Blog Post

The Problem With Stolen Kisses

The debate heats up in France after a pointed critique of "Le Féminisme à la française" by Joan W. Scott in Libération (06/10/2011). [Edited 07/06/2011]

On France culture, Julie Clarini admits to being strangely proud of the culture of seduction that, according to Joan Scott, is part and parcel of French national identity, thus giving another example of the French eroticization of politics, everyday relations, and culture that Scott interprets as an element of national pride. More interesting are the comments left by internet readers, all French: they help qualify both Joan Scott's essentialization of a unilateral "French feminism" and Clarini's examplification of that trend of self-satisfied "feminism," a brand that is highly contested in France. (I am actually in Paris and got tremendously supportive responses to my past post, interviews and OpEd on the Strauss-Kahn scandal). In fact, the cultural war between French and American intellectuals that erupted in the aftermath of the Strauss-Kahn affair might be understood as the clash between reified positions of "historical" feminists from both countries who expressed little concern for the diversity of the feminist movements and everyday women and men's positions in France (or in the US), and for other, generational rather than national, gaps that account for a variety of reactions, here and there. Reading the Anglo-Saxon press, the French (and specifically French women) are all enablers of sexual harassment and inappropriate machismo. Overhearing conversations in the streets of Paris, in cafés, in bookstores, in the subway, things sounds (bien sûr) quite different (for one thing, "gender theory" as theory is really not mainstream, including in college educated and even PhDs: you might have had one course on that if you went to Sciences Po, not much more or none at all in the University unless you went to Paris III, IV, VII and XII). 

Reading French newspapers however, you realize where Americans get their ideas of who represents today "French feminism" (if such a unified thing exists). The way the debate has been reframed by some French women, among them Irène Théry, who, as Joan W. Scott pointed out, claims that French feminism is "a way of life" as much as a theoretical system, a way of life that "avoids the traps of political correctness, wants equal rights and the asymetrical pleasures of seduction, the absolute respect for mutual consent and the delicious surprise of stolen kisses" [my trans.] That last sentence made me feel strangely queasy (maybe a trace of my dual, necessarily divided French/American self, or maybe because the author does not seem to be bothered by inherent contradictions). Yes, I would rather have my daughter learn that there is no shame in exploring emotional and physical attractions to others and (later) sexuality, and I hope that she will live to feel desire, "émoi" and all those deliciously ambigous feelings of interests and desire for someone else without the heavy moralism that, it is true, is attached to these in some parts of American culture. But I dont see how not respecting the boundary of the other's own desire or lack of desire and being intransigeant about sexual harassment is in any way the sine qua non condition for this culture of relaxed embracing of secular sexuality, as Théry and Clarini's overall arguments seem to suggest. The idea that French feminism's main claim to fame and desirability is that it was able to promote "asymetrical pleasures" and allow for "baisers volés" (stolen kisses) sounds incredibly shallow. Is that all there was to it? And is the implication that women's rights have to stop where casual, unwanted "stolen kisses" (or more?) must reign? Who, or what instance decides when one term in the antithesis (equal rights/asymetrical pleasures; respect for consent/stolen kisses) takes over and cancels out the other?

It amazes me that French feminists (of the kind represented by Julie Clarini on France Culture and Irène Théry that is) are not able to put on the table much stronger arguments: what has been accomplished in terms of women's right in France is actually in certain areas quite remarkable (specifically in the current "us" versus "them" French-American crèpage de chignons [hair-pulling]): the right to have or not have children when one chooses to is a non-issue in France (no "pro life" movement: abortions, contraception, and medically assisted pregnancies are all reimbursed by the national health insurance, which covers everyone); the right to be a working mother, because you can count on free or subsidized daycares and public schools of good quality (with national curriculum that garantees that all children get a similar education), because you are entitled to 3 months of maternity leave (up to 6 when you already have three or more children), and cannot be fired from your job when returning from maternity leave, because each child counts as one full person in the household headcount for tax purposes (which lowers your income tax), because you can deduct from your income in some cases the full amount of daycare tuitions or nanny services, and because you get family subsidies from the State (under certain income conditions) to help absorb the cost of raising children; the "parity" law in elections that forces political parties to have as many women as men in eligible positions on the ballot (or they must pay fines), etc.

And the only thing that (a certain generation of vocal) feminists (who don't listen much to a newer, fed-up generation) has to say to defend themselves is that French feminism allowed for a certain culture of seduction and "stolen kisses" to continue to flourish?

Oh, boy.

 [For the latest developments in the case, after the sensational turn around of D.A. Vance and the release of STrauss-Kahn on July 1st--not to mention the astoundingly unprofessional and contentious leaks to the press that preceded--see below my last comment]

Cecile Alduy's picture

« Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie par mes actions: fortune les met trop bas; je le tiens par mes fantasies. » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9, 945

A prescient definition of blogging, no?

Cécile Alduy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of French Studies at Stanford University. A former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she teaches French literature and film, with an emphasis on gender and ethnic studies.  Her research interests include Renaissance literature and culture, the history of the body, poetry, cognitive theory, and more generally how we make sense of the world.