French Friday: There Is No Universal Female Story

A year ago, the early days of October gave birth to the #MeToo movement, here in the U.S., then followed by other nations, France being one of them.

A year later, it is clear that the movement is not a fade.

The recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has proved how deeply divided the American people are on issues related to women, including women themselves.

Truth is: there is no universal female story.

Which is why I have for the last year purposely read novels written by women about girls and women.

My three favorites walk the line between YA and adult readerships. Following their date of publication:

 

The Girls by Emma Cline (2016)

2016 saw many novels with “girl” being part of the title. Remember Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train?

The Girls by Emma Cline remains for me the most memorable. From its publication in June, I saw its cover in every bookstore across the country. Set in Northern California at the end of the 1960s, it is an extraordinary well-written story that won’t leave female readers indifferent. Although the plot can only remind of the Manson Family the book is a work of fiction. Through Evie Boyd, a lonely, sometimes naïve but also very thoughtful teenager the author explores girls’ vulnerability and strength. First drawn to a group of girls who live on a sprawling ranch deserted hills Evie becomes quickly obsessed with an older girl. Without realizing that she’s stepped in a cult led by a charismatic man Evie who wants so badly to belong falls headfirst. The novel takes off, leading to unstoppable violence that illustrates with poignant accuracy how a moment in a girl’s life can go horribly wrong. Even though a lot has happened for girls and women between 1969 and 2016, this novel remains a timeless moving realistic portrait of girlhood and womanhood.

 

 

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud (2017)

Probably the best recent novel about these unique years when girls tiptoe into adolescence and leave their childhood behind. Claire Messud explores the strong bonds between two girls who meet at the age of four and remain friends until their road split and they stop being friends toward the end of high school. Messud is a very skilled author who has penned several other memorable novels. Her writing style is sparse, but she tells so much in so few words. I was in constant awe. Although Julie, the main character, is a girl (mostly shown from the age of 12 to college application time) The Burning Girl is not a typical YA novel. I would, however, recommend it to high school girls who love the English language and want to understand themselves a little bit better. I found bits of younger me in this story, although I lived my adolescence in France and not in New England and was a teen during the late 70s and not in the 21st century. With wisdom and heart Messud captures the turbulent and yet sometimes so quiet moments when we girls become so aware of the unstoppable changes that affect us as we grow up. A slim book I read very quickly for the psychological thrill but read twice after to relish the many details and layers. A masterpiece.

 

Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017)

My daughter gave me this novel for my birthday last year and I still thank her. Skillfully told between past and present this is another friendship story between two girls. Cat, the main character, moves to a small rural Michigan town with her mother and brother and feels quite lonely. This is probably why she is immediately so attracted to her enigmatic, gorgeous next-door neighbor Marlena. Soon drawn to Marlena’s circle Cat witnesses her new friend’s unstoppable fall into drugs. Within a year Marlena is found dead in icy waters. Cat bears the responsibility since she didn’t act, even though she knew more was going on inside Marlena’s house and life. Decades later, a ghost from this troubled period suddenly reappears. Cat is forced to reopen the past and to reexamine her memories of Marlena. Gorgeously written, Julie Buntin offers yet another haunting tale about female adolescence, those crucial emotional years that shape us for better and worse.

 

Although there is no universal female story, fiction has the power to bring different stories to the front stage and I hope generate in turn less judgment and more empathy.

Now your turn:

Have you read memorable, challenging and yet life-affirming adult novels written by female authors that depict young girls just before womanhood?

Lisant davantage de romans contemporains écrits en anglais américain, dites moi si la France a aussi vu une explosion de romans pour adultes écrits par des femmes avec des adolescentes pour personnages principaux.

 

 

French Friday: For Humankind

With the Republican running candidate blasting his opinions about women during his campaign and the #Metoo movement that followed, women have clearly taken the public debate stage.

Whether we appreciate the courage of the women who come forward or fear excesses in the process, it is impossible to ignore the momentum and to deny the need for real equality between genders.

Since it is a very heated debate it’s important, I think, to keep our sense of humor and critical sense as we plow our way along the arduous road.

Just this week, a few events show how the best intentions can fall flat and also how even women can see things very differently.

Pretty much everyone likes Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. And pretty much everyone noticed him when he corrected a woman who said “manhood” and offered “peoplekind” instead.

Humankind or even humanity would have worked just fine. Despite the fact that Trudeau interrupted a woman while she was speaking, his intentions were no doubt sincere. Inclusion is necessary, but sometimes the desire to achieve it can lead to faux-pas.

