Some French women say 'puritanism' in American feminism threatens sexual liberty

Catherine Deneuve

 Victimizing, androphobic, totalitarian and puritanical.

This is how a number of prominent women in France see American feminism.

While clamors of “Oprah 2020” echo around the United States following Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday, some women in France are deriding what they describe as a new strand of American feminism.

In the French magazine, Causeur, author Vida Azimi mocks the fact that show-biz women wore black at the ceremony. She questions what there is to mourn and contends that women are actually going through a regression. “We thought they were in charge of their lives,” she wrote, “and there they are, confessing they were cowardly and paid a high price for what one calls ‘success.’” Another author decries this brand of feminism as encouraging self-victimization and aiming to be “androphobic.”

Causeur founder and director Élisabeth Lévy speaks of the rise of “totalitarian feminism,” which she says will not tolerate a difference of opinion. She deplores the #BalanceTonPorc ("expose your pig") social media campaign as the result of what she calls “2017, the year of the snitches.”

Lévy is one of the 100 prominent women who signed (alongside revered actress Catherine Deneuve) the much-decried manifesto criticizing the #MeToo movement in the daily, Le Monde, this week. On Friday, Lévy reacted to the manifesto’s critics, saying, “For two months, we’ve had an earful about the liberation of women’s speech,” adding, “Except we forgot to read the small print stating this liberated speech must strictly follow the guidelines established by the guardians of feminism. All women are therefore required to proclaim freely that they are victims, at least potentially [...].”

Related: Has the #MeToo movement gone too far or not enough?

For the women who penned the manifesto, the threat of "puritanism" in post-#MeToo feminism is a threat to sexual liberty.

They wrote: "it is the essence of puritanism to borrow, in the name of so-called greater good, arguments about the protection and liberation of women, only to better chain them to the status of eternal victims, like small, frail things, under the spell of phallocratic demons, as in the days of witch hunts."

Politician Clémentine Autain responded with a history and meaning of "puritanism." Among contemporary synonyms, she said, are “chaste, prude, moralistic, modest […]. How could a movement demanding the end of violent and dominating relations and reclaiming women’s emancipation be accused of being puritanical?”

As an aside, in France, "puritanical" is a word one throws around to imply, "We Latins will not fall for backward and repressive American nonsense; we're above it all." But it is clear the women behind Le Monde’s open letter fear a moralistic threat lurks ahead.

Related: Cartoonists respond to the French open letter critical of the #MeToo movement;

Journalist Anne-Élisabeth Moutet said in a Jan. 11 interview on PRI’s The World that many of the signatories to the manifesto are old enough to remember a major turning point of the 1960s. “This was started by women who remember the sexual revolution,” she said, “and we thought that was a great deal of progress; we wouldn’t like to backtrack through that.”

Listen to Moutet below:

But in spite of this clash of opinions, there may be a way to consensus in sight.

French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani published an op-ed in the daily, Libération, on Friday, which seems to synthesize the points heard on all sides of the debate since the manifesto's publication.

In it, she said, “I am not a victim. But millions of women are. It’s a fact and not a moral judgment […].”

Slimani made a plea for a near future in which women could lead lives without worrying about the consequences of simple, independent choices.

"Walk around the streets. Ride the metro at night,” she said. “Wear a miniskirt and high heels, show cleavage. […] Flirt with a man, change my mind and move on […]. Nurse my child in public. Ask for a raise. In all these life’s moments, daily and banal, I am claiming the right to not be pestered. The right to not even think about it. I claim the freedom to not get comments on my behavior, my clothes, my way of walking, the shape of my buttocks, the size of my breasts. I claim my right to peacefulness, to solitude, the right to keep going without fear.”

And thinking of future generations of women, she added, “I hope someday, my daughter will walk around all night wearing a miniskirt and a décolletage, that she will travel the world on her own, that she will ride the metro at midnight without fear, without even thinking about it. The world in which she will live then will not be a puritanical one.”

Adeline Sire reported from France.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.