Friday, December 24, 2010

"Pretentious, moi?": Is French too fancy?

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.


Eamonn said...

It could be something to do with the insufferable attitude displayed by *some* French people when they come across a native speaker of English who doesn't speak French

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

That would explain why the French would be considered snooty, but not exactly why the language would be considered too fancy. There's not really a class component, or if there is one, it's not consistent. For instance, I saw an American family at a Paris bakery doing all their ordering in English, confidently, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, as though the bakery workers were somehow pretentious for insisting on labeling products in French. The tension in that interaction came from the language issues crossed with the presumed difference in wealth between American tourists and bakery cashiers. Americans (and no doubt other native English speakers) may be judged as not having class, because class means bothering to pick up a few words of the language of the place you're in, but I don't think French people are particularly associated with any particular socioeconomic status.

Eamonn said...

I'm sure you're right but isn't there at least a possibility that the snootiness is seen as capable of rubbing off on those who learn the language?

I offer the following anecdote: last summer a French couple (40 somethings like me) stopped me on the street to ask for directions. They had very basic Spanish and I struggled to figure out where they wanted to go and when I did it was miles away and complicated to explain how to get to. I guess in the back of my mind I knew it was going to be a mistake but I thought "maybe they have better English than Spanish" so I asked them - in Spanish - if they spoke English. As soon as words left my lips they turned on their heels and walked off.

Of course, totally unrepresentative and anecdotal and what have you but I suspect I am not the only one to have had an experience like that and and that such experiences have some effect on folks attitudes to learning French as opposed to Russian or whatever.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Snooty yes, class snobbery, no. And the issue is more distaste for English than commitment to using French. As for it rubbing off... how would this work? In a conversation among English-speakers, the fact that English is being spoken isn't going to be held against anybody. If Caitlin references summering in France, or her French tutor, she's signaling wealth, but it's unlikely she'd snub someone who summers in some glamorous but non-French-speaking locale and has a private tutor for Latin.

Then again, I guess it all gets mixed up. "French" in the US signals femininity, frivolity, that-which-is-expensive. The only situation I can imagine the two snobberies meeting is if there are three people together, one who's French and speaks only French, one American and only English, and the third, American and with some French. The American who can do so speaks French to the French person and cuts the other American out of the conversation.

Eamonn said...

right, I'm off for Christmas eve dinner. It's 31 degrees C at 2030. Arrrrrgh! Best to you for 2011

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Not sure what 2030 means, but the weather sounds great to me. Merry Christmas!

Britta said...

It's funny, because my experience of French tourists is exactly the opposite. I have encountered them in English speaking countries and China, but generally I have found French people asking for directions to be gracious and extremely humble about their English skills. This is again only anecdotal, but I once worked at a youth hostel in Australia, and the French were the nicest, most gracious and polite guests by far. (In contrast to, say, the Swiss, who were rude without exception, and the Americans, whom unfortunately tended also to be assholes).

I have experienced some French snootiness in Brittany, but, as I think I've already said, my experience in Paris is that French people were universally friendly and extremely kind about my mediocre French--in fact, Paris was possibly the nicest large city I have ever visited in my life, something which I was not expecting at all.
My sense is that French people generally don't speak English very well, and resent/are embarrassed by the fact that Americans and Brits assume that they will be able to speak it fluently, which is bad enough in say, China or America, but in France it really takes the cake. If a French person just walked up to you in the US, spoke in French, and got angry when you couldn't reply with near perfect French, you'd probably be a little put out as well.

Withywindle said...

On this whole French reputation thing, I would construct the following, entirely hypothetical narrative: a long-running anxiety about English increasingly got inflected between a polarity between English virtue and French corruption; so the bluff Englishman (Henry V) doesn't know English, but fussy Frenchmen (the Doctor in Much Ado) and Frenchified Englishmen (English Monsieur, Restoration characters) do. Borrowing from Linda Colley's *Captives*, the English are most anxious when they worry about Frenchified Englishmen losing their manly virtue, actually somewhat less worried when they worry about Frenchified Englishwomen losing their womanly virtue (chastity, duh). I have a vague sense that solid gentlewomen might have suspected high noble ladies of being too, too French -- in *Mansfield Park*, I think the sophisticated young lady may know French, but I could be imagining that. I'm pretty sure the trope is there by James' *The Americans*. (Right title, yes?) I would take "the lady French major" to fit into this narrative--a late version of long-running Anglo-American worry about French manners undoing the virtue of our (female) elites.

