Ever since Joan of Arc battled the British, we Anglo-Saxons have loved and hated French women in equal doses. Samantha Brick's dishy tirade against new First Lady Valerie Trierweiler --- "Think I'm in love with myself? I'm a shrinking violet next to man-stealing French women like the new First Lady Valerie Trierweiler" -- is just the latest incident in this long history of transcontinental vitriol and vacillation.
Brick is a British columnist who provoked a firestorm of media attention when she wrote a piece titled "There are downsides to looking this pretty: Why women hate me for being beautiful." Brick described how she's been blighted, snubbed, and hated by nearly every woman she's encountered "for no other reason," she wrote, than her "lovely looks." So apparently stunning are her looks that "paranoia has gripped the women around me." Brick has been been "frozen out of their lives" because of her beauty and pained by the sweeping superficial judgments of other women.
It's odd, then, that Brick would write her own sweeping superficial diatribe against French women. Brick begins her piece nearly eviscerating France's new First Lady, Valerie Trierweiler, starting first with her looks. ("She strutted onto the international stage this week, in a split-to-the-thigh designer chiffon dress," writes Brick. Her hair was "perfectly coiffed, her high heels towering.") She then makes a bold assertion: Trierweiler, according to Brick, has "brazenly stolen another woman's man -- the new President Francois Hollande -- from under the nose of his unsuspecting partner."
How Brick has such intimate knowledge of the private lives of French movers-and-shakers is anyone's guess, but from there, Brick lets it rip. She lobs one grenade after another, using Trierweiler as a point-of-departure for dissing French women in general: They are all "hostile and predatory, ever eager to humiliate their rivals and never batting a beautifully made-up eyelid about falling into bed with someone else's man." An adulterous affair is "a feather in their cap, or merely another scalp." They are "not interested in girlie shopping trips" and you will "never find groups of French women bonding over a coffee together either." Brick is "shocked time and again" at the "extremes of animosity" she has encountered after making "every effort to forge friendships with French women."
Brick claims that her ability to peer into the hearts and souls of all French women comes from her longevity living among them. She declares, apparently in earnest: "I have now lived in France for four years and there are few who have better insight into the sinister machinations of a French woman's mind that I do." Excusez-moi? Seems to me Brick could use another decade or so of living in France to understand its natives in a more culturally balanced and relevant light.
Take infidelity. All French women are not having affairs while they jauntily tip back their champagne flutes and bat their eyelids, as Brick suggests. Despite enduring stereotypes that cultural naïfs like Brick love to recycle -- research has shown that the French are no more adulterous than Anglo-Saxons and, as I've written before, it's often the biggest moral pontificators among Anglo-Saxons who literally get caught with their pants down.
However, when Brick claims that "there is no sense of female solidarity" in France -- when she sniffs that Trierweiler didn't even offer "a cursory nod to 'the sisterhood'" as she "gleefully posed in her glamorous attire;" or when she bristles with resentment at not quickly bonding with French women on "girlie shopping trips" -- she's onto a more subtle historical reality. In France, there's no word or concept for sisterhood. And that's partly because feminism played out differently there; it burned with less militancy and lacked, as French historian Mona Ozouf saw it, "the unparalleled dimensions and unprecedented ferocity" of its Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
French women have deep, enduring friendships with each other, but many do tend to identify as much with men -- sometimes more so -- as they do with women. The upside of this is that there's no American-style war of the sexes going on in France. French women generally love men. And vice-versa. This state of affairs stands in stark contrast to Anglo-Saxon countries, where commiseration about men is often more common than complicity with them. The downside, however, is that, as acclaimed French author and historian Michele Sarde once wrote, French women "have so loved their men, fathers, sons, brothers and lovers or husbands to such an extent, that they've neglected to love each other." This explains their sometimes chilly behavior toward other women, and the lack of what we Anglo-Saxons call sisterhood.
If Brick finds women in general "problematic" for "measuring themselves against each other by their looks rather than their achievements" -- if, as she writes, "older women are the most hostile to beautiful women -- perhaps because they feel their bloom fading" -- it might have something to do how women continue to judge each another based on their looks (in ways that cosmetic surgery has irrevocably changed), never mind Brick's difficulty relating to other women, no matter what their nationality.
Ironically, Brick's tone is so hostile to French women and her preoccupation with her own looks so fierce that she's proven herself a pretty problematic member of the sisterhood. Sounds to me like Brick could use a nice glass of French wine and a big hug from a French girlfriend.