Those “Mean” French (Again)

Okay, so now it is time to discuss this:

[Chloé Laurent Delacroix’s Instagram Story, October 11, 2020.]

I had read some about Emily in Paris. I have also in recent days received some DMs about it through my Instagram, such as from a Frenchwoman saying it makes French men all appear incredibly sexist and apt to cheat at a moment’s notice. Also this from that same Frenchwoman (and my response and her response):

[From my DMs, October 12, 2020.]

Having by now watched the first two episodes myself, I find it mostly light amusement that reminds me so far of a 1960s-1970s American TV sitcom you might see now on TV Land, such as Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannine, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Doris Day Show.

More importantly, it is indeed one stereotype after another. It has also been mostly done before: the smoking; the married Frenchman hitting on “Emily”; the lady boss having a long-term affair with that male client as well (and of course his wife knows, but she is “realistic” about these things we are told); the undercooked steak in the restaurant; the stepping in dog stuff; the 10:30 AM work start (and the boss rolls in at 11:15); the five floor walk up to her apartment and “Emily” keeps miscounting the floors; “Emily” plugging a small “appliance” into a wall socket which knocks out the power not only in her apartment but also it seems the electricity for virtually the whole arrondissement. And on and on…

Yet we should remember that if you have not *seen* it done before – and a youngish U.S. Netflix audience in particular may not have – of course it is *NEW* to you. A whole generation has never seen the likes of 1951’s An American in Paris, 1979’s French Postcards, or 1995’s French Kiss. Much of what we see in 2020 Emily – aside from the Instagram aspect (“Emily’s” adventure in Paris and her Instagram postings is causing her follower numbers to boom), which is naturally a current phenomenon – is actually not very original.

Once again a tale revolves around the naive American beset in France by the difficult French. But “meanness” is not only directed at the American “Emily.” I did notice in one scene too that a “typical” cigarette-smoking and obnoxious Frenchwoman jibes at Germans as being “humorless.” (And speaking of clichés: the older Frenchman in the Paris office is smoking… like it is “1980?”)

There seems something in the American psyche that is incapable of treating French people, as, well, ordinary people. That is probably because it is drilled into the American subconscious by now almost from birth that “the French” stand out among Europeans as particularly “mean,” and as we see in Emily in 2019 (it was shot pre-pandemic obviously) that belief remains a part of American-produced entertainment. As that same Frenchwoman above also separately DM’d me: “…it really looks like they’ve never met any French person.”

[Photo by me, October 12, 2020.]

It does sure seem that way. In fact, watch any American-made film or TV program produced since about 1970 that includes a Frenchwoman and I can almost guarantee before seeing even a second of the action that she is going to be either a smoking nymphomanic, nuts, or the killer – or maybe all three at the same time. Of course we want stories to be interesting, and all actors want to play “memorable” characters, yet a Frenchwoman will almost never be allowed to be “normal” or “heroic.” (A notable exception was the sadly short-lived 2011-12 television drama Pan Am.)

I believe there is an ongoing real world social price to be paid in seeing such relentlessly pushed at viewers. It is in its way as dangerous as any other repetitive negative on-screen stereotyping: you see enough of the same thing thrown at you about a nationality or a race, etc., and that becomes your innate default perception position. In comparison British women are all over U.S. films and television not only as “baddies,” but also as “ordinary” and even “heroic” characters. (***SPOILER ALERT HERE***: I did not actually know she was even in the film, but I recall that the instant I saw Marion Cotillard appear on screen in The Dark Knight Rises when watching it a few years ago at my dad’s house on some film channel, I knew that of all the large and famous cast that SHE was going to be the one who would try to blow up the world. And, eh, guess what? ***SPOILER CONCLUDED***)

However, it is necessary to recall that there is an entire long “backstory” to all of that. It did not appear from nowhere. Unfortunately by our current 2020 I suspect fewer and fewer viewers, either American or French, appreciate what that background is.

