All my life, I've been haunted by a specter — the specter of the French woman.
French women, we're reliably told, don't get fat; they're better parents; they're "more tolerant" of sexual harassment, to quote The New York Times; they age gracefully; they have "seductive style." Typing the phrase "French woman" into Amazon yields results like All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women. If you want to make a joke about "sexy depression," you go straight to the French.
No salvation from digging further into the past, either — Olivia de Havilland was feeling inferior to the French as early as 1962, when she wrote Every Frenchman Has One, her breezy memoir of marrying Pierre Galante and moving to Paris. And then of course — thanks, Simone de Beauvoir — a French woman wrote the book on being a woman. It's really a large burden for everyone else to struggle under; enough to make you pour yourself a glass of wine and bite moodily into a baguette spread with chèvre.
The gist of these stereotypes, I think, is that French women, as imagined by their American counterparts, are natural. They're sophisticated, but simple; emotional, but not needy; thin, without dieting. Their hair is perfect, but messy. They don't worry about themselves. They're unflappable.
As easy as this stereotype is to mock, the truth is, I'm not entirely immune. For instance, I use a whole array of French skin care products. If I were asked why, I would say that I just assumed they'd produce more results with less effort — that any of the other options on the table would require me to be more personally virtuous (drink less wine, more water) or put in more work (various 10-step skin care routines). When I get a haircut, I produce photos of Françoise Hardy, French singer and style icon, precisely because her haircut is low effort but looks reliably good (particularly if I use a conditioner that is — wait for it — French).
So inspired, I picked up Hardy's memoir, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, recently translated into English by Jon E. Graham and published by Feral House. I had an idea that it, too, would be a light-hearted account of what it was like to be talented, beautiful, and have perfect hair, to be adored by Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. Thus I was unprepared for its opening chapter, which began:
I was born at 9:30 in the evening during an air raid alert ... My mother often told me that I cried every night during my first month of life, but she had never come to comfort me. She was proud of herself for never giving in to what she felt were my whims. She boasted that after a month I understood and stopped crying. Today I believe what I understood was this: The more you cry out, the more you are ignored. You must hold your tears back and never ask anything of anyone. [The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles]
The rest of the memoir continued in this vein. Hardy's childhood? Rough. Her singing? She never seems confident about it, writing far more eloquently about its problems than its strengths. Her looks? She grew up with a grandmother who criticized her frequently and she seems to have internalized this to the point of writing frankly about her bad clothes and her defective looks; later in the memoir, she worries she's aging badly. Her hair? Well, the hair emerged intact. But this woman, who for so long had been to me the epitome of cool detachment, turned out to be, well, a human being, complete with her own neuroses about other, more put-together women, with her own difficult relationships and history. And while the French woman, presumably, can't die, only age gracefully into nothing, Hardy, now in her 70s, talks in interviews about how she sings about "death in a very symbolic and even positive way."
Hardy has been open about disliking the word "icon," stating it makes her feel "as if you're talking about someone else." Much of the coverage of her mentions her shyness. When I go back to look at her pictures, I now see that the cool aesthetic I so admired (and still admire) was the result of her holding herself back, just enough from the camera. What drew me to her wasn't really the great hair, but the sense of privacy she projected. Not that she was natural and unaffected, but that she was self-possessed.
The French woman is an American fantasy — one that says the secret to being happy, successful, and beautiful is simply to relax and let it happen, that femininity (whatever that is) can be achieved merely by jettisoning self-consciousness. It's your choice to stress about the day-to-day details of life that are causing you to be unhappy, to age badly, to require a facelift, or whatever it is that the books assure us French women don't need to do. It's not, of course, that American women should add "insufficiently stressed" to the list of the things they're stressed about, but rather that they've created an ideal that is also an inherent reproach. No matter how hard you work, you can't reach it, because, after all, its essence is not working.
What's the antidote here? The fix to the larger systems at play are beyond my reach, but one suggestion might be to pick up The Despair of Monkeys, slip on some headphones, and listen to Françoise Hardy's latest album, Personne d'autre. "I'll try to pretend / I'm not sad there alone," she sings on "You're My Home."
The fiction of the French woman was that she never had to try to pretend. The liberating truth is that she's always had to try as much as anyone else.