Withywindle asks whether the current trend in mocking the academic study of French stems from its "reputation as the major of choice for young ladies who will never need to work." I responded in the comment below his, but I think this merits a post of its own. Is the pile-on against French just a convenient pretext for an alliance between anti-elitisms on the left and right? Is French just too fancy for Times Like These?
John McWhorter, for one, appears to think French is the linguistic equivalent of those $90 t-shirts made of flimsy but 'premium' cotton. His stance is clear from early on in his contrarian anti-French manifesto, when he agrees, tongue-in-cheek, that "an educated person is supposed to be able to at least fake a conversation in French."*
Then comes the serious bit:
Isn’t the sense of French as a keystone of an education a legacy of when few met foreigners who spoke non-European languages, French was educated Europe’s lingua franca, and the elite who went to college often had plans to do the Grand Tour?
That is, is knowing French really so obviously central to engaging what we know in 2010 as the world, or is it that French is a kind of class marker? You know: two cars, a subscription to the Times, and mais oui, Caitlin knows some French?Why "Caitlin" and not some preppy-sounding boy's name? There is, as I've mentioned before, something gender-specific about the War on French. It's definitely not just about class. Nor is it just about French - any liberal-arts subject where most of the students are female will get this response. (Art history, much?) The trust-fund-brat girl remains more a symbol of idle frivolity than her male equivalent, because it's assumed she'll go straight from being a little princess to a rich man's wife, whereas the well-to-do dude will do something more honorable than shop and yap, like go into finance. Or so goes the cliché.
However, as I mentioned in my response to Withywindle, it is no longer acceptable for women to be Caitlins. There are no more "ladies who lunch," no more "socialites." There are, instead, models with more attractive last names than faces. "Designers" who've never designed so much as a handkerchief. They all "work;" some, it seems, are the real deal. One, in the January issue of Vogue, claims to have DJ'd to pay her way through college.
If it's simply not done for the most decorative and well-connected of women to not work, where does that leave the rest of us? For young women these days, "privilege" doesn't mean not having to get a job, it means having the schooling and manners necessary to land a good one. Point being, the idea of the young girl who'lll never have to work a day in her life has persisted beyond the reality of young girls not working a day in their lives.
(This is of course a separate question from the stay-at-home-mom one. If a woman - or man for that matter - is home raising young children, cooking, cleaning, etc., that's certainly work. If it's a class marker of sorts - it assumes the other spouse makes a certain amount, or that there's family money - it's not the same kind of marker as the "Caitlin" remark is referring to.)
The unacceptability of pretty-young-things just being rich coincides with the unacceptability of any young person - pretty or not, male or female - showing evidence of having had it easy in life. In the age of Your Privilege is Showing, it's as advantageous as it ever was to have privilege, but any indications that one got where one is by anything other than one's own brains and hard work is a strike against. Even if French is less thoroughly associated with privilege than was once the case, even though real-life French majors come from the will-need-to-work-in-college-or-at-least-afterwards classes, even though students who major in French do so knowing there's such a thing as an LSAT, even though French is used in many places that are not France let alone Paris let alone the 7th arrondissement, the lingering reputation of French as a subject for students who summer in the South of France may have an impact somewhere - either on students themselves who are deciding what to take, or on colleges in deciding what to offer.
If you think about it, it makes sense that French would be picked as a target now, because its class-marker status has evolved, rather than disappeared, with new cultural trends. Gratuitously adding French words to conversation is a time-honored way of signaling pretentiousness. While in France, not all food establishments are upscale, any restaurant in the US with "chez" in the name is as good as announcing $20-and-up main courses. Nowadays, Francophilia is linked to sanctimoniousness about eating habits as well. No critique of the way Americans chow down is complete without tales of junior-year-abroads or vacations, and how wonderfully prepared the vegetables were in Frahnce, how sensible the portions, how the pounds just fell right off. This is, after all, a movement launched by the epiphany of an American student in France named Alice Waters, an infinitely-repeated story I will not do my readers the favor of Googling and linking to, so ingrained it is in the collective food-conscious. So, while French may not signal, to a younger generation, the notion of a Grand Tour, the reputation of Francophilic Americans as rich know-it-alls continues, if in a somewhat altered form.
*For more responses to the manifesto in question, see here and here.