I think this is one of the things I’ve heard the most when I was in the U.S. : French people don’t like Americans. Well, let me tell you something. THIS IS NOT TRUE. I’m French, I’ve spent all of my 21 years of life in France, and I have never heard more than two or three persons maybe saying that they didn’t like Americans…

That was a 2016 comment made by a baffled and exasperated French blogger on her own blog. I quoted it in a post I wrote shortly afterwards. Allow me to cite from that 2016 post of mine – you may not have seen – at length here below and put on my former academic’s cap for a moment… because unfortunately explaining this requires more than just a sentence or two: we are stuck living with a legacy that is now some 60 years old:

The idea that the French “hate Americans” stems primarily from the Second World War and its aftermath, and is rooted in America’s difficult post-war relationship with the French government under President Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s…

…France was defeated by the Nazis in 1940. De Gaulle – a minor general – took the spotlight when he escaped to Britain and declared himself leader of a “Free France” that was opposed to Nazi occupation and would fight on. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, desperate to keep at least some of France fighting, and Britain, backed him.

During the war, de Gaulle – inflexible, uncompromising, impossible to manage – created all sorts of “troubles” for Churchill and Britain, as well as for the United States after the U.S. entered the war. Although pleased he was an ally, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt believed without evidence to the contrary he could not consider de Gaulle any more “legitimate” as a French leader than the French Nazi collaborators. FDR believed France could not have any official “leader” until the French were free to elect one after the war.

De Gaulle never forgot that FDR had questioned his representing fighting France at its darkest hour. He insisted that France was an equal in the battle with Nazism. To him, France was not an “occupied” country, but was still fighting and he was leading that fight.

As a result (regardless of what FDR thought) “legitimacy” slowly flowed de Gaulle’s way. No other French general or politician was as clean as he was when it came to resisting the Nazis. (If any were, they were stuck in occupied France, or imprisoned in France or Germany.) The Allies found after a time that they had little choice but to defer to de Gaulle as “France’s voice” because, frankly, there was really no one else.

So ultimately due, de Gaulle believed, to his singular leadership and iron determination to maintain France’s equality with Britain and the U.S.A., he had been instrumental in guiding France to a “resurrection” as a great power in 1944-1945. Although, uh, yes, with some help from the Americans and British; and he was aware of that, he said.😉 In mid-1944, he became Chairman of the Provisional Government of France, so from then on there was no doubt he did have legitimate political authority.

The U.S., which contributed by far the largest number of troops to the liberation of western Europe, including France, and found itself leading the post-war new NATO alliance, ran head on into de Gaulle’s ongoing determination to continue to rebuild what he perceived as France’s national honor. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were the presidents most on the receiving end. During the 1960s, de Gaulle withdrew France’s military from NATO’s integrated command structure (forcing NATO to shift its headquarters from Paris to where it is today, Brussels) mostly because – de Gaulle believed – being in NATO meant France could not control nuclear weapons that may have been on France’s soil. He also demanded NATO close its military bases in France, asserting sovereign France could not have foreign forces on its soil. (In reply, Americans darkly noted, “Does that include the ones in the military cemeteries too?” or “He didn’t mind them landing on June 6, 1944!”)

Bastille Day parade, Paris, July 1995. [Photo by me.]
[Bastille Day parade, Paris, July 1995. Photo by me.]

And there was more. Mostly, it was symbolic; but symbolism meant a great deal to de Gaulle. Despite the Jackie Kennedy in Paris “glamour,” matters grew so frosty between the French and the American governments by 1965 that American tourists, seeing in media what was going on, actually stayed away from France in large numbers that summer. De Gaulle had become the core image of “postwar France” in the American mind: argumentative, pompous, arrogant, disdainful, ungrateful (they felt for the liberation and the dead Americans on French soil), and worst of all seemed to have some fundamental “problem” with the U.S.

He was also all too easy to caricature in political cartoons, and was a walking bullseye for U.S. comedians. For example, on a famous 1962 U.S. comedy record that sold a gazillion copies, at a meeting of “world leaders” at the White House presided over by “President Kennedy,” the President announces that rather than a formal lunch he wants to order out for a delivery of deli sandwiches. The President says he’s going to have peanut butter and jelly, and “a side order of coleslaw, and a hot fudge sundae.” In response “De Gaulle” blurts out, “Yuck,” and in a haughty French accent follows by snootily demanding, “I would like to have dove, under glass.”…

…Greatness in a leader and love of country were what de Gaulle was fundamentally about. A colossus of French politics for nearly two generations, his worldview was unsurprisingly taken as “gospel” by many outsiders as being synonymous with that of “the French.” Conflating the two led to a (mistaken) belief among Americans that de Gaulle hated the U.S.A. and therefore ordinary French people (millions of whom had voted for him, of course) also hated Americans, too.

