Culture really is the water we swim in: America, France, sexism, and sexual politics

Johanna Kollmann’s recent post, “Sexism is not funny, let’s stop laughing argues what its title implies it will argue, and she uses these examples:

A talk at a conference showing girls in bikinis. An API presentation from a sponsor featuring ladies in bras. A demo at a hack day with a slide of women in underwear. A business model canvas workshop using a strip club as an example to illustrate the tool. These are just a few examples of casual sexism I’ve experience at (tech) events.

But where does sexy end and sexism begin? I too am against sexism (who isn’t?), but most Americans appear to find women in limited amounts of clothing sexy; take a look at most women’s magazines in the grocery store next time you’re there (or, better yet, look through a bunch of Cosmos: a woman once suggested I do it, and I found the experience highly educational). Men’s magazines mostly feature sexy women in limited clothing, and women’s magazine’s mostly feature. . . sexy women in limited clothing. Sexism in tech and the workplace are real problems, but I don’t think a slide with a woman in underwear is a good example and arguably detracts from larger problems.

France_1Beyond that comparisons between the U.S. and France are often dubious, but reading Elaine Sciolino’s La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life made me rethink some of the issues Koll describes. Sciolino writes, for example:

The game of the sexes also extends deep into the workplace. In the United States, the mildest playfulness during business hours and in a business setting is forbidden; in France, it is encouraged. In American corporations, men are told routinely that they cross the line when they compliment a female employee on the color of her dress or the style of her hair. In France, flirtation is part of the job.

Sciolino’s experiences in the French workplace appear to be mostly good. It might be that the U.S. and France are too different to compare, but I also don’t think that the asexual approach implicitly endorsed by Kollmann is right or even practical. In addition, much of humor and personality are bound up in sexuality.

There are also a couple of larger notes: one is that, at the time I read La Seduction, I figured it was just a throwaway book, but I find myself referencing it surprisingly often. Even books that seem like throwaways can turn out to be influential, and no one really knows what those books will be in advance. You have to do the reading, or not do the reading.

France_2In addition, sexism is also one of these important topics that brings the worst out of many user-voting sites (like Hacker News, where I found the link), because it’s a) broad, b) important, and yet c) has a large political and social dimension that makes knowing the whole problem space impossible. Sometimes user-voting sites work well (the top HN comment is substantive and links to actual research), but often people talk past each other, or don’t closely read what the other person writes.

In Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Feynman recounts this anecdote: A Princess says to Feynman that “[. . .] nobody knows anything about [physics], so I guess we can’t talk about it.” He replies:

On the contrary [. . .] It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subjects that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!

One sees this tendency over and over again. Nobody really knows anything about sexual politics in the workplace, or social problems, or macro economics, so we all have opinions that can’t easily be disproven. The problem is frequently worsened by ignorance.

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life — Elaine Sciolino

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life started life as a New York Times article that’s definitely worth reading and retains some of the humor of the book (sample: “The Customer Is Always Wrong”). And the way to read La Seduction is as a comedy. It’s not very deep, but there’s something hilarious about Sciolino’s ceaseless focus on the myriad forms of French seduction, which take a primarily erotic term and extend it as a metaphor throughout French life, or at least a certain segment of French life. There’s a sense of bemusement throughout the book, as when Sciolino indulges a fascination with French sexual practices:

Unlike Americans, who are forced to take up the mantle of purity just when assuming high office might give them an advantage in the sexual game, French politicians are allowed to enjoy their enhance opportunities. This reality flows from centuries of precedent. The kings took sexual seduction to new heights. There was a hierarchy to the women in their lives: wives, significant others (known as ‘favorites’), and women passing through through the court who provided fleeting adventures. To make sure no one forgets France’s royal history today, the kings’ escapades are routinely retold in cover stories in mainstream weekly news magazines.

