Stereotypes, served with
a side of Freedom fries
Since joining Illinois Wesleyan’s faculty in 1998, Assistant Professor of French Scott
Sheridan has offered courses in French language, as well as courses in Humanities,
International Studies, Literature and Culture, and Gateway Colloquium. In spring 2004
he will offer a beginning Italian 101 language course for the first time at IWU.
The latest round of American animosity toward the French is part of a long, love–hate
relationship between the two nations, writes Assistant Professor of French Scott Sheridan.
The image of France and French culture in the U.S. is definitely one of the most complex
examples of national stereotyping that exists today. Dating back several centuries,
the notion of the French mystique has evolved steadily in the U.S. after World War
II, and the recent barrage of French-bashing Francophobia — culminating in American
Congressional cafeterias changing the name of “French fries” and “French toast” to “Freedom fries” and “Freedom toast” last March in the advent of the Iraqi War — is nothing new.
Concerning the ongoing “love/hate” relationship that Americans have toward the French,
the often-cited 1865 quote of Alexis de Tocqueville comes to mind: “The French are
at once the most brilliant and the most dangerous of all European nations, and the
best qualified to become, in the eyes of other peoples, an object of admiration, of
hatred, of compassion, or alarm — never of indifference.” This view of France l’extrme is seen in the dichotomies presented in common stereotypes: while French civilization
may be exalted as the ultimate example of Western culture, others view this perceived
sophistication as snobbery; where sexual daring can be considered playful, some claim
the French to be the original “Eurotrash.” France may be synonymous with food, art,
beauty, and sex, but it is no coincidence that French words and expressions nearly
always carry negative connotations of impropriety. Yes, we may use the adjective French
as a desirable marker, from French twist and French roast to French vanilla, but let’s
not forget about the infamous French kiss. And sure, we may say “C’est la vie,” “savoir-faire,”
and “je-ne-sais-quoi,” but we also say “risqu,” “rendez-vous,” and — please pardon
my French — “mnage--trois.”
As a French educator, these stereotypes are a phenomenon that I must deal with, both
in and out of the classroom, since these trends greatly affect students’ perceptions
of learning the French language, as well as their responsiveness to French and Francophone
cultures. Not only is understanding American public opinion toward the French key
in deciphering its effect on enrollment patterns, but a certain amount of objectivity
is required in order to put the current “difference of opinion” between the U.S. and
France into perspective.
In my opinion, France and the U.S. have a rapport based on mutual jealousy and resentment.
Whereas the United States may be jealous of France’s continuing hold over the Western
World with its “glorious past,” many Americans also resent the French insistence that
it still play a major part in world events. The French are also no doubt jealous of
the incredible influence of the U.S. in the world, and resent the fact that the U.S.
has now taken a similar position to the one that France held in centuries past.
As Adam Gopnik writes in his book Paris to the Moon, “In the last five years of the [20th] century, as the world became, by popular report,
more ‘globalized’ than it had ever been before, France became more different ... Now
Paris seemed to pass from the place where you learned how to do it to the place where
you learned how not to do it — how not to do it in the ordinary American imperial
way ...” It is in this context that France’s highly publicized anti-American trends
may be interpreted, not only as a rejection of the American cultural bulldozer (i.e.,
the influence of American movies, music, television, and pop culture in general),
but more so as a rejection of Americanization as the only model for so-called globalization,
particularly as it relates to world economics and politics.
The challenge in all of this seems to me to be at the crux of the mission of a liberal
arts institution such as IWU. We live in a country that pays lip service to “embracing
difference” and “promoting diversity,” where “political correctness” has supposedly
made it impossible to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, ethnic background,
or sexual orientation. However, this is apparently the same country that, when confronted
with conflict and opposition, delights in and in fact promotes discrimination based
on nationality, and the French remain a favorite punching bag. My Gateway Colloquium,
“Ooh l l: The French Mystique in American Pop Culture,” has been an excellent opportunity for
me to take advantage of the complexities of French stereotypes in order to help students
build critical thinking, writing, and reading skills, while examining attitudinal
stereotypes and, in many cases, fighting them, as well as carefully considering other
points of view. Simply put, for me teaching — whether first-year courses in Gateway
Colloquia or so-called “foreign” languages — is an opportunity to teach tolerance;
what Molly McLay, one of my students last fall, referred to as learning to become
“culturally and globally aware.”