The beach stretch not far from La Madeleine, known since June 6, 1944 as
[The beach stretch not far from La Madeleine, known since June 6, 1944 as “Utah Beach,” in Normandy, France. Photo by me, 1995.]

That (misplaced) Americans’ view of the French hasn’t ever receded fully. (And it becomes more pronounced whenever the two governments find themselves differing over policy. Such as over Iraq in 2002-2003.) Americans who have never been to France, but have come of age since the 1960s, have absorbed that (inaccurate) idea. It has become ingrained in American culture as a “truth.”

Indeed, many who believe it may never even have heard of de Gaulle – other than as a name on a Paris airport. Yet before they even walk off the plane for the first time, many Americans who casually visit France no doubt do believe themselves essentially disliked by the French. Because of that, any trivial misunderstanding in a restaurant, any awkward interaction on a street, any French frown, or even a French smile that is somehow deemed “insincere,” is taken as further evidence of their being “hated.” Yes, they may allow for it – if they didn’t, why did they visit the country in the first place? – and even laugh it off, but it’s always an uncomfortable feeling that’s simply there.

Bear in mind again all of that is a relatively new thing. It is absent from books – even back to the founding of the United States in 1776 – and films before 1940. For example, in Henry James’s lighthearted and hugely successful The American (1877), about an American man looking for a wife in Europe, and his “Christopher Newman” having lots of “cultural troubles” when he falls in love with a Frenchwoman, there is no fundamental “meanness” in the French or of what we would today point to as “anti-Americanism.” We don’t see it in Hemingway. We don’t see it in Fitzgerald.

I know Emily in Paris is meant just to be entertaining and naturally it expects to use “culture clash” for laughs, and the French watching it reportedly have been finding it a pandemic escape. However, the large U.S. viewership among especially younger people who have never been to France seems likely to re-invigorate and re-animate decades-old clichés and stereotypes about the French being “mean” and not liking Americans very much. I know I am just one small author, but I – and far more prominent others – have spent years trying much more accurately to portray French people in fiction, so to see stuff like Emily burst onto the cultural scene now aggravates the hell out of me because so much of it badly misleads a large part of yet another American generation.

And on that “happy” note, have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂

General

R. J. Nello View All →

Author: “Tomorrow The Grace,” “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains…and the 1700s.

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Clichés aside, I can’t wait to see the series. I remember feeling somewhat apprehensive the first time I went to France, but I kept in mind some of the advice my favorite food blogger, David Lebovitz—American living in Pairs—offered those visiting France. In a nutshell, he shared, if you don’t want to be treated rudely, don’t be rude yourself.  Some of his words of wisdom included saying “hello” upon entering a shop and “thank you” upon leaving. Simple enough and actually behavior I was brought up to exhibit. I’ve been to France three times and haven’t yet been to Paris, and yes, that is an interesting story, but I’ve found the French to be quite nice, in particular, one Honfleur cab driver who will forever be fondly remembered for being especially kind to my daughter, me, and my mother who is disabled. He even tried to refuse a tip, but I insisted. I realize he was probably compensated and was trying not to be greedy, but some kindness is worth an extra reward. 😊🇫🇷

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    • It is a cute show. But I am forever shaking my head at the disconnect thrown at Americans about the way the French are as compared to the way they really are on the whole. Your experience is far more the norm. Compared to elsewhere they are no worse than anyone else, and in some ways excessively polite even – like your cab driver. I have seen the odd poor behavior, but no worse than anywhere else or from anyone else. Paris is a huge busy city, so you may see there what you see in any other global destination. I feel the French are “mean” nonsense has simply become a cottage industry. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from Americans who have actually been there stories like yours.

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