What explains the mystique of French womanhood? A flexible attitude to the truth, says Lucy Wadham
Isabelle Adjani as a “moping nymphomaniac” in One Deadly Summer: “there’s been little movement in France towards equality in the bedroom”
© Sunset Boulevard/Corbis
For the past fortnight I have been suffering my way through a pile of books from a growing branch of the self-help tree, all inviting me to think, look, and generally be more like a French woman. La Française, I now know, has the answers to life’s problems. The titles alone should give a hint of what I’ve endured: Two Lipsticks and a Lover: Unlock Your Inner French Woman by Helena Frith Powell; Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Ollivier; Bonjour, Happiness!: Secrets to Finding Your Joie De Vivre by Jamie Cat Callan; Chic & Slim: How Those Chic French Women Eat All That Rich Food and Still Stay Slim by Anne Barone; and by the same author, Chic and Slim Encore and Chic and Slim Toujours.
As I read these books, all published over the past decade, I imagined their British or American target audiences throwing out their greying underwear, their comfy tracksuit trousers and their tasty readymeals. I saw them giving up their boxsets, their cosy, confessional friendships, and their girls’ nights out. I pictured them investing in improving literature, a poodle, a new “capsule wardrobe” with requisite little black dress (petite robe noire) and cultivating the legendary mystique of the French woman. The idea left me feeling more than a little depressed.
This flourishing arm of the publishing industry, which sprung up at the beginning of the 21st century, has become sub-genre all of its own, complete with its absurdly long subtitles and its own visual language—curling typography, slender 1950s cartoons of chic French women trailing miniature poodles, pull-out lifestyle tips and unfeasible oyster and champagne-based recipes. The books all embrace a canon of unchallenged myths, clichés and stereotypes designed to target the chronically dissatisfied and/or overweight women of the English-speaking world. Mireille Guiliano, one of the pioneers of the genre, published her latest offering in January, under the brazenly fallacious title French Women Don’t Get Facelifts.
Guiliano’s book exemplifies many of the worst traits of the genre. Quite apart from the thesis itself, which is built on the misconception…