Complications: women going to college was radical; hence I would assume some unease about radical, power-seeking women in a critique of college majors--with a worry about radical sexuality overlapping a previous worry about French sexuality. Going to college at all was very largely the preserve of a wealthy elite even until after World War II, so I do think an anti-elitist tone attaches to the second word of "French major." This would dwindle as, say, a BA becomes standard requirement for teaching (French!) in the high schools -- but I have a vague sense that 'French major" solidified as a stereotype before that development, and never really was affected by it, even if it should have been. Third complication: that studying French was at some point still a gendered-inferior variant to studying the Classics, Greek and Latin, as ruling men were supposed to do; a sign of a fundamentally unserious approach to culture, lingua franca or no lingua franca. This I think would have been faint by the late nineteenth-century, but not entirely gone.

My actual images of the French major: a sort of Edna St. Vincent Millay Vassar grad from the 1920s; the lady in *American in Paris* in the 1950s who goes off to Paris to pick up French art and artists; a Sarah Lawrence grad ca. 1970, now (significantly for this blog) Jewish rather than WASP; and my real-life memory from the 1980s, that Brooke Shields was a French major at Princeton -- where I got the idea that "wealthy young lady who won't need to use it for her career" might have some current foundation.

An aside on art-history: I met one female curator while I was working at a museum, who arranged an exhibition by calling up her personal friends and asking if they could loan their own paintings to the museum for a while. Privilege, forsooth; and a very nice show it was too. I would suspect that "art-history" signifies to people who have actually attended an elite college; "French" to those who have not.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Agreed that French got gendered long before women were 55% of college students in America. And that a variety of negative connotations coalesce around this one major - femininity, presumed anti-Americanism, presumed lack of rigor (because it gets compared with Arabic as opposed to English, Communications, etc.), presumed relationship to fancy parts of Paris (as opposed to the many other places French is spoken - a not unfair assumption considering why students opt for French and where they have an option to study abroad), association with fashion and food.

"a late version of long-running Anglo-American worry about French manners undoing the virtue of our (female) elites."

But it didn't used to imply anything negative for a woman to be wealthy or to not have a job. My own idea of the cliché is that French would be a step towards being a sought-after trophy wife, a sort of impressive but non-threatening skill a woman could reference at a party with his finance colleagues.

French majors Jewish rather than WASP? Only insofar as college students have shifted overall. I don't know many Jewish former French majors, and if anyone did, it would be me.

"'wealthy young lady who won't need to use it for her career'"

Male or female, wealthy or on scholarship, who uses their liberal-arts major for their career? With elite schools, it's more the fact of having gone than the major, aside from econ or math. But philosophy, history, political science, sociology, comp lit, anthropology... Given that French is an honest-to-goodness skill - a snooty-sounding skill, but a practical skill all the same - I'd say it probably boosts a resume more than many other liberal-arts majors. Which doesn't contradict the idea that it sounds fluffy on a resume, for reasons discussed above.

" I would suspect that "art-history" signifies to people who have actually attended an elite college; "French" to those who have not."

Could be. It's really a question of knowing which recent college grads work in galleries - I think I know this more from living in NY than from going to a college that, while arguably elite, doesn't attract many such well-bred young women, but in general, this is something you'd know from knowing what people from your college do after they graduate.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If you were trying to speak some French, it makes sense you'd have gotten a better response than the Americans who storm in expecting that France is an English-speaking country. The perceived snootiness comes from, as you say, how irritating it is to have it be assumed you know English if there's no reason you would. But it also, more specifically, comes from a lingering sense that French is a global language no less important than English, so you get situations where an American who speaks no French and a French person who speaks no English are both perplexed by the ignorance of the other. There's also the question of manners, grammar, etc. being valued differently in different cultures. All things equal, perhaps Americans are more forgiving of mistakes, cultural or linguistic, but especially linguistic, than are the French.

Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman said...

Phoebe, I have been away from my computer for most of the last week and a half, and have just been catching up on some of my feeds. I wanted to say how IN LOVE I am with your blog. Such wit! Such insight! Such thought provokation. You are definitely one of my favourite minds for 2011. :)

Favourite quotes?

"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."


"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."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

A "mind," wow, how flattering! Thanks!

X.Trapnel said...

"If it's simply not done for the most decorative and well-connected of women to not work" ...

We need someone to do an update of Russell's "In Praise of Idleness" for the 21st century.