Liberté, égalité, lingerie: France Reclaims the French Girl Myth
So entrenched is the legend of the French Girl ™ that she has now become a symbol of national pride; a strange sort of invasive mythological species that has, in true French fashion, been reclaimed by its people.
When American women come to France, we’re very often doing so in search of a few key things: romance, gastronomy, culture… and observing, deciphering, and imitating French Girls ™ , with a capital F and a capital G. France, as a country and an idea, has had its sales pitch to American women locked down for a solid century or two, and a very solid portion of that pitch is convincing American women that their French equivalents are all somehow Doing It Better.
This is why, for American women, French women continue to miraculously Be Better at everything - a look at the very recent success of books like Bringing up Bebe and French Women Don’t Get Fat should be argument enough. And, of course, if you’ve ever been near the fashion blogosphere, you know that Looking Like a French Girl is quite possibly the single highest compliment you can pay someone.
If you’re an American reading this, none of this will come as a surprise to you. And, like all great myths, I’m happy to confirm for you that there’s at least some truth to this one, just as there are oversimplifications. It’s not an accident that French Girls are so idealized, and there certainly are plenty of women with perfect red lipstick and just-fucked hair and classic beige trenches en train de flaner in Paris. There’s also a relatively restrictive standard of femininity and a heavy social pressure to adapt to that standard.
As for French women themselves, I’ve found they’re generally more focused on stereotyping and idealizing American women in turn - the insouciante New-yorkaise, or the cool, bohemian Californienne. That’s not to say that a national project of French femininity doesn’t exist. It’s just that it’s traditionally been tied to participating in French identity in a much broader sense. In other words, when your country’s patrimony includes a rich history of design and style, wearing Chanel can be a patriotic act.
Indeed, as fashion becomes more and more globalized, dressing French has become a true social phenomenon. Brands like Le Slip Francais peddle underwear in blue, white and red motifs; stores like Le Coq Sportif are seeing sales boom as Made in France™ becomes a bona-fide branding juggernaut. Almost as if in rebellion against the English-heavy ad campaigns of French brands like the Kooples, it’s suddenly in vogue again to speak French, listen to bad French 80’s music, and sport the tri-color.
What’s really interesting is that while advertising aimed towards young French women leans increasingly on French identity, the messages for this particular demographic tend to be less focused on being “français” and more so on being “French” - the foreigner’s perspective of their nationality.
They tend to lean heavily on English (or more often, Franglish) and unlike brands like Le Slip Francais - which seem to frame French identity in an in-the-know French exclusive perspective - advertising messages aimed towards young French women sell Frenchness from the outside looking in. They’re encouraged to not be des filles françaises but French Girls ™ as Americans, or more accurately, the blogosphere sees them.
I have many examples of this and two favorites in particular.
The first is for L’Oreal Professionnel, which is the, surprise, esthetic-professional division of the French beauty giant. Their advertising is primarily in-salon, although they also boast a strong social media presence in the beauty blogging world. L’Oreal Professionnel sells a line of salon hair care products called - ready for it? - French Girl Hair. I’ve only seen examples in France, but a little research tells me it’s available in the U.K. as well. I became aware of it via an advertising in a salon window inviting me to “Osez le total look French Girl !” which, well. Hot dog, count me in! But I don’t think I - an American girl raised to idealize French women - am necessarily the audience here.
I find the language used here to be particularly telling. The call to action of the advertisement is in French, and not “easy” French that a non-native could easily decipher; they’re not intended to. The use of “the total look” - the kind of faux franglicisime that’s often used in French to imitate English speakers (technically correct in English, but not...quite...current) further underlines the suggestion that this advertisement is destined for Gallic women.
In inviting women to dare to try the “French Girl” look, the implicit message is that being a “French Girl” is a separate and distinct state from simply being French. Otherwise, any women’s hairstyle in French passport photo would be a French Girl Look. The use of English for the words French Girl underlines that it’s not necessarily French women themselves who have created this term. It certainly suggests the cooptation of a foreign expression to describe group membership; self-definition via an external, foreign image of that self. In calling themselves French Girls, French women are participating in a national identity that is defined and developed outside of the nation itself.
