Three years ago, I spent six months in New Jersey, USA, to finish my English degree.
As Rutgers University in New Jersey welcomes many French students each year, I expected that they would not fall for the old stereotypes. Turns out, that was pretty naive.
The number one cliché was is the supposedly highly sophisticated and sexy French woman. It began outside a club, when an American girl complimented me on my jacket.
As soon as she heard my French accent, she suggested that I could ‘’teach her how to dress with so much class’’.
“There is a way that French women dress, that you can’t really emulate”, says the British model and TV presenter Alexa Chung in a video I recently came across on YouTube. In this video, released a year ago, Alexa is supposed to learn how to ‘dress the French way’ thanks to the French designer and influencer Camille Charrière.
To me, there are many problems in that video. First, the idea that there is a ‘French’ way of dressing.
I have been to many European and non-European cities, and I’ve seen people dressed with a lot of class. So aside from being a highly subjective notion, I don’t think style is exclusively French.
Alexa’s video is an appalling catalogue of clichés. When Alexa asks her friend if she can show her “some French classics”, Camille takes out a pair of Levi jeans (not exactly French, just saying) and… Breton stripey tops. As if every French person had some in their wardrobe.
The high point is probably when Alexa puts on these clothes and says “I genuinely feel more French”. And just when I started thinking that the only way this could become a bigger cliché was adding a beret and a baguette, Alexa finds both in Camille’s apartment.
A girl in the comments section sums it up perfectly, writing: “I’m French, I don’t dress this way. This is only about rich French girls in Paris.”
And that says it all, because Camille seems to be mixing up two very different notions: France and Paris.
The beret, one of the iconic clichés of French women’s wardrobe/Photo: Samantha Green, Unsplash
The fantasy of the parisienne
Camille doesn’t contradict the stereotype, she seems to like the idea. Even worse, she appears to believe in it, and she accentuates it by making ridiculous generalities, as if the French woman was a laboratory subject under scrutiny.
“They (French women) don’t go online and buy lots of things, they still have the act of going shopping,” assures Camille.
Really? Let me introduce you to my friends Camille – we spend a lot of money buying many things on Asos.
She also says: “Of course French women go to the gym, but they don’t talk about it. In France, you wouldn’t go to the gym in your gym clothes.”
This is unfortunately fuelling the fantasy of the thin and athletic Parisian woman, effortlessly and mysteriously ‘perfect’ without having to take exercise.
Sorry Camille, but you are very far from the truth. Not all French women go to the gym, French women can perfectly well talk about it, and French women can wear sweatpants in the streets even if they are not one of the many joggers you will see in all French cities.
We don’t all smoke, either. Photo: Caroline Hernandez, Unsplash
Another thing that bothers me in this video is also something that I have experienced during my semester abroad. Apparently, the French woman and by extension, the parisienne, is a sexual figure.
But this stereotype does not exclusively target women. In the Netflix Series Emily in Paris, Emily’s friend Mindy always refers to French men as “flirts”.
At the very beginning of the video, Alexa makes a link between her French friend’s outfit (a simple tank top) and the possibility of “getting laid”.
I’ve experienced this terrible association of ideas during my second month in New Jersey, when I had sexual propositions from four different people in the same week.
I was quite shocked, and when I talked to other foreign students about that, it appeared none of the girls had been so overtly propositioned.
I was also asked very intrusive questions about my sexual and personal life only because I was French – all questions coming from American students.
Some French people are experts on wine, others prefer Bacardi and coke. Photo: AFP
Food and wine
A lighter subject, suggested with the baguette at the end of Alexa Chung’s video, is French food. French people are supposed to have delicate taste in food and in wine.
This is widely presented in Emily in Paris. Emily nearly reaches heaven when she discovers French viennoiseries. And surprise surprise, her neighbour happens to be a chef.
The cliché might be true for baguettes, but I don’t drink red wine for example. Even though wine is a real thing in France, not all French people are experts in this beverage, or even drink it.
When I was in New Jersey, Americans were comforted in their vision of French people drinking wine with the example of my friend Benoît.
He would always bring the same bottle of white wine to every party, and this is how the ‘French guy’ was spotted.
What the American students did not know, was that the wine was actually disgusting, and the reason why Benoît always drank it was not taste but the high alcohol content.
“I am always sure to end up drunk,” he told me in secret. So much for all French people sipping in a sophisticated manner and enjoying their fine vintage.
So please, next time you meet a French person, don’t assume that you know them based on the stereotypes you have heard.