Strauss-Kahn ends an era.
If you study the greeting cards in the Father’s Day section of your drugstore, you’ll see that they tend to exhibit a consistent iconography. There are the references to beer and golf, those conventional displacements for the marauding, nomadic male. There are the drab browns, greens, and ochres meant to contrast the prettiness of Mother’s Day pink. But the predominant images on these cards are of domestic pastimes: dads reading bedtime stories and playing catch with the kids; dads wearing aprons and funny hats at family barbecues; dads sprawled, exhausted, on the couch watching TV. Father’s Day celebrates the domesticated male, and what the cards don’t show, under any circumstances, are babes. This is why, I surmise, the French came to Father’s Day later than we did. The Fête des Pères is celebrated in France, but it is one of those cases of French imitation of an American model.
At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be a man in the two cultures. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a strong and effective leader of the IMF, a post that has always been occupied by a European male of a similar stripe. This means: successful and sexually commanding. Sexual aggression in France is a kind of accessory to success. Like a pair of supple Armani shoes, it completes the outfit. "I'm even proud of [his sexual escapades]," his wife is quoted to have said once. "It's important to seduce for a politician." The droit du seigneur (or right of the lord of an estate to have his way with any peasant on it) is a French phrase, not by accident.
The difference is also enshrined in the literary canon. In the English tradition — and the Brits, as their refusal of the Euro tells us, are not really European but proto-American — the concentration is on courtship and marriage. In the French tradition, it is on adultery. As was explained to me when I lived in France some years back, a man with a mistress is normal—which is why no one in France batted an eyelash when, on the death of President and alleged Resistance hero Francois Mitterrand, a second wife and child showed up at the funeral. During the Clinton-Lewinski scandal, the French were bemused by American outrage. What was all the fuss about? Clinton’s indulging himself with an available young woman? C’est normal. That Lewinski happened to be the age of his daughter, something we Americans noted with disgust, didn’t seem to bother the French. The ethos of Father’s Day, one might conclude, was not as embedded in the cultural consciousness.
It may seem odd that a country that endured a violent revolution on behalf of human rights would be more profoundly wedded to sexual difference than countries such as the U.S. and Great Britain, neither of which ever fought for liberté, égalité, fraternité. Perhaps it is the fraternité that makes for a blind spot. Or perhaps the French Revolution was so scary that the country lost its reformist will. Although England was an imperialist power and America had slavery, both countries have moved more steadily and fluidly toward revising gender stereotypes.
That said, I must acknowledge that the matter is not a simple one. I may seem to be wagging my finger at the French for their sexual attitudes, but the fact is that I am also a fervent Francophile and much that I love about France is connected precisely to its failure to incorporate male domestication into its cultural zeitgeist. For there is in the French insistence on gender dichotomy something deeply alluring, making the jettisoning of it more difficult and, thus, leaving an opening for the sort of egregious behavior that DSK is accused of.
Virginia Woolf understood this when, in her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own,” she described the end of an era for her culture. Much of her essay is about women’s struggle for equality early in the 20th century, particularly on the literary front. She includes a riff in which she imagines how a sister of Shakespeare would have suffered had she tried to exist as an independent creative woman in her time. “Judith Shakespeare,” says Woolf, would have been dismissed, exploited, raped. And yet, even as Woolf describes such horrors from the past, she also writes nostalgically about life before World War I, when the sexual tension between men and women was productive of a lyrical and passionate literature, one she associates with two great 19th-century poets, Christina Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson. She asks wistfully:
Why has Alfred ceased to sing
She is coming, my dove, my dear?
Why has Christina ceased to respond
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me?
Shall we lay the blame on the war? When the guns fired in August 1914, did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other’s eyes that romance was killed?
The fact is that the call and response Woolf describes in this passage as having come to an end in England with the Great War did not come to an end on the Continent. Those romantic cadences can still be heard in France. Walk down the street and see how men look at women. Sit in a café and watch how a flirtation commences. You don’t even have to be young and pretty. French men will flirt with you on the simple assumption that you have a vagina.It is in the context of this heightened sense of sexual difference, this culture of sexual gamesmanship, that the act committed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn becomes more explicable. To rape a chambermaid in a fancy New York hotel may seem the epitome of anti-romance, but it stems from the same impulse that fuels romance. I suspect that DSK saw the woman who came in to change the sheets on his bed as a mysterious but available stranger; he assumed that she would enter into his fantasy, given the powerful man he was. Doesn't French bedroom farce provide the blueprint for the scenario? Even Strauss-Kahn’s wife, once one of France’s most respected and important television personalities, was, we are told, "subjugated by his intelligence and charm." The French dictionary gives the first definitions for the verb subjuguer (to subjugate) as séduire (to seduce). This captures the pleasure that the French feel accompanies capitulation (stereotypically, of course, female capitulation). Consider the recent French bestseller, How to Dress Like a Frenchwoman. Why, one must stop and ask, would want to dress like a Frenchwomen if not in order to be perfectly self-objectified, exquisitely made over to the specifications of the male gaze? France has made a point of banning the Islamic veil, a mode of dress that reflects a separate spheres ideology at its most extreme, but this may be because the culture, infused with sexual difference, finds it wasteful to underline the fact. The veil also, incidentally, prevents the sort of ogling that Frenchmen feel is their droit du seigneur.
The uproar over Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s behavior strikes me as marking a possible turning point in Gallic culture — and in Continental European culture more generally, if we consider the Italian Prime Minister's recent travails. Both these men are being taken to task for behaving in the way that men in their cultures have long been expected to behave. But just as the rules of the global marketplace are changing, so are the rules of gender behavior, even in France. The next head of the IMF may, for the first time, be a Turk, a Chinese, an African — and possibly a woman, a Frenchwoman at that. The French may finally be taking a hard look at gender behavior — resulting in more gender equity, though less romance.
My French friend tells me opinions on DSK’s ordeal has undergone an evolution in the short period of its press coverage — from sympathy with the suspect and disdain for American police procedure to national self-examination and mea culpa. Let’s see what the prevailing view is on June 19, Father’s Day. • 27 May 2011
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on over 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Jack the Ripper and Henry James. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Article photo via International Monetary Fund / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0