first and the most famous of the French Women Master Life Effortlessly franchises, engineered by Mireille Guiliano. It all started with her 2004 book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, and then went on to produce the French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook, then a book of French tips to happiness, another on tips to the working world, and now, nearly ten years on, this latest volume, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts.
Without going into the merits of the literature, which has already been reviewed, praised, analysed and excoriated a lot over the years, it’s still relevant to note that it’s grown into a lucrative publishing niche. Since Guiliano’s first book a decade ago, dozens more in the genre have published from Two Lipsticks and a Lover: Unlock Your Inner French Woman by Helena Frith Powell, Chic & Slim: How Those Chic French Women Eat All That Rich Food and Still Stay Slim by Anne Barone (followed by Chic and Slim Encore and Chic and Slim Toujours), to Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Secrets of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman and Why French Children Don’t Talk Back: What We Can Learn From French Parenting by Catherine Crawford. This list is not by any means comprehensive–there are actually many more in the same genre!–and many of these books made bestseller lists in the U.S. and sold millions. (Guiliano’s Facelifts was 14th on the New York Times Bestseller list just a few weeks after being published in December).
We could go on forever about why this is such a lucrative market, if it’s really true or not that French women have some kind of innate savoir-faire that makes them better and happier, and where the French Woman myth comes from anyway, because it obviously can’t be entirely true that they eat, dress, and seduce so perfectly. We could also wonder why Anglo-Saxon women are convinced enough that they get it all wrong to believe that French women get it all right.
Then again, there isn’t a publishing boom of Italian women’s lifestyle secrets, or Swedish women’s parenting strategies, or Brazilian women’s sex and relationship savvy. So evidently there is something about French women—and not just a sense of inadequacy among Anglo-Saxon women—that feeds the industry. There is clearly the very bankable perception that French women are different. And, evidently, superior.
But rather than probing the veracity of or the reasons for that perception (which I tried to do to some extent in a book a few years ago and which, as I mentioned above, countless reviews have done even better), I’m actually more interested in what it feels like to be the object of such adulation.
Judging by reactions in the media over the past few weeks (and even the past few years), American adulation mostly generates French…bewilderment. What’s all this praise about? As one story on the American show of love describes, French women are “flattées mais lucides,” flattered but realistic. Which, arguably, is very French: dismissive of the idea of praise—it’s never good to dispense too much of that—committed to a culture of taking-things-down-a-notch.
There is also the sense that these women as described aren’t necessarily real women. They are an idea that Americans have of French women. An idea that the French reviews are all too happy to debunk, citing plastic surgery stats (France is the 9th biggest consumer in the world, ahead of Germany or Spain) or the French woman’s expanding waistline which has gained 6,7 cm since 1997. Without, however, explaining why, in 2014, French women are nonetheless incomparably slimmer and statistically have a lot more sex than American women.
Some commentators have not deprived themselves of the small pleasure of finding all this typically American, this tendency to gush and to grasp, to want to define a pragmatic solution to everything. French parenting is just the flavour of the month, was the lucid retort to all the enthusiasm last year about Pamela’s Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, when Chinese parenting was the most popular one last month. In a country with a ravenous appetite for pragmatic how-to books on how to succeed in anything. That, to be sure, is not the French way.
One article noted how this same French woman, allegedly so perfect and sure of herself, actually admires a ton of things about her American sisters: “She drools over the perfect blow-outs of American women, her chic and trendy manicures, her innate sense of hospitality, her cookies, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside…” I’m not sure it’s entirely comparable praise—she makes a Toll House batch to die for?—but nor is praise here dispensed with the same ritual casualness.
Perhaps the most revealing reaction I read was in an article in the women’s magazine Madame Figaro, in which the author explains—with more of that same realism unmuddled by all this flattery—that actually, French women are just faking it. It’s all faux: falsely tousled sexy hair, faux flawless chic, just faking being a femme fatale. We believe, she writes, that less is more when it comes to everything. All of which creates a false sense of mystery—that les Américaines can’t get enough of.
I had always thought that Fake It Until You Make It (FIMI) was a consummately American strategy, in the most barrelling-ahead-with-a-forced-smile kind of way. When in reality FIMI might be the secret to all this best-selling French perfection. But—and here, according to my theory, lies the greatest difference between the French and the Americans—where les Américains tell you what they’re doing every step of the way, the French are quietly doing exactly the same thing and simply not talking about.
Less, it appears, really is more.