Culture & Society

French Girl Syndrome

The subconscious imperialism of the american wannabe

By Yana Lysenko

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In France, to be a French girl is to have been born in France. In America, to be a French girl is to fit the American framework of how a French girl should look: obviously skinny, cigarette in mouth, wearing sunglasses, and running her hands through her beautiful messy hair. She doesn’t wear makeup because her skin is already flawless, she never blow-dries, and her jeans are 3 years old but still look new because they’re high-quality and cost half her month’s rent. The French girl should also, perhaps, speak French.

Young Americans—specifically girls—are obsessed with the idea of looking and acting French. It’s an aspiration that stems from the 1960s, when Jean-Luc Godard and other new French directors entered the world’s cinematic scene with their DIY-produced, angst-ridden New Wave films. Drawing on American film noir, but with younger actors, a fondness for pop, and a stereotypically French preoccupation with sex, the New Wave solidified an image of French-ness that has lasted to the present day. To be French in American culture is to look and act cool—in the whitest way possible. The qualities that Americans deem fundamental to French culture are so generalized and flawed that they create France and its people as the society it was perhaps 50 years ago: a whitewashed bourgeois culture that has since disappeared, but still exists in the mind of the idealistic Anglo-Saxon Francophile.

The most obvious example of this idealistic generalization is Pinterest, where the idea of “stereotype” is conceptualized into pictures titled “French Girl Style,” “What to Wear in Paris: A 7-Day Outfit Guide,” and “Dressing Parisian Chic.” Put these pictures next to each other, and they all feature the same thing: a blue and white striped marinière t-shirt, a trench coat, and ballet flats. Anything else featured will inevitably include basic garments in varying shades of black, gray, and white. And stripes—Americans think the French love stripes. All of these ideas point to a perception of style that, according to tourists and Francophiles, comprise the entire wardrobe of a homogenous Gallic French society. Of course, the French know that is not the case. Sit on the Parisian métro and you will see as much diversity in clothing, body types, and skin colors as you would in the New York subway. Even for the non-French observer who has been exposed to French culture beyond the “French Style” headlines of Vogue, and has seen more of France than the Eiffel Tower quickly realizes how unrealistic it is to aspire to be French when there is no such thing as the typical French man or French woman.

Generalization is the offspring of ignorance. In this case, it’s not a complete lack of knowledge, but a selective one. American references to French culture and style immediately point to one of the best-known French films across Western culture, Godard’s Breathless. The likely reason for the obsession with this 1960 film is the fact that Jean Seberg, the main female character, is an American in Paris who never drops her American accent, but lives the American girl’s dream: she finds herself multiple Parisian lovers and perfects the gamine French-American style we have now deemed classically French. The film is a conglomerate of black-and-white shots of Paris in all of its glory, along with the typical French shots of smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in cafes. The characters are all white, and Jean Seberg is of course wearing stripes, sunglasses, and a cute feminine skirt under her trench coat. This image has engrained itself not into the French cultural identity, but into American perceptions of the culture it worships and aspires to become.

The France we imagine is something from decades ago—a time of political turmoil as France struggled with its ruptured imperialism and attempted to maintain its stronghold on the indigenous peoples of Africa and Southeast Asia. Many young French men and women accept that New Wave cinema and all of its various elements are essential to the cultural and political history of French art, but that it no longer represents an accurate picture of French society or the struggles they face today. And yet, when we look at American online articles on the youth culture of France and how to become more French, they still boast the beauties of French culture. Beyond that, they exalt a white fashion that ignores the millions of immigrants across all of France, many of whom face alienation and discrimination. These immigrants are in a constant battle to prove their own unique Frenchness in a society that quietly segregates between “true French” and “new French.”

“In a way, a society stuck on when whites ruled the word wants to believe such places still exist. No wonder Paris is the number one tourist spot in the world.”

Obviously, commercial fashion is still a largely white enterprise, but when it is supported by cultural assumptions of a homogenously white society, we start to address a subconscious racist nostalgia for the time when Europe was all white. A public American image of France through novels like French Women Don’t Get Fat and How to be Parisian Wherever You Are—both written by French authors in English for an American audience—assumes that all French women simply have the time and resources to spend all their days in cafés, their nights sleeping with multiple lovers, and their money on Saint Laurent, Guerlain, and foie gras. In America, we look at books that feature generalized American bourgeois values with disdain and skepticism, because they ignore the social stratification we work so hard to overcome. An Amazon review typical of our attitude complains that “It’s just another white rich woman telling people how to live as extravagantly and tastefully as she does,” in response to a book’s expression of American bourgeois culture. Yet when it comes to other cultures that represent a sexy rich white dream, we just assume it’s all true. A society stuck on the days when whites ruled the world wants to believe such places still exist. No wonder Paris is the number one tourist spot in the world.

It’s all clickbait, of course. Pointing out the inadequacies of our own culture and fashion in a society constantly struggling with insecurity prompts the aspiration to become a part of a different society—in this case, one we deem cooler and more chic. French fashion blogger and photographer Garance Doré, quoted in an article with The Guardian, explained that our perceptions of the French are entirely mythologized, created out of a desire for a cooler culture and society around us. The article, written by American fashion blogger Jess Cartner-Morley, states, “Actual real-life French people are completely bemused by the concept of High French-ness as portrayed in listicles entitled, ‘28 Shoes French Women Would Never Wear.’ To be fair to the French, they don’t write these; we do.” We have created a fictionalized society of basic clothing staples and a café culture that ignores the brewing turmoil of this society that equals our own.

It becomes increasingly clear that Paris and France are not simply the land of croissants, coffee, and Christian Dior, but one of forceful homogenization and shushed oppression. To go to Paris expecting a to find a perfect white rich haven and to dress like a Parisian is wishful thinking that isn’t introspective enough to realize the harmful ignorance that comes with it. The real France is a country of culture, fashion, beauty, and marginalized ethnic groups trying to earn the title of “French” in a much deeper way than our facile attempts. To truly understand the society we deem better than our own, we can’t simplify it to statements like the “high-watermark of chic.” But are we really trying to understand it anyway?

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