The term French Girl ™ in particular is so powerful precisely because it is an invention of the blogosphere, an idea canned and concretized into its very own hashtag. It’s a brand, a symbol, and a myth, at once immutable and endlessly flexible. French Girls ™ are very easily defined as the everready European counterfoil to Americanness.
That this mythology is not only recognizable to French women themselves but powerful enough to be used in advertisement speaks volumes about the hegemony of the English-speaking media and its relationship to the French language. If the Academie Francaise wants to wring its hands about the dearth of English-based advertising messages currently invading its country, it needn’t looking farther for cause than the social media pages frequented by its youth.
It’s a widely accepted fact that the Internet is in English. But this domination threatens the French language in a much, much sneakier way than slang terms alone. It puts the voices of power in what were once French-dominated cultural institutions - such as fashion - into English. Fashion may have once been in French (Boutique! Couture! Denim!) and controlled by processes of French power and hegemony (such as patrimonial protections and subsidies that were direct translations of medieval sumptuary laws).
But those days are long over, and the vocabulary of modern dress and fashion culture is fixed by an international, English-speaking Internet that doesn’t recognize the arbitrary frontier of the modern nation-state.
The L’Oréal ad is interesting in this regard because it directly applies that foreign gaze into a selling point for its customers; its intended targets are fashion-aware women who know how they’re perceived by the rest of the world. They’re being sold an idealized version of themselves, a transfiguration process largely indistinct from most advertising. What’s unique is that this idealized version was neither created by them nor holds any particular truth for them.
I know few French girls who would consider wearing a marnière and a beret everyday to be a meaningful portrayal of Frenchness, but would be perhaps willing to do so if it meant adapting to a certain standard of international representation. That they are so aware of their national stereotypes speaks to a particular Continental shoulder-rubbing from which Americans are largely spared; I know even fewer Northeastern Americans who would be willing to sport a cowboy hat and a Yankees t-shirt as an expression of Americanness.
This is not to say that French girls are entirely powerless in this process, or that French women don’t participate in the definition of the French Girl ™ as she is sold both at home and abroad. So entrenched is the story of the French Girl ™ that she has now become a symbol of national pride; a strange sort of invasive mythological species that has, in true French fashion, been reclaimed by its people.
The French lingerie brand Etam is the relative equivalent of Victoria’s Secret, in style, offer and in market segment. In order to mark their 100th year in business in 2016, they adopted a brand strategy centered around “independence” - “100 years of daring, playfulness, and French sexiness.” The traditionally pink-and-black design strategy gives way, notably on their “About Us” page, to a patriotic blue, white and red. Clients are called, via a still-running series of ads, to celebrate and participate in “100 ans de French liberté.”
The linguistic play here is just fascinating, calling to mind the core values of the French republic - liberté, égalité, fraternité - and the central tenets of French national identity, placed into a temporal context of longevity, patrimony, and tradition (Things French People Love #296). And yet the qualifying adjective in this sentence, the term that defines this context, is “French” which is, of course, written in English.
The very definition of Frenchness and national identity is thus interpreted through the foreign gaze, as if the people responsible for deciding to whom liberté refers and what that means are not also the subjects of its power. It’s a reference, more subtly, to a particular brand of Frenchness, as sold abroad. A series of summer swimwear spots merely reminds clients that they, too, can purchase “The French Liberté” - a turn of phrase that’s at once clearly decipherable to the brand’s growing international clientbase and meaningful for those at home. It recalls for the viewer a France internationally renowned and loved, a France of libertines and revolution and seduction.
It’s an excellent, excellent tagline.
Interestingly, it’s also very inclusive, and in a way, patriotic. I think an argument to be made for the use of English in advertisements is that it makes them more accessible to an increasing population of non-native French speakers; it allows new arrivals and tourists and those born speaking French to participate in mass culture on an equal level.
