A certain notion of French femininity took hold in the early two-thousands. In “French Women Don’t Get Fat” (2004), Mireille Guiliano recounted with disconcerting precision her gain of thirty pounds more than forty years earlier, and divulged the “old French tricks”—namely, the recipe for a soup of leeks and water—that helped her to stay thin forever while never having to admit that she was trying to. The French woman, for all her confidence, was a codependent. The self-improvement industry’s all-purpose foil, she represented a rigorous alternative to whatever her scuzzy American sisters were feeling bad about: their weight, their clothes, their sex lives, their parenting. She was closely aligned with fashion, which is to say the luxury business. Guiliano, a former executive at the parent company of Veuve Clicquot champagne, offered up chicken braised in champagne as the perfect dish to make “on a workday when pressed for time.” In a series of style guides, the model Inès de la Fressange counselled readers to save up for investment pieces, while getting hers free from Chanel.
Some time not long ago, the French woman ditched the scarf, unsmoked a thousand cigarettes, got an Instagram account, and became the French girl. The French girl lives on the Right Bank and is marginally more bohemian than her predecessor. She is often pregnant, but perennially kidless. She makes or has someone make the things that she sells, which are often images of herself (bedhead, floral dress, block-heel sandal) and her apartment (sunlight, Gallimard paperbacks, rattan). Still, as iterations of a fantasy, the French woman and the French girl have more in common with each other than they do with the majority of real women, even French ones. They are sometimes inspiring, sometimes annoying, but no more indicative of the nation than a group of thin, upper-class, straight, mostly white residents of the Upper East Side or Park Slope would be of America. (The French government does not collect statistics on ethnicity or race, but the country as a whole, and Paris especially, has long been multicultural; more than fifteen per cent of Parisians were born abroad.) In “How to Be a Parisian Wherever You Are” (2014), Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret, and Sophie Mas include “the pork roast you prepared for tonight’s dinner party, forgetting that your friends are practicing Muslims” on a list of scatterbrained faux pas. The use of the universal second person only underscores the exclusivity of the vision: the hostess has Muslim friends, but she certainly isn’t a Muslim, who, in this book, remains the eternal guest. Madame or mademoiselle, the française of life-style literature represents a very limited idea of the Parisienne.
French women are fighting back. In “Je Ne Suis Pas Parisienne,” the journalist Alice Pfeiffer examines the cliché of the Parisienne, arguing that it shuts the majority of French women out of the national narrative, while presenting them to an international audience as an undifferentiated mass. “Who is she?” Pfeiffer asks. “Who is this woman that the whole world talks about, but that no resident of the city has ever met?” (Published this month, by Stock, the book has not been translated into English.) Pfeiffer was born in Paris and educated in England, where she earned a master’s degree in gender studies from the London School of Economics. She dismantles the archetype attribute by attribute: the high heels and the cute vintage bike, signalling that the woman doesn’t rely on public transportation; the shirt borrowed from her boyfriend, which tells us that she’s straight; the bedhead, suitable only for certain hair textures; the vintage designer bag, “found rummaging through grandmother’s closet,” in a show of generational wealth. Minority groups have often reclaimed words by which they’ve been marginalized. With her critique of “Parisienne,” Pfeiffer is doing something close to the opposite: rejecting a label by which French women have been homogenized and mainstreamed beyond recognition.
“Je Ne Suis Pas Parisienne” traces the Parisienne as international marketing phenomenon back to the 1900 Paris Exposition, a fair celebrating the turn of the century. The subject of a twenty-foot statue by Paul Moreau-Vauthier, she embodied, the historian Dominique Lobstein has said, “a young urban woman who evoked only the present,” as modern and thrilling in her blue ball coat as diesel engines, talking films, and canned soup. This early Parisienne was an accessible figure, a scrappy coquette who loved as hard as she worked. Pfeiffer sees the nineteen-twenties, when Coco Chanel turned the sailing, tennis-playing woman of leisure into an icon of chic, as a turning point for the bourgeoisification of the Parisienne, whose attempts to maintain appearances during the hardships of the Second World War were celebrated as a form of resistance. Anne Sebba writes in “Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation” (2016) that she felt justified in using the term “Parisienne” to describe Parisian women imprisoned in camps after learning that one of them repurposed the ounce of fat that she was rationed each day as moisturizer for her hands, “concluding that these needed preserving more than her stomach.”
In the postwar years, French cinema established for the Parisienne a set of tastes, habits, and politics that continue to define her and her largely indistinguishable male counterpart, the Parisien. Considering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film “The Dreamers,” Pfeiffer writes, “This time, our parisien lives in his hometown, in full May ’68, and his life consists of going to demonstrate, going to the film library, and undergoing his existential torments in grand Haussmanian apartments. Without forgetting cigarettes, newspaper, glass of wine, and a quote from Sartre at every occasion.” This remains the dominant image of the city and its inhabitants for many Americans, even for those born long after the heyday of student strikes and Saint-Germain. The genius of French-girl capitalism is that it exploits this generational lag to make Paris seem less globalized, and therefore more exotic, than it really is. An article in the online magazine Terra Femina recently mocked the English-speaking media’s romantic vision of the French girl, observing, “You can bet she’s bingeing on a whole season of the Kardashians in bed, waiting for her express delivery of McDonald’s munchies, rather than a retrospective of Godard with three greenmarket tomatoes dressed with fresh basil.”
The idealized French woman is “a direct emanation of power, information, and centralized knowledge,” Pfeiffer writes. Some of the most interesting chapters in her book explore various other stereotypes by which French women are cast outside this norm. Less familiar to non-French readers, these include la cagole (an overdone woman from the South) and la beurette (a French-born woman of North African descent)—the not-Parisiennes by which the Parisienne is defined. But she is evolving. “France cannot ignore its diversity anymore,” the journalist and activist Rokhaya Diallo said recently, in a lecture titled “How French Minorities are Reshaping the Image of La Parisienne,” adding, “La Parisienne has to be Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, and Inès de la Fressange—but not only.” (Diallo is working on a documentary about the subject that will air on French television in 2020.) Next spring, the American-born writer Lindsey Tramuta will publish “The New Parisienne,” with portraits of and conversations with women who are shaping the city, including the Franco-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani and the Spanish-born politician Anne Hidalgo, the first woman to serve as the Mayor of Paris. “I don’t know if the parisienne exists, but what I do know is that a stimulating, engaged, and diverse landscape has been inventing itself in the capital over the past decade,” Pfeiffer observes. As I finished writing this, I noticed that she had signed my copy of her book. “One isn’t born a Parisienne, she becomes it,” she wrote, in thick, black marker. “Or not.”