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As gender relations in France come up for examination (previously), the French government has moved to deprecate the honorific “Mademoiselle” ("miss") from official forms. As French has no equivalent of “Ms.”, “Madame”, which until now referred exclusively to married women, will refer to women of any marital status, allowing women to avoid disclosing their marital status.
In praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Grainger series, which lauds the popular novelist for standing up to commercial pressure to adhere to traditional gender stereotypes and pepper her story with hackneyed clichés because they're, you know, "more marketable":
And what a show it is. In Hermione, Joanne Rowling undermines all of the cliches that we have come to expect in our mythic heroes. It’s easy to imagine Hermione’s origin story as some warmed-over Star Wars claptrap, with tragically missing parents and unsatisfying parental substitutes and a realization that she belongs to a hidden order, with wondrous (and unsettlingly genetic) gifts. But, no: Hermione’s normal parents are her normal parents. She just so happens to be gifted. Being special, Rowling tells us, isn’t about where you come from; it’s about what you can do, if you put your mind to it. And what Hermione can do, when she puts her mind to it, is magic.
The character of Harry Potter is an obnoxious error in the Hermione Granger universe, made more obnoxious by his constant presence. It’s tempting to just write Harry off as a love interest who didn’t quite work out; the popular-yet-brooding jock is hardly an unfamiliar type. And, given that Hermione is constantly having to rescue Harry, he does come across as a sort of male damsel-in-distress.But, if we look closely, we can see that Harry is a parody of every cliche Rowling avoided with Hermione. Harry is not particularly bright or studious; he’s provided with an endless supply of gifts and favors; he’s the heir to no less than two huge fortunes; he’s privileged above his fellow students, due to his fame for something he didn’t actually do himself; he even seems to take credit for “Dumbledore’s Army,” which Hermione started. Of course this character is obnoxious. It’s only by treating ourselves to the irritation caused by Harry that we can fully appreciate Hermione herself.Which makes for an astute critique of the reactionary elements of popular fiction, of which Harry Potter is an exemplar. Whether it's convincing as a counterfactual history, though, is another matter; were Rowling to write her books in the way the article described, what's to say they wouldn't have sunk into obscurity like a lot of worthily didactic left-wing fiction, championed only by those so cultishly right-on that they condemn the Grauniad as a right-wing hate sheet?
The recent arrest of IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for allegedly attempting to rape a hotel maid (some wags have commented that he apparently mistook her for a small, impoverished country) has highlighted the state of sexual relations in France, where men are roguishly masculine, women are seductively feminine, politicians are expected to have mistresses and affairs (and even sometimes second families, as was the case with Mitterrand), and feminism and gender equality are seen as something for gauche Anglo-Saxons and other lesser cultures not privy to the sophisticated rapprochement between Frenchmen and Frenchwomen:
In the hours and days that followed the arrest, a string of friends and Socialist allies stepped forward to defend a man they insisted could not have done such a thing. Jean-François Kahn, a well-known journalist, said he was "practically certain" that what had taken place had not been an attempted rape, but "an imprudence… the skirt-lifting of a domestic". Jack Lang, a former Socialist culture minister, wondered why, when "no man had died", Strauss-Kahn had not been released on bail immediately. Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, meanwhile, raged against a legal system that had treated DSK like "any other person". "Everybody," declared the philosopher, "is not everybody!"
"It feels like France is just beginning to wake up to the concept of sexual harassment," wrote the France-based British author Lucy Wadham on her blog last week, referring to the debate over the difference between seduction and the kind of "very heavy, very persistent" onslaught that Filipetti attributes to Strauss-Kahn. Criticising the rush to treat DSK as a victim, Wadham added: "Wilfully unreconstructed, France is a society in which women collude in a continued phallocracy."And while France may lead the world in areas from work-life balance to healthcare, in terms of the role of women, it seems to trail the Anglo-Saxon world (and let's not even mention Scandinavia here) by decades. One sometimes gets the impression that one is looking at Life On Mars with better wardrobe direction:
Simon Jackson, an English historian at Sciences Po, the elite political studies institute in Paris, shares the view that, in France, male attitudes to sex lag behind Britain in terms of equality. "I think that's in large part the product of serious and continuing deficits in the opportunities women enjoy professionally, educationally and socially in France, which is one of the least gender-equal countries in the EU." Figures for 2011 lay bare those deficits: women make up 18.5% of MPs and 85% of casual workers. In the gender pay gap survey released at Davos, France came 46th. Britain was 15th.Thankfully, this may soon be changing. Some observers (though not all) comment that the old chauvinistic attitudes are largely confined to the older generation, with more egalitarian models of relations having snuck in on the Eurostar some time over the past few decades. And while the extent of this is a matter of some debate, there are at least signs of demand for change:
Today, beside the Pompidou Centre, a "rally against sexism" will be held and a petition handed round that already has more than 1,500 signatories. Female representation in the public sphere; workplace harassment; increased recognition of women's sexual freedom – all are on the feminist agenda, and none of them will be easy to attain. But at least, it seems, there will be company along the way.I wonder what the attendance was like.
A website named Double X, which seems to be a broadly feminist publication run by the Newsweek people, has a piece examining the phenomenon of women using photographs of their children as their Facebook profile photos, and what it says about their identity and social position:
These Facebook photos signal a larger and more ominous self-effacement, a narrowing of our worlds. Think of a dinner party you just attended, and your friend, who wrote her senior thesis in college on Proust, who used to stay out drinking till five in the morning in her twenties, a brilliant and accomplished woman. Think about how throughout the entire dinner party, from olives to chocolate mousse, she talks about nothing but her kids. You waited, and because you love this woman, you want her to talk about…what?…a book? A movie? A news story? True, her talk about her children is very detailed, very impressive in the rigor and analytical depth she brings to the subject; she could, you couldn’t help but think, be writing an entire dissertation on the precise effect of a certain teacher’s pedagogical style on her 4-year-old. But still. You notice at another, livelier corner of the table that the men are not talking about models of strollers. This could in fact be a 19th-century novel where the men have retired to a different room to drink brandy and talk about news and politics. You turn back to the conversation and the woman is talking about what she packs for lunch for her child. Are we all sometimes that woman? A little kid talk is fine, of course, but wasn’t there a time when we were interested, also, in something else?
Facebook, of course, traffics in exhibitionism: It is a way of presenting your life, at least those sides of it you cherry pick for the outside world, for show. One’s children are of course an important achievement, and arguably one’s most important achievement, but that doesn’t mean that they are who you are. It could, of course, be argued that the vanity of a younger generation, with their status postings on what kind of tea they are drinking, is a worse kind of narcissism. But this particular form of narcissism, these cherubs trotted out to create a picture of self is to me more disturbing for the truth it tells. The subliminal equation is clear: I am my children. And perhaps for their health and yours and ours, you should be other things as well.
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