Notice the Americanisms creeping in her prose: they’re “allowed to enjoy,” rather just “enjoy” or some other verb. They’ve been granted implicit permission to be naughty, and the words that point out that implication sound American. Sciolino takes the role of tut-tutting American even when she doesn’t mean to; whether this is ingrained in her upbringing or part of her schtick is hard to say. France comes off as wildly appealing in this book, which is perhaps as it should be. Sciolino makes it sound delightfully cultured a lot of the time; she doesn’t focus much on what it’s like not to have a lot of money in France, but I bet that would be pretty different. The threads of appeal and privilege come together at moments, like this one:

Growing up in france, my two daughters were allowed to drink legally as teenagers. Champagne was served at their senior prom. They developed a healthy respect for moderation. Perhaps the biggest cultural shock they faced in college in the United States was binge drinking.

The integration of wine into daily life starts early.

If you normalize drinking, it won’t be as much of a problem and can simply be a pleasure. I wonder too if part of the issue is development patterns in the United States: everyone, almost everywhere, has to drive everywhere. So drinking naturally becomes more of a problem, since it’s intertwined with driving. And because it’s forbidden whole institutions, like college fraternities, and cultures, like the high school kegger, grow up to enable drinking. Sciolino doesn’t go in this direction, but she could: she’s bent on staying observational. It’s amusing to watch an anthropologist at work, especially one who’s divided between admiration and distaste. We get this in Sciolino’s discussion of sexual politics, which frankly sound like a lot more fun in France:

The game of the sexes also extends deep into the workplace. In the United States, the mildest playfulness during business hours and in a business setting is forbidden; in France, it is encouraged. In American corporations, men are told routinely that they cross the line when they compliment a female employee on the color of her dress or the style of her hair. In France, flirtation is part of the job.

This also applies to universities: one has the presumed right to be free from unwanted advances, which also has the effect of frequently being free from wanted advances, since it’s hard to tell one from the other until the advance has been made. Much of Sciolino’s chapter deals with this French attitude, where so much is, in one woman’s words, “based on humor, irony, complicity, and what is left unsaid.” Sciolino continues by asking a small, unrepresentative survey of women “whether they are outraged by the perpetual game of seduction in their professional lives. I found that if American women engage in a perpetual battle of the sexes, French women are more likely to collaborate with the opposite sex.” The battle is a game: notice the difference in metaphors. She goes on to say that “The most exasperating thing I heard was that there are no fixed rules. You just have to intuit them, as if you are feeling your way up a vertical rock formation.” Dealing with ambiguity is hard, but, to some people, fun. Yet social rules are notoriously hard to encode; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be innumerable advice columns advising people on social issues. When you encode a rule like “don’t comment on someone’s shirt,” you get a presumed benefit—someone who doesn’t wish to be complimented on his shirt doesn’t have to be—and a presumed drawback—someone who wishes people would notice her shirt finds that they don’t. One could say that American sexual politics are more rule-based and business less so, while the French do the opposite.

One hundred and fifty pages later, we’re still talking about the sex thing:

[Carla Bruni] didn’t seem to care what others thought of her. She reportedly told Michelle Obama that she and Sarkozy had been late to meet a foreign head of state because they were having sex, a story recounted by journalist Jonathan Alter in his book The Promise. ‘Bruni wanted to know if, like the Sarkozys, Michelle and the president had ever kept anyone waiting that way,’ Alter wrote. ‘Michelle laughed nervously and said no.’ “

It’s hard not to laugh at this paragraph, not just for the reason, but for the question that implies a shared intimacy that evidently has not quite developed, based on the adverb “nervously;” indeed, the whole book makes France sound intensely comic in a way I’d never considered before. If you want to have the stereotype that French people are busily drinking wine, having sex, and discoursing about philosophy, this is not the book for you: although Sciolino takes time to cite statistics about the fall in wine consumption (50% of earlier highs) and the prevalence of fast food (more than 1,000 McDonald’s are open for service in France), the overall feel of the anecdotes is toward whispering about sex and outrageous dalliances, even if said things are more whispered about than done.

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