Liberté, égalité, lingerie: France Reclaims the French Girl Myth
So globally pervasive 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.
I was recently on an Air France flight, taking me back to Paris from Toronto. Although I'm usually a dedicated "low-cost" client, we'd had enough of spending 8 hours in a pressurized metal tube without a hot meal, and decided to spring for an Air France flight. No small part of the appeal of Air France specifically was a particular quality they've been alluding to for the past few years in a massive branding campaign, tagline: "France is in the Air." The assurance that "France" - gastronomy, luxury, style - had at last been come to the infamously indigne experience of air travel. I just wanted to not have to pay for water, and I ended up with a double cognac after my meal.
The entire client experience is now modeled around this campaign - from the food to the film selection - but what struck me in particular was the pre-flight safety film, a stylized perfume commercial that softens its anxiety-inducing content with girlish insouciance ("Depressurization! Oh, no!"). A single lead actress narrates the entire film, backed by a silent chorus of three stunning, bob-haired, long-legged, marinière-clad models. The narrator switches seamlessly between French and English, though, notably, her English is not perfect - and she speaks with a charming accent that seems as false as it does familiar. No one I've ever met speaks like her or even looks like her. But I know, somehow, exactly who she's supposed to be.
She is not a real French woman, she's a French Girl ™, and she's France's most powerful cultural ambassador.
American women in particular have long admired and sought to emulate French Girls, a complicated socio-historical relationship that has its roots in the complete hegemony the French held on Fashion With a Capital "F" until the 1970s. To this day, little American girls take ballet and have Eiffel Tower shaped lamps in their bedrooms (I did), they read Madeline and wear sparkly t-shirts that say "Ooh la la!"
France - and Frenchness - is sold as the symbol of a traditional femininity born of its European roots, a grace and elegance once held in opposition to American style.
Over time, the characterization transformed but the emulation did not. As fashions changed, French Girls™ became the perfect tomboys, expertly towing the line between a perceived socio-sexual liberation and safe, familiar hetero-femininity ("Just-fucked" hair! Boyfriend jeans! Red lipstick!).
The Internet, in particular, was quick to appropriate this myth, backed and bolstered by its powerful historical roots. Despite waning interest at the end of the 20th century and a complicated political relationship with the US, France returned to the American zeitgiest in the mid-2000s as a bone fide cultural phenomenon, marketed towards women as the almost-attainable feminine ideal. Endless book releases - Bringing up Bebe, French Women Don’t Get Fat, How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are - sold France abroad as the home of a particular kind of homogeneous, endlessly stylish woman who seem accessible and imitable yet always, always Better Than You at being a woman, or a mother, or a lover...
If you’re an American reading this, this will all seem very familiar. And, like all great myths, I’m happy to confirm for you that there’s at least some truth to that of the French Girl™, almost as many as there are oversimplifications.
It’s not an accident that French Girls™ are so idealized. There certainly are plenty of skinny women with perfect lipstick, unbrushed hair and classic beige trench coats reading Proust on park benches all throughout Paris. Of course, they're always white, always educated (benefitting, or not, from a socialist education system and an intense intellectual elitism), always slim (easy to be thin when you've got subsidized farmer's markets in your neighborhood), always beautiful (thanks to a relatively narrow definition of femininity and a strong social pressure to confirm to it.)
As for actual French women, themselves, I’ve found they’re historically more focused on stereotyping and idealizing American women in turn, like the edgy New-yorkaise, or the cool, bohemian Californienne.
A national project of French femininity - outside of its one-dimensional appropriation - does exist. It’s just that it’s traditionally been tied to participating in French identity in a much broader sense. When your country’s very patrimony includes a rich history of design and style, it's not hard to imagine how wearing Chanel might be a patriotic act.
In fact, "dressing French" has become a social phenomenon in the past 5 years, perhaps a reaction to the globalization of fashion that makes ubiquitous European brands like Zara feel impersonal and meaningless; perhaps also a fascination of a wealthy elite for whom purchasing French-designed and produced clothing is either a patriotic act or a socially-conscious gesture, depending on their side of the political aisle.
Brands like Le Slip Français peddle underwear in blue, white and red motifs; stores like Le Coq Sportif are seeing sales boom as Made in France becomes an internationally-recognized branding juggernaut. And almost as if in rebellion against the English-heavy campaigns of other 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.
But clothing and beauty marketed specifically towards young French women tends to approach from a different angle. For these demographics, advertising is less about being français, and more about being French - a foreigner’s perspective of their own 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 that’s entirely indistinct from most women’s advertising. What’s unique is that this idealized version was neither created by them nor holds any 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.
It also - by way of making a particularly salient counterpoint - recalls the French universalist values that define anyone born under the rule of liberté as French, and nothing else, often a poltic of erasure and institutionalized racism (see: French Moves, Felicia McCarren, 2013). In the eyes of the French government, you don’t get to be hyphened-French, just French - so what can be seen as an act of poltical inclusion can also be an act of disassociation.
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.