Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

French Feminism: Seduction and The Cultural Exception

There is a fascinating exchange going on right between the American historian Joan Scott and some (not all) French feminists.

In the June 9th on-line edition of the French paper, Liberation, Joan Scott very thoughtfully writes, not about the DSK affair itself, but the reactions to the affair and the internal debate going on in France right now about what it means.    She questions the assertion that there is a «féminisme à la française» - that, for cultural reasons, feminism in France is not, can never be, and no one wants it to be, like feminism in other countries.   She quotes Irène Théry who defends the uniqueness of the French approach to sexual equality by saying:
«Il (ce féminisme) est fait d’une certaine façon de vivre et pas seulement de penser, qui refuse les impasses du politiquement correct, veut les droits égaux des sexes et les plaisirs asymétriques de la séduction, le respect absolu du consentement et la surprise délicieuse des baisers volés.»
(This (French) feminism is made of a certain way of life and not simply a way of thinking, which refuses politically correct dead-ends, wants legal equality between the sexes and the asymmetrical pleasures of seduction, has total respect for consent and the delicious surprise of stolen kisses.)
Scott attacks this on several grounds.  She certainly does not believe, for example, that the French "Game of Seduction" is based on any kind of equality between the sexes.  You can read Scott's entire article here.  There is a reply by Claude Habib, Mona Ozouf, Philippe Raynaud and Irene Thery Ehess here.

After reading the entire debate, I personally have the following objections to the arguments proposed by the defenders of the French Feminist Exception:

Forsakes Any Claim to Universalism - if French feminism really is particular to France then it could follow that French feminists have little or no relevance in matters pertaining to sexual equality at the international level and have absolutely nothing to offer the rest of the world in this matter.  If feminist ideas born here can only be understood and applied in a French context then you might as well stamp the work of many brilliant French feminists "Not for Export" which I think is absurd.  

Dons the Dangerous Cloak of Cultural Exception - I have found that people really don't understand how cultural exceptions are a double-edged sword.  Once you claim it for yourself and your culture, you can't really complain when someone from another culture uses it as a reason for a cultural practice in their part of the world.  I once stopped an argument cold over the death penalty in the U.S. by simply saying that it was part of American culture (part of our history, mentality and so forth).  If you can have your cultural exceptions, I said, so can we which means that this debate is now over.  Match nul.

Treats Culture as a Fossil - And not as a river that flows and ebbs and changes course over time.  100 years ago French people (and all other people on this planet) had ideas and rules and laws and morals that are vastly different from what we see today.  It is a fact that things changed - sometimes in very radical ways but more often slowly over generations.  As I sit here typing this I am almost certain that 100 years from now what French and American culture becomes will be quite foreign to us and that our descendants will find many of our ways to be, at best, rather quaint.  To say that something is a "part of our culture" is misleading.  More correctly we should say that such things are a "part of our culture today" and may or may not be there tomorrow.  "Culture" and "Eternal' together is an oxymoron.

I do not pretend to know which way the winds will blow French feminism or French culture for that matter.  For the time being, I am very happy to sit back and watch the debate unfold.  Hold onto your hats, this is going to be interesting.

1 comment:

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Another excellent article about the debate by Julie Clarini.
http://www.franceculture.com/emission-les-idees-claires-le-feminisme-a-la-francaise-2011-06-09.html

Read the commentaries. Fascinating.