In recent months it’s felt as if some film and television directors are on a mission to show young working- and middle-class women how to avoid a future of pointless studies (or none) followed by years of dreary low-paid work. The directors aren’t encouraging women to bother their pretty little heads with analysing their situation politically — what good would that do? The world has always been divided into rich and poor (though the rich are getting richer, and the poor poorer). And why worry when you’ve got all you need to make a success of life — youth, health, looks?
Take the recent film 17 Girls by Delphine and Muriel Coulin, inspired by the story of 17 US high school students who became pregnant at the same time (2008): the directors transposed the story to the French seaport of Lorient, and presented a romanticised version of teenage pregnancy as a rebellion against the stuffy world of parents and teachers. Of course, claiming that teenage motherhood is subversive ignores the extent to which popular culture in the US — and in Europe — has promoted it for years. There was the 2007 US film Juno, then the MTV series Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant; French television had 16 Ans… et bientôt maman (16 and soon to be a mother), Clem, Maman trop tôt! (Clem, a mother too soon) and Ados et déjà mamans (Teens and already mothers). The song Aurélieby Colonel Reyel had 23m hits on YouTube, to the delight of anti-abortionists: “Aurélie is only 16 and expecting a baby / Her friends and family say she should get an abortion / She doesn’t agree, she sees things differently / She says she feels ready to be called Mummy…”
The celebrity mag view of a charmed life (carefree pregnancy, happy families) suggests motherhood is a woman’s greatest achievement. Despite this cultural climate, the statistics remain stable for the moment: there are around 4,000 teenage births every year in France, 10 times fewer than in the US. But women may find staying at home more attractive now that they are more likely to have to work part-time, or for low wages: employment no longer guarantees female financial independence.
Of course there’s always a way to earn — on your back. The newly released film Elles, by Malgoska Szumowska, is about student prostitution, which is growing so fast that some universities have launched campaigns against it. One of its two female leads is supposed to have grown up on a council estate, and is studying for university entrance exams but doesn’t have time to revise because she’s exhausted from working in fast-food restaurants. The other has just arrived from Poland, and finds renting a room in Paris expensive. They begin selling themselves, and are then contacted by a journalist (Juliette Binoche), portrayed as uptight, prejudiced and sexually unfulfilled because she has never sold herself. Elles perpetuates all the old misogynist clichés: bourgeois men (clients) are sensitive and unhappy; bourgeois women are grotesque, responsible for their own frustration because they can’t understand that a woman’s duty is to give, and satisfaction must come from giving, not taking, pleasure.
The film says that prostitution and its female subordination are the truth of sexuality, and it sentimentalises and romanticises them: scenes with clients are touching, charming, mischievous, with love songs and a guitar. A feature, “Call Girls”, in the magazine L’Express (8 February 2012), took a similar view: “The stylish, liberated Amazon has found her place in the ABC of being a woman, in the same way as … a single mother — which she sometimes is, owing to straitened circumstances.” There’s delicate language!
On 4 February Next, fashion supplement of Libération, featured former upmarket prostitute Zahia Dehar, famous for sleeping with a French football player when she was under 18, and her move into upmarket lingerie. Karl Lagerfeld said she came from a “long line of French courtesans”, a “purely French tradition that the whole world has admired and copied”. The piece called Dehar’s story “a modern fairy tale”, “a breath of fresh air in a class-bound society” — so there’s no glass ceiling after all.
Though not everyone will be seduced by Dehar’s story, the media go on encouraging women to cultivate themselves as objects rather than people, promoting the idea that fashion and beauty are keys to social advancement. The financial crisis and the lack of individual and collective prospects seem to have revived an archaic femininity, seen as an asset in a ruthless, competitive society — whether as a way of withdrawing from that society (as a housewife) or establishing oneself in it (as a femme fatale). Either way it defines itself in relation to the needs and expectations of others.
“Far from the ideals … of strong, intellectual, free women, femininity now seems to have only one definition — seduction — and has only one aim — motherhood. Men and children first!” writes the psychologist Maryse Vaillant, who regards this definition as a criticism of the intellect and the sexuality of her peers. Dehar toldNext that when she was young, in Algeria, she was top of her class, liked maths and dreamed of becoming an airline pilot.