Sunday, April 01, 2012

The joy of catcalling

Andrew Sullivan's Dish has run a series on 'the terror of catcalling', in which women recount the intimidation, shame, inhibition, anger etc. they suffered when subject to the catcalls and other unwanted expressions of sexual interest of men in public places.

Not to in any way diminish the problem or gainsay the pain recounted in these narratives, but coincidentally, I had just been reading about a place in which such encounters are often experienced completely differently: France. 


In La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, Elaine Sciolino, the former New York Times bureau chief in Paris, describes seduction, broadly understood, as a central value in French life, permeating conversation, politics, commerce, arts -- and above all, interactions between the sexes.  In one chapter, Sciolino checks in with several successful, sophisticated French women about why they dress up every time they go out, and how they feel about being noticed. Below, she speaks to a member of the Conseil d’État, the highest administrative and public law court in France:
I asked her if she, like so many French women I know, dressed up to buy a baguette.

"Of course,” she said, moving into French. “On ne sait jamais”—One never knows. “One never knows what?” I asked. “On ne sait jamais is the impulse to look one’s best all the time,” she replied. “Maybe not one’s best, but to look…”—she struggled for a word—“…okay.” Okay? I thought. Either she was being modest or she was clueless about the effect she had on people, or she knew and was pretending she didn’t. “Why do I dress up a bit when I go and buy the newspaper?” she went on. “Well, because there is the odd chance that the window cleaner might whistle, and if he does, my day will be sunnier!” “No!” “That’s the bigger part of on ne sait jamais. Then, of course, there’s the odd chance that I might bump into an old friend or school chum, and I don’t want him or her to think, ‘Ooooo, she looks old,’ which he or she might do anyway, but in any case a bit less. Voilà. There you have it.” “So it’s a connection with the other?” I asked. “Yes. It’s a connection with the other.”

“In the United States, if a window cleaner whistles at you on the street, he’s invading your space, and as a good feminist, you’ll be insulted,” I said. She saw it differently. “On the contrary, I walk away with a springier step,” she said. “I might even text somebody with a message of ‘Guess what happened today?’ Not that it happens that often. But when it does, it makes my day. It certainly does. Like a macaroon.”

Afterward, I asked Florence about on ne sait jamais and whether she feels flattered or insulted when an unknown man on the street comments on her appearance. She said she enjoys the game, and she explained the rules. “Men’s compliments on the street? Of course, I love that,” she said. “As long as it remains light, and as long as it doesn’t demand anything from me. Ideally, I pretend I don’t hear or see anything.” A certain distance has to be maintained, she said. “If a man yells at you because you don’t respond to his compliment, or starts being rude, it becomes disagreeable,” she said. “Absolutely.” The same compliment that is acceptable on the street, where the encounter is brief and fleeting, would be off-limits in a confined space like a bus or the Métro. “You don’t want to engage with someone and then have to face the consequences,” she said.

Florence told me the story of her trip to work one morning on one of Paris’s bikes-for-rent. It was a sunny day, and she was wearing a short skirt. (“Neither vulgar nor provocative,” she said.) “I was perfectly aware I was doing my ‘girl who rides a bike in a skirt’ act,” she said. “One man gave me a look of approval. I smiled at him. No risk at all! I was on my bike and by the time I smiled, I was gone. Another one told me I was ‘charming.’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you!’ and kept going. “Along the way, while I was crossing the Alexandre III bridge, there was a car with two or three men in it. They were looking at me. We were blocked at a stoplight. I didn’t ‘answer’ at all and was looking as indifferent as possible. But when the light turned green, I looked at them and gave them a bright smile as I rode away. I heard them exclaiming, ‘Wow.’ And that felt good!” (Kindle locations 1804-44).
This in a culture in which men can rattle off the fabrics that the clothes worn by the women in their lives are made of, or the clasp shape of a particular brand of bra.  Vive la difference...

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