Canada is still making genuine efforts. Take this magazine that printed two versions of its latest issue. One is sold 26 cents more than the other to reflect the disparity of salaries between men and women.

In the U.S., Macy’s is soon to introduce a collection of modest clothing and hijabs to capture a slice of the Muslim women’s clothing market.

At the same time in Iran, women are taking their veils off, putting their lives in danger, to obtain the right to choose whatever clothes they wish to wear.

Who is right? Maybe there is no right and wrong when it comes to women’s freedom to be who they want to be.

In any case, women are playing centerstage in these early months of 2018.

Now that I chose to write a month of French expressions for the A to Z Challenge in April, I could only notice that some of the most common French idioms are in fact sexist.

I was tempted to list them but have decided otherwise. I didn’t want to put de l’huile sur le feu, as we say in French (oil on the flame), but instead focus on the delightful aspect of these small words and short expressions. Thanks to my early personal mistakes, I quickly learned that all tell a lot about a country and its culture. Many are not perfectly exchangeable from one language to another. Often, they still have an equivalent. Sometimes, nothing can exactly convey the idea.

To my own surprise, I quickly compiled a first draft of my 2018 list, only missing as always an expression for the letter X.

As I went through the list I noticed that several expressions had something to do with food.

Now, it was telling something about France that men and women alike would agree on.

 

And nothing and nobody can be better than animals to bring smiles to humankind.

 

 

These photos have been taken in my native Normandy, where a few inches of snow fell over the last few days, transforming the landscape in a scenery that I rarely got to enjoy when I lived there as a child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Friday: From the French Front

Taken from one of the Bâteaux Mouches on the River Seine

Two events and two women have marked my French week:

  • The public letter denouncing the #MeToo movement, published in the newspaper Le Monde on Tuesday. More than 100 French women in the entertainment, publishing and academic fields, the most famous among them being the actress Catherine Deneuve, have lent their signature to the controversial statement.
  • The death of the quiet yet significant French singer France Gall, on Sunday.

 

Invariably when I meet American people and we talk about French celebrities, they cite the actors Gérard Depardieu and Jean-Claude Van Damme, even if the later is Belgian and not French, the singer Edith Piaf, Amélie (that’s the American title for the French movie The Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain and not the name of the actress who is Audrey Tautou), and more recently Marion Cotillard, famous since her role in La Vie en Rose (La Môme in France), in which she brilliantly incarnates Edith Piaf.

On the other hand, I’ve never heard anyone mentioning 74-year-old actress Catherine Deneuve, a star in my native land. Deneuve admits being better known in the U.S. for being the face of Chanel in the 1970s and L’Oréal in more recent years than for her acting.

In France, Deneuve is also known for her “prises de position” or public statements.

In 1971, she was one of the 343 French women who signed a manifesto supporting abortion rights, when abortion was forbidden and punishable. These 343 women who called themselves salopes (sluts or bitches in American English) risked criminal prosecution when they signed the manifesto. Deneuve made public that she had once deliberately terminated an unwanted pregnancy. Two years later, another manifesto, this time signed by 331 French doctors declared their support for abortion rights. In 1975, the Veil law, named after Simone Veil, the Health Minister, repealed the penalty for voluntarily terminating a pregnancy during the first ten weeks (now twelve).

In the mid 1980s, due to her popularity and beauty, too, Deneuve’s image was used to represent Marianne, the national symbol of France

In 2007, Deneuve signed a petition protesting against the misogynistic treatment of the presidential candidate Ségolène Royal when she ran against Nicolas Sarkozy.

And now, in the early days of 2018, she is behind yet another letter, this time denouncing the #MeToo movement and its French counterpart #balancetonporc. The public letter has triggered immediate infuriated reactions from both sides of the Atlantic, including from Ségolène Royal.

There are several aspects in the letter that can suscitate legit concerns. Among the most cited:

* The authors defend the right of men to pester women as they please.

* They urge mothers to teach their daughters how to fight back when necessary.

* They express compassion for the men who were forced to resign “when all they did wrong was touch a knee” but no obvious compassion for the victims.

* They argue that this is a hate campaign against men.

Regardless of personal opinions about the #MeToo movement, whether it goes too far or not, whether it will really bring more equality between men and women, I will always be appalled when women go against other women, when they doubt and even dismiss their experiences.

As a French woman who has now spent more of her adult life in the U.S. than in France, I also find it ignorant when terms like “witch-hunt,” and “Puritanism” are used in 2017 and arrogant to distinguish “Anglo-Saxon feminism” from “French feminism.”

