What’s the Deal With French Women?

Two FASHION staffers discuss the open letter denouncing #MeToo

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male behaviour arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. (Yesterday, the topic of discussion was male actors’ silence at the Golden Globes.) Today, we have some concerns about the open letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and other French women denouncing the #MeToo movement. Two of our staffers—one male, Greg Hudson, and one female, Pahull Bains—talk it out.

GH: Just when we had solved all gender-related controversies yesterday, French actress Catherine Deneuve, along with more than 100 other French women from different professions, released an open letter accusing the #metoo movement, along with its French counterpart #Balancetonporc (Expose your Pig), of going too far, ruining innocent lives and careers, and playing into hands of anti-sex, religious zealots.

On the surface, the letter seems like a balm for wounded male egos, or a defense gross MRA-type men can point to when they feel threatened by modern feminism. While clearly denouncing illegal behaviour, the letter also seems to confirm what many men hoped was true: that flirting shouldn’t be illegal, and that all these Hollywood ladies on Twitter are over-reacting.

Naturally, as a straight white dude, I have opinions about this. But, before I share them, let me ask a woman who is not a French actress: why are Deneuve and her friends wrong?

PB: Thoughts. So many thoughts! “Rape is a crime. But trying to pick up someone, however persistently or clumsily, is not…” begins the letter. Uh, yeah! Don’t think anyone out there would disagree. But just FYI, we know how to tell the difference. The letter paints women as confused, oblivious individuals who can’t tell sexual assault or harassment from harmless flirting or generally misguided/inappropriate conduct. It also really bothers me that the letter tries to normalize behaviour like “try[ing] to steal a kiss” or “send[ing] sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest.” These things are absolutely not appropriate in any scenario, and while they don’t constitute a crime, need to be called out for what they are—men taking some pretty serious liberties.

GH: I definitely took issue with the same sentences. But I didn’t read it as painting women as oblivious, so much as a group of wounded victims out for revenge. Like the power of #MeToo has gone to an entire gender’s head, and they won’t stop until all romance has been surgically removed from gender relations. Really though, the only difference is intent. The behaviour—misreading clumsy attempts at romance—is the same, it’s just whether women are being disingenuous or not.

And—full disclosure—the easy thing to do is agree with Deneuve. Because some of the men caught up in this reckoning do seem to be victims of overreaction, or of employers moving too quickly to avoid controversy. But, to assume that the women accusing them are disingenuous or exaggerating is wrong and dangerous. If the roles were reversed, I’d feel trapped and powerless and that’s shitty (it’s also shitty that that’s how women have felt for…well forever when it comes to harassment). Empathy isn’t always easy, but I hear it’s important.

But here’s a question—that I also have thoughts about—where is the line between clumsy and inappropriate? If men are already horrible at reading signs and listening (two things they should be better at, frankly), how do we explain the difference?

PB: I think that one’s easy. IF it’s an innocent mistake—perhaps a misreading of signals that led to a clumsy come-on—a decent guy would take a no as a no, and back off. He’d acknowledge the misunderstanding and move on.

To your point about the momentum of #MeToo potentially colouring women’s reactions to certain behaviour, I’d just say that no woman wants to get embroiled in a long-drawn he-said-she-said controversy over something harmless. If she’s speaking up about something, it’s something that’s profoundly affected or disturbed her. Which is part of the reason why this bit in the letter really stuck out at me: “A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a “whore” or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy. She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense. She can even consider this act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.”

Gee, thanks ladies of France, for letting us know how we should feel. Now that you’ve said so, we won’t feel traumatized by men rubbing up against us in the subway. Vive la subway gropers!

GH: It’s like every time she makes a point I think I agree with, she (or really, they) keep going until I can’t agree with them any more. Maybe that represents how slippery a slope sexual relations can be. It’s funny, this all seems both simpler and more complicated than this letter seems to imply. It’s simpler because—and I can only speak for me here, who was raised with a lot of sisters, and was thus privy to hearing how they felt treated by men—flirting doesn’t have to be a minefield. It’s really about reciprocity. While it’s long been frustrating for (some) men that the exact same behaviour can be seen as romantic or creepy, depending on how a woman feels about the person doing it, it also shouldn’t be that hard to understand if there is interest or not. But, it’s also more complicated because having confidence doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t feel threatened or unsafe or traumatized when a stranger presses their erection against you on public transportation. It’s complicated because how one person reacts to a situation can’t dictate how all people should react to a similar situation. As that one character in The Room wisely said, “people are people.”

Final question: let’s say, while you (not you specifically, but you know, a woman) don’t agree with a lot of the conclusions these women draw, you also feel uncomfortable within this particular brand of feminist movement? Isn’t it just as unfair to assume these people have internalized misogyny as it is for them to assume all women should be totes cool with a random person grinding up against you at work?

PB: Fair point. Clearly what works for them doesn’t for others, and vice versa. And a lot of this could be heavily dictated by culture. Overall, the letter felt, to me, pretty French. It talks about the curtailing of sexual freedom, rise of extremism, and a fear of censorship and puritanism. It says towards the end that: “As women, we don’t recognize ourselves in this feminism that, beyond the denunciation of abuses of power, takes the face of a hatred of men and sexuality.” To which I’d say: chill out, French people. Sex and sexuality aren’t on the verge of extinction. They’ll be fine. It’ll just all be more consensual. We call that a win-win. How do you say that in French?