It’s also one of the few examples of the French Girl ™ myth that doesn’t assume a white francaise de souche, as does the L’Oréal ad. (Aren’t you just shocked to know that French Girl Hair is brown, straight, and untextured?). It doesn’t define her as a wealthy Parisian. Nor does it find her in a beret and a marnière, poutily smoking a cigarette on a café terrasse. Or even drinking alcohol, for that matter. For Etam, being French is not limited to a particular look.
While the ads do overwhelmingly (maybe exclusively?) feature white women, there’s an implied linguistic inclusivity otherwise rarely present in similar advertising. It’s perhaps not a mistake that the only word in French is liberté, so effortlessly translated to speakers of other languages. What is truly French, in this ad, is a Republican ideal, and it’s available to everyone (free with purchase of Etam product).
This is relatively radical for France, a country recently in the news when its Ambassador to the US accused TV host Trevor Noah of racism for congratulating Africa on winning the World Cup. And while as an American I understand - and agree with - Noah’s sentiment, I think an important context key was missing to that debate.
In France, it’s still not a given that someone who’s not white, culturally Catholic, and français de souche is French. When Noah gave his reply - about how everyone who’s a “good immigrant” is French and everyone who’s not is just “an immigrant” - he was 100% accurate. The Ambassador was saying something that many French still need to hear, which nonetheless seems intuitive to (most) Americans: if you’re born here, or you uphold the values of liberté, egalité, fraternité, you’re French. End of story.
And, in a global cultural context in which French Girls ™ are thin, white Parisians, it seems welcomely progressive for a brand to declare that what gets you membership in that exclusive club isn’t your hair type, it’s participating in those values (via purchase). And that’s exactly why it’s such a great ad. Because embrace liberté and you, too, can be French.
But it’s interesting to me that this is the value that they chose, that for Etam, France in the eye of the Other equals liberty and, of course, sexual liberation. It’s funny because it also seems like a certain revindication of power. This is not necessarily the symbol French Girls ™ represent for the Internet (although this does very much exist); nor is the French Girl ™ here an object that exists as the counterfoil for American puritanism. Rather, it’s the French Girl ™ narrative written by and for French women, modeled in the image of their own mythologies.
It’s part of a trend, I think, in the reclaiming of the French Girl ™ by French women themselves. I’m thinking of in particular of the book How to be Parisian Wherever You Are, which I… do not like at all, largely because I think it’s simplistic, cliché, and dissuades women from wearing sweatpants in front of men, including their gym teachers (I KNOW.)
The book was an international success, playing on those clichés that make French Girls ™ such a seductive force for the Internet (French Girls ™ don’t cry in front of boys! French Girls ™ always wear matching lingerie! French Girls ™ skip work and spend their days wandering art galleries!). It toed, expertly, the line between “this is all total bullshit” and “...ok, I actually know a couple of girls like this.” Its all-French authors found those small grains of truth that lend credibility and staying power to the myth of French Girls ™ , and added a healthy dose of mystique and cliché for good measure.
Is reductive? Absolutely, but the takeaway is the prise en main of the French Girl ™ experience by those women who are supposed to embody it.
I’m not sure what the future of the French Girl mythology will be, and if it has staying power as an advertising tool in the French market. It certainly does seem inextricably tied to the Made in France brand that’s really taken over the market in the past few years, a sign of a sort of resurgence of national pride on a general level. And that pride itself is tied to geopolitics and soccer games and the zeitgeist.
In some sense, the lure of the French girl seems more powerful than ever. For all of its limitations and reductions, it seems to sit at a sweet spot for advertisers - a positive and potentially inclusive national identity in a globalized world. And although the French may not be as outwardly patriotic as Americans, identifying strongly with being French in general is not a new phenomenon, as limiting as that definition might sometimes be.
What we can hope, I think, is that French women (and advertisers) will continue their takeover of the French Girl ™ narrative. Let them continue to define being French in real-time terms, rather than based on a series of mistranslated clichés. It’s the best hope we’ve got to open up the definition of the word to define cool, badass French women as they are, in all the diversity they represent.