Miles Coverdale (manos74) wrote,
Miles Coverdale

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Defending the French

"Dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog. Nobody really wants to see it, and the frog seldom survives."
--E.B. White

Why do we enjoy making fun of the French so much? (By "we," I'm talking about mainstream-culture Americans.)

These thoughts are occasioned from the comedy show last night, wherein were made many jokes at the expense of France and its people (or, as they called the French last night, "cheese-eating rifle-droppers"). And I'm curious about what makes France such an easy mark for American humor.

This humor seems to be based on the common American stereotypes of French people:
1) They're rude.
2) They're cowardly in battle.
3) They smell bad and the women don't shave.

So, let's take these stereotypes in order.

First, they're rude. It's my perception that most Americans only know France from popular images of Paris. It might be helpful to remember that Parisians act very much the same as New Yorkers--they live in a Big Important World-Famous City, and everywhere else is just Hicksville. So, it's partly that (my dad, who's travelled extensively in France, assures me that "Parisians think they're God's gift to everyone. They're rude and snotty to everyone, not just Americans.").

And this leads me to the other part. Given that quite a few Americans insist that any and all visitors to this country demonstrate a fluency in English, it surprises me that they consider it perfectly reasonable to insist that any and all citizens of a foreign country demonstrate the same skill.

Consider this stereotypical exchange, inspired by David Sedaris:

Tourist: Bring me a steak.
Waiter: Quoi?
Waiter: Qu'est-ce que l'enfer que tu dire, putain?
Tourist: HEY!! Don't you cop that attitude with me, buddy--if it wasn't for my grandaddy, you'd all be speaking GERMAN!!

Which brings me right along to the second stereotype. First off, where do we get the idea that the French enjoy surrendering at the drop of a hat? Well, probably from the fact that in 1940, Nazi Germany was able to conquer France completely in about six weeks (coupled with the near-success of the Germans in the Great War, and I suppose for completeness' sake we ought to mention that the Prussians were able to humiliate them during the summer of 1870, even though hardly anyone remembers that little fracas).

Well, something hardly anyone seems to remember is that the Nazis did the exact same thing to most other countries in Europe as well. I think it begs the question: Why do we consider the French cowardly, but not the Polish, Norwegians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, or Russians? The Blitzkrieg was able to conquer the first four countries in less time than France, and during the summer of 1941 more Soviet soldiers surrendered than French ones did in the previous spring. And if we're going to be complete about it--the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 was routed just as completely as the French army; the French just didn't have the luxury of having another country to escape to. Why, then, don't we consider the British equally as cowardly?

Or, for that matter-why don't we consider the Americans as cowardly for not being able to hold in the face of the Blitzkrieg? Remember that in December 1944, the German Ardennes Offensive (which both my grandfathers were caught in) was able to capture or rout at least three entire American divisions (for the non-military among us, that's roughly thirty thousand soldiers). What's that I hear? Oh, this doesn't count because the British, Americans, and Soviets were able to strike back and conquer Germany? Well, lest you forget, so did the Free French under De Gaulle.

Consider this: During the first year of Great War, the French army lost more soldiers than the American army would in all of the twentieth century--most of whom were killed making futile attacks against the German onslaught. Given this, the Maginot line, the quagmire of Vietnam, the foot-dragging reluctance to acknowlege that Alfred Dreyfus was wronged--France has made many bad military decisions. But they are not cowardly. If you want to criticize the French army, it would be better to look at the war in Algeria during the 1950s and 60s, where hundreds of civilians were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the French colonial administration.

Of course, it seems that these stereotypes are coming back again because Jacques Chirac isn't going along with the War on Terrorism's Gulf War 2: Electric Bushaloo. And that, I think, goes right to the core of the disagreements between France and the US--namely, Charles de Gaulle's refusal to let France be a rubber stamp for American foreign policy like the rest of NATO was. In short, France wants to do what it considers the right thing to do, whether or not this goes along with American goals. This is what's known as "national self-determination," and it's one of the things we "officially" fought World War Two for. And yet, the Bush administration seems not to be very mindful of this fact. It's almost as if the United States is saying "You are all free countries. Free to swear fealty to us."

So, finally, we come to the third stereotype of French people. And all I can say is: What the fuck? I mean, what the fucking fuck? It's supposed to be a bad thing when women don't shave their legs or armpits? American standards of aesthetics are crazy sometimes. *toctoctoc*
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