Monday, August 31, 2009

Why French men dare to carry a purse.

A few months back, one of my American acquaintances stated that “French men are more feminine than American men”. I didn’t really understand this comment and asked for more explanations. Did he mean that there were more gay men in France than in the US? If so, I would doubt it, assuming that the percentage of gays is most likely the same in countries that have similar genetic, environmental and cultural backgrounds. But he did not, he insisted, “they have more feminine traits” I dismissed it to some extent, as I thought of both the French men in my life (father, brother, cousins, friends) and the American men in my life (husband, father-in-law, colleagues, friends). They seemed similar in my mind. Some were butch some weren’t; some were straight, some were gay and they seemed evenly distributed amongst the two countries.
As of today, I have been in France for two months, which is the longest uninterrupted time I have spent here in 12 years. The perception I have of my home country is both one of a native and a foreigner. For instance, as I looked at my uncles gathered in my parents’ garden a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice than these 3 retired men carried a purse. All three purses were natural leather color, with a metal clasp or a zipper, a long strap or a handle. These 3 men had gone to work carrying a purse every day of their lives. Another male family member of mine wore a pink bathing suit that day, another one a light blue t-shirt with flowers. All of these were items I would have never seen a straight older men wear in the US, unless they lived in a large costal city such a New York or San Francisco. So I started to think of what other “feminine” aspect the French men around me had, at least from an American point of view. It turns out that the French men I grew up surrounded by read poetry, enjoy watering flowers, speak softly, do not swear, are not particularly fond of sporting events, and would rather drink wine than beer. They pick their own clothes, purses and shoes. They like ballet. Then I started thinking of the American men in my life and realized that they, too, liked ballet, flowers and clothes but that you would not be able to know that if you encountered them in a social event or at work. So, why would they rather appear as beer-drinking football fans (no offense to beer or to football) than well-dressed ballet lovers? Would the American men in my life have been as “feminine” as the French ones, had they not been worried that they were going to be perceived as wimps by their peers?
A Swedish friend of mine told me once that she wanted to dress her young daughter in gender neutral clothes until she could decide for herself what she wanted to dress like. Although it would not have occurred to me, I understood where she came from and decided to pay more attention to this while dressing my own toddler girl. In vain… as I was looking through rows and rows of children clothes in American stores, I could not find anything that wasn’t strongly gender specific. My choices were basically to dress her like a shiny pink princess or a butch boy. No girl outfit came without flowers, hearts or stars. No boy outfit came without trucks or dinosaurs. In addition, the children clothes section was split into two and situated in different parts of the store. From the pink/purple aisles I could barely spot the navy blue/camouflage area were the boys got dressed. In France on the other hand, children clothes are traditionally organized by age in stores, not by gender, and they come in greens, yellow, orange, stripes and flowers. Little boys can be seen wearing shirts with embroideries and little girls with brown sweaters. And, I guess, the little boys grow into big boys who are not afraid to be seen in pink, water flowers and enjoy ballet if they want to. I wish the same to American men.
In the meantime, I will keep raising eyebrows when I go back to the US as my favorite color is blue, I enjoy barbecuing, watching the Olympics on TV and mowing the lawn. Will they say French women are masculine?


Marine Putman said...

Laetitia said:

On my way to work today, there was a guy walking down the street with a navy suit and a blue striped shirt, very classic.

Not only did he carry a purse, but also a purse with very feminine lines: dark green (kakhi), with short handles, a little Herve Chapelier like. The guy did not seem gay to me (although, how could I know after all...), neither was he an artist. I would have guessed he was working either in a Bank or a Law firm (like 70% of the New York population).

I thought immediately of you and couldn't wait to arrive to the office and tell you that you were wrong!!!!

A block before my office his phone rang and he picked up: "Allo? Ah salut Nico, comment tu vas?"....


JenniferW said...

Sometimes, you can dress your child in gender-neutral clothing and they still gravitate toward the gender specific. I always dressed Lily in camouflage pants, army-green fatigues, and jeans (granted, with girlier tops but NO PINK!). However, almost the instant she turned three, she refused to wear pants or shorts or anything remotely bipedal and decided at the same moment that everything must be pink. The only pink articles of clothing we owned at the time were a batch of hand-me-down dresses we'd *just* received from a friend. She wore those dresses all summer and categorically refused to wear anything else. I spent the summer scrambling around for skirts I could stomach and that she would wear.

Since I'm also raising her as a vegetarian until she's old enough to know what she's eating, I expect her one day soon to suddenly become a ravenous carnivore . . .

jennifer w.

Carrie said...

I'm so glad I finally got to read these. You write beautifully, Marine! See, I told you I was right to admire your parenting skills. You are raising a thoughtful, conscious young lady who is a joy to be around.