American people are maybe unashamed and excessive, bold and loud, but they are also the most generous and unafraid people I ever met. Americans are at the origins of so many movements that have changed their country and affected the rest of the world that it is impossible to ignore the current #MeToo movement, with its excesses and flaws. Any significant movement knows excessivity when it starts. No revolution is peaceful and unanimous.

Perhaps it should comfort me that Deneuve and most of the other 100 French women behind this letter are old and stuck in their old world. In fact, it makes me sad to witness the impact of decades of “culture.” Their way of thinking is so engrained that it is possibly impossible for them to see the need for change and accept the inexorable forward journey of life.

I would hope that these women use the privilege of their age and social status to help the younger women who fight for the world they want to build and want to leave to the children of tomorrow. Exactly like Catherine Deneuve and others did so generously and intelligently when they were young.

 

From Paris

Speaking of a woman who was not afraid of change and adversity.

Born in 1947, France Gall was only four years younger than Catherine Deneuve. She began her singing career at a young age and gained immediate recognition when the song Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son, written for her by Serge Gainsbourg, earned Gall the prestigious Prix de l’Eurovision in 1965 at the age of eighteen.

Gainsbourg will write other songs for France Gall and she will quickly become one of the stars of the yéyé movement in France (for Yeah Yeah). But this is when she met the singer and songwriter Michel Berger that France Gall showed her ability for change when she started to sing more meaningfull lyrics. There was more than musical harmony between Gall and Berger since they married and had two children together.

Gall and Berger often sang the same songs that he wrote and composed. But Gall would always be more popular. No doubt due to her approachable sunny personality. I admit personal fondness for Michel Berger’s lyrics and music. He was a pretty good pianist too.

Berger died brutally of a heart attack at the age of 44. Only two years later 19-year-old daughter Pauline passed away from the consequences of cystic fibrosis. From that moment Gall pursued her humanitarian efforts in Africa more than her musical career, even though she still recorded and gave concerts.

When I lived in France France Gall didn’t really interest me. Her songs were very catchy, but I was more into British and American music. It was impossible, though, to grow up in France and not know France Gall’s most iconic songs by heart.

  • Sacré Charlemagne is one of them. Published in 1964 the song is about children dreaming of a week exclusively made of Thursdays and Sundays, at a time in France where only these days were no-school days. The simple lyrics blame Charlemagne for inventing schools. In France, Charlemagne (747-814) is falsely credited for creating the French school system. In reality, he only contributed to its early beginnings and only for boys. It is said that France Gall didn’t like this song, but I guarantee you that everyone knows it in France.
  • Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son is of course one the songs that jumps to French people’s minds when evocating France Gall since it brought her to fame.
  • Résiste exemplifies the singer’s desire to follow her heart more than conventions to live a meaningful life.
  • Évidemment is homage to France Gall’s friend and beloved singer and activist Daniel Balavoine who died accidently in 1986 in Africa where he was leading a fund-raising effort aimed at building wells there.
  • Tout Pour la Musique, as it title implies, is simply a hymn to music and musicians.

Since France Gall’s voice was high-pitched, sounding almost like a little girl I assumed for the longest time that she was somewhat naïve, while she was in fact a strong woman who made deliberate choices to pursue both her long musical journey and humanitarian activism. She also went through the heartbreaking death of her longtime partner and daughter with grace while soon after dealing with breast cancer with the same discretion.

Since her death I’ve listened to her songs with a different ear. France Gall got a great sense of rhythm and absorbed the musical trends of her time. Behind apparent easy songs she and Berger had also an indeniable knowledge of music history. Like most musicians from her generation France Gall was fascinated by the United States and America certainly influenced Michel Berger as well, so I leave you with Ella, Elle l’A or Ella, She Has It, a song written in homage to American icon Ella Fitzgerald but also as an anthem against racism. Still timely.

 

With these two women I’m reminded of the self-contradictory nature of my native France. A country so creative in the world of the arts and yet so often reluctant to move forward.

P.S. Pour vous qui me lisez à partir de la France. Vos réactions vécues à plusieurs milliers de kilomètres m’intéressent. Elles me permettent aussi pour prendre le pouls d’un pays qui me devient de plus en plus étranger même si je reste pétrie par sa culture.

Comment avez-vous vécu ces deux événements?

Que pensez-vous de la démarche de Catherine Deneuve?

Quelle est votre chanson préférée de France Gall?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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