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Mona Elyafi

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'Madame?' Non, Merci!

Posted: 01/23/2012 4:22 pm

An article published in the Los Angeles Times recently reported on the passing of a new bill in a town in Western France that banned the use of the title "Mademoiselle" -- the English equivalent of "Miss" -- on the grounds that it was sexist. As a result, French women in Cesson-Sevigne, whether married or celibate, young or old(er) will all now be addressed as "Madame" -- the French version of "Mrs."

The issue supported and brought forth by French Feminist groups "Les Chiennes de Garde" ("Female Guard Dogs") and "Osez Le Feminisme" ("Dare to be Feminist") relies on the rationale that the word "Mademoiselle" is discriminatory because, semantically speaking, it is exclusionary and essentially insinuates that a woman addressed as Mademoiselle is not marriage material. What is their goal? Equality!

"Madame" in French is first and foremost a title of respect, one that Francophones are taught to employ in their daily conversation when speaking to a woman not just of a certain distinction/status or of a certain age, but primarily a woman they are not familiarly acquainted with.

The battle over this title is not new; the Minister of Women's Rights in 1983, Yvette Roudy, called the distinction "discriminatory" and feminists have argued that the title "damoiseau," the male equivalent of "mademoiselle," had been taken out of the lexicon years decades before. Consequently, French males go by "monsieur" -- the English translation of "mister" -- all their lives whether they're single or hitched. Now what about "mademoiselle"? The title was indeed initially used as a form of demarcation between single and married women, but in the popular parlance of our times it has evolved away from its original medieval definition to take on a positive modern twist. Mademoiselle now epitomizes the definition of being and looking young.

Striving for political correctness is all fine and dandy, but I feel these feminist groups and their antiquated measures are not only missing the general point but -- quite ironically -- going against the very core ethos they stand for. Turning "Madame" into the universal title for women creates, in my opinion, a form of reverse discrimination. If "Madame" is the proper common title non-descriptive of her marital status, then axing "mademoiselle" from the French vocabulary is essentially saying is that women are not worthy of joining the ranks of humanity unless they're attached to a man -- meaning they're married.

What's so wrong with Mademoiselle? Nothing, obviously, since even France's iconic actress, Catherine Deneuve (now 68 years old) prefers that moniker and allegedly was, as an exception to the rule, granted immunity. But Mademoiselle Deneuve is not the only woman who shares the sentiment that there's nothing wrong with being called "Mademoiselle" and that if anything it keeps us, as women, feeling young.

Most French women I know don't find Mademoiselle offensive or sexist in the least. And I, as a forty-year old French woman share their position in thinking that "Madame" sounds old and expired. As a matter of fact, now every time I go back to France for a visit, I spend half of my time amusingly correcting the "Madame" name-callers begging them to kindly re-adjust my title to "Mademoiselle", which makes me feel like Spanish actress Ines Sastre in the French TV commercial for Krys glasses.

The problem, as I personally see it, is that political correctness has gone too far. Now don't get me wrong. I absolutely understand the fact that certain words or phrases have been banned to avoid offending minority groups. I'm also all for avoiding the use of titles that are exclusionary and/or derogatory, especially they refer to individuals with disabilities -- both physical and mental. We need to protect eachother from being at the receiving end of a verbal offense just like we need to protect ourselves from letting others make us feel like the offender. But when certain terms get ridiculous aren't we wasting an awful amount of time for nothing trying to perfect the terminology of words and expressions that need no tweaking?

To me, what the political correctness movement has created is not only a paranoia in our daily practice of speaking, but also a general genuine fear of words that makes us agonize over everything that comes out of our mouths.

I don't see how we're achieving equality in imposing the title "Madame" on every female. And yes, this is just my personal opinion. But speaking of equality, where do lesbians fall within the spectrum? With same-sex marriage not legally accepted in France, how do you properly address gay women whether under the PAX Civil partnership, in a relationship and/or single? Taken with the context of the official title referring to the marital status of a woman, "Madame" is then discriminating against the lesbian community.

We can argue back and forth on the issue. But to me, the bottom line is that the decision should ultimately belong to each woman individually, and not be legally imposed.

Madame, moi? Non merci!

 

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