This morning, I headed out to a certain French Bank to open a checking account. What I expected: tedious and confusing explanations of technicalities. What I didn’t expect: an insulting debate on feminism.
To backtrack a bit, I have to return to a memory from 2005. I had just arrived in Paris to study, and was getting acquainted with my host family. They were a very bourgeois, academic clan, living in a grand, but deteriorating apartment in the Latin Quarter. I immediately felt odd off the bat—it was something about my oversized sunglasses, cherry-glossed lips, and vintage dresses that communicated a girly superficiality and a bubbly demeanor that was not to be taken seriously. Une naive, quoi.
One evening, everyone else was out, so my host sister, a pretentious 26-year-old design snob, and I began to prepare dinner. We had gotten off to a particularly rocky start, and I could tell she purposefully spoke too fast for me. She asked me what I planned to do after graduation, what I wanted to become.
"I don’t know…" I answered hesitantly, without much vocabulary for explaining. "I think I could probably start off at a women’s magazine, maybe become an editor or a writer for one."
She laughed out loud. “Why would you want to do that? So you can produce bullshit and lead a superficial life?”
Sheesh. Now, and even at the time, I wasn’t a ladymag proponent, but it seemed like a probable, and respectable start. I couldn’t find the words to defend myself, so I shrugged my shoulders, and dug into her salty and crappy quiche. (That sounds dirty, oops.)
Jumping forward to today: I was greeted for my appointment at The Bank by a hyperactive gentleman in a pink blouse and purple striped tie, carrying an open bag of pink Haribo gummy candies.
"Ah! You’re my 10 o’clock!" he said as he rushed up and shuffled to a halt. "Want a candy?" he asked while gnawing on one inside his cheeck, extending the sack. I politely declined.
As we sat down, he naturally detected my accent and asked my nationality. Américaine, I replied, to which he asked me what I was doing in Paris. I told him I was a freelance writer, that I wrote for publications for women.
"Boff!" he guffawed. "Pour les femmes? Pour les filles? C’est horrible, ça!”
My mind went blank…did he really just insult his client like that?
"So for women’s magazines?" he prodded. "What kinds of articles do you write?"
"It depends…fashion, mainly. Sometimes love, relationships, well-being."
He made the typical French expression to punctuate the subject: an exaggerated frown accented by a raising of the eyebrows, a sticking out of the chin, raising the shoulders, and a soft “puh” sound expelling from his lips.
I at first let it go, seeing as his jolly demeanor was making the process a bit easier on me (I was expecting a stern bank employee, exasperated at having to explain things a bit slowly). Yet, he kept dropping little things here and there—personal remarks, or questions about my life, that inserted a sexual quality into the dialogue. He was hitting on me. Now I was pissed.
He left the desk to go make photocopies, and when he came back, I asked, “Je peux vous poser une question, monsieur?”
"Ouuuui," he said with a smile.
"Quand je vous ai expliqué que j’écris pour les publications pour les femmes, pourquoi vous dites que c’est ‘horrible’?" Why’d you say it’s horrible that I write for women…
"Ah! Bahah…" he laughed nervously, trying to pass it off as a joke. "C’était pas ça. Vous savez, en France, les hommes sont les mysogènes." In France, the men are misogynists.
"Well, I see you’re not doing much to change that image."
"Behhh, no I kid a bit, but why does it matter? Women can do as much as men can now, feminism in France doesn’t have to be like that. You see, even when I put your profession in the system, we put écrivain not écrivaine. It’s built upon the patriarchy.”
Maybe that’s so in America, too. But at least bank tellers don’t act like it’s still a simple fact. Enough. ”Fine. I said. I guess I’m finding that feminism in France is different than in the States.”
"Yes, in the States, feminism is so stereotypical." Oh. Mon. Dieu. Quel con. And didn’t he say before that he’d hardly been to the U.S.? Hypocrite.
He got up again to go confer with a colleague about a potential problem with my account. He returned with a smile.
"Ok! It’s fine. I got the directrice to fix the issue even though you would have probably had to go to the other agènce.” He paused. “Vous voyez…la directrice? Elle est une femme forte, la directrice.” She’s a strong woman.
As if to say, Haha! I proved you wrong! There is feminism in France, young mademoiselle. It just takes a man to show you.
This coming from the guy in a pink shirt and purple tie, I thought. He’d do good to learn a lesson about what Americans think of French men.