French Women Are Sexier? Quelle Merde !

I’m at a dinner party in Sag Harbor.

The puckish, balding man with an electric grin-slightly wild, slightly wacky, a

comedian with a tragic sense-says to me: “Ah, French women. They are so

beautiful; they know how to keep themselves beautiful for men. They want to

attract us no matter how old they are. They keep themselves up. Do you know,”

he asks me, “what their mothers told them?” Being a dowdy American, I don’t.

“‘Shoes and hair,’” he replies. That’s what French women know and American

women don’t. I look puzzled. I have combed my hair and am wearing my favorite

pair of sandals, with daisies on the top and little heels that clop in a

follow-me sort of manner as I walk. He goes on: Of course, French women are

jealous of Italian women. French women are perfectly gorgeous, but Italian

women are really pretty (the French are not naturally pretty, that is). “Really?” I say. Then I dare it: “How about American women?”

He shrugs as if considering the last candy in a box. “After a certain age,

American women stop caring about themselves. They seem to think it’s not worth

it. They have no interest in us, in appealing to us.”

This man spent a good part of his adult life as an

expatriate in Paris. He longs to

return. Paris is perfect. America

is second-rate. Sag Harbor is limbo. He is an expert on

watching women pass by. He is also a writer. (It is far better to read writers

than to have dinner with them. I already know that.) “Ah,” he says again. “French women are so wonderful; they know all the

secrets. They take time over themselves.” The feminist in me rises to the bait.

The women of the world are placed on this earth to appeal to this fellow’s eye.

He sees us parade before him in grand, general categories and judges us not on

our personal virtues-aesthetic, spiritual or intellectual-but on how much

effort we make to appeal to him. The feminist in me considers dumping the soup

in his lap. The guest in me smiles politely.

I know this Europhilia. It is a part of my generation’s

snobbery, in which everything American once seemed flat, homogenized and

without patina while everything European-from the blue packets of Gauloises to

the baguettes-seemed heaven-sent, flavored with centuries of civilization,

reeking of Picasso and Goethe, Thomas Mann and Proust .

In our 20′s it seemed as if every cup of coffee sipped in a Paris

café added sophistication and wit to the body. Even if one hadn’t actually met

Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, one could imagine them passing by,

sitting near, doing the brilliant things that Sorbonne graduates did. Even if

Hemingway was long gone and Fitzgerald had cracked up and Gertrude Stein was

not intelligible no matter how hard you tried, being in Europe made one finer,

purer, less a creature of the philistine, boorish, McCarthy-plagued country of

one’s origin, and more mysterious. And, yes, sexier. When I was 21 and in Paris,

I could feel my soul turning colors like the rose window at Notre Dame.

But in the autumn of my life, dining in Sag

Harbor, I can’t restrain myself. I remind the gushing Europhile

that these wonderful French women are the daughters of women who passed by the

railroad stations in which Jewish children were held, waiting to be shipped to

the slaughterhouse. I remind him that the French, with all their fine perfume,

put up only a small resistance to the forces of darkness. He knows that. I know

he does. He waves his hand to brush away my comment. This has nothing to do

with pulchritude, flirtation, attraction. I suppose it doesn’t. But cultures in

which women know how to do their hair and what shoes make their legs most comely

are not necessarily safe houses for the rest of us.

“In America,”

he says, “the women have given up. They don’t know how to flirt.” “Is that so?”

I wonder. In northern Minnesota

winters, do the women-peering out from under the fake-fur trim on the hoods of

their parkas-not know how to invite a fellow to the nearest diner for a cup of

coffee? Does it make any sense that women drinking beer at a roadhouse in rural

Tennessee don’t know how to make

a guy want to put his hand on the back of their jeans? I am sure the Inuits,

who don’t have the opportunity to wear Eres bathing suits, manage to

communicate interest, love, passion, lust just as well

as any denizen of the Deux Magots.

This put-down of America

comes from people who haven’t seen the Grand Canyon or

the forests of Montana, or the

Sierras or the mesas or the red rocks of Sedona. It ignores the fact that

democracy was our creation. America,

for all its crassness, its big companies, its cruelties to timber, animals and

people, serves as an ideal for the rest of the world. In the years when Europe

remained frozen in caste systems, it provided opportunity for those at the

bottom of the social scale. America

is not fundamentally xenophobic. For all its racism, it fights against racism.

Our homegrown skinheads have never won a majority in the government of any

town, village or city. This can’t be said of Europe. Our

Catholics and Protestants don’t kill each other. We have religion without

religious wars. This dislike of things American (including our women) comes

from people who think that all the villagers in the Dordogne

are humming Mozart and reciting Dante as they walk their cypress-lined roads.

But they’re just as likely to have seen The

Terminator . The reason American television and movies are so popular in Europe

is because they are appealingly alive and win out over the local fare. They are not corrupting finer spirits

with their cultural triumphalism.

I would suggest that American women of all ages, whether in

jeans or the latest fashions from Barneys, reek of sex, beckon men, are interested in the scent of the other, in the chase.

Whether it’s on Madison Avenue or Main Street U.S.A., American women have their

own wiles, and only a lost soul whose roots have been cut would hang about

Paris drooling over their women, who are very likely not drooling back.

Today we shiver at this open talk of the male gaze-the way

those eyes turn us into a passing herd of objects. American women know that the

secret isn’t in the hair or the shoes but in the soul, the way it shines its

light, the integrity and beauty of its capacity to love and be loved. Real

American men know that, too. The advice I passed on to my daughters is “brains

and character.” Nevertheless they do, I admit, seem very interested in shoes

and hair.

The next day, in Amagansett, there was a great bargain

designer-shoe sale at the American Legion Hall. Boxes and boxes of DKNY,

Priori, Stuart Weitzman, Charles David, etc. seemed to have fallen off a truck.

My daughters and I were there first thing in the morning. It never hurts to

have a new pair of sassy shoes to carry one’s brains about.