Reckoning with my Asian-ness: In Dialogue with de Beauvoir and Deneuve

Close to half a year ago, the #MeToo movement, originally coined by African-American activist Tarana Burke, became a hashtag, on Twitter. The rest— tell-all exposés and counter-movements by third-wave feminists— is history. But how many people remember that it began with a woman of colour, largely ignored by white feminists, until now? Narratives of sexual harassment as told by the media seem to play down intersectional experiences, glossing over how the race factor complicates an already polarising debate. While I don’t— and can’t— speak for all women of colour, this article makes a foray into French feminism, with anecdotes about how my Asian-ness has coloured my experiences of sexual harassment in this country.

“Is there such a thing as French feminism?” I wondered to myself, after the strongly worded, badly translated Le Monde Op-Ed widely attributed to French actress Catherine Deneuve, was published. Signed by a hundred leading women in French showbiz, this piece pushed back against a “puritanical” and “Victorian” over-reaction to sexual harassment. Decrying that “knee-touching, flirty texts, inappropriate sexual content in dinner party conversations” were now vilified as sexual harassment, the authors sought to nuance what they deemed too loose a definition of assault. Interpreted by the Anglo-Saxon press as “libertarian”, these women defend a version of feminism that protects liberty and gallantry.

My skimpy understanding of what this implied required me to delve deeper into the cultural roots of French feminism. The much-valued concept of liberty stems from the centre-piece of 17th and 18th century French literature, the salon. As French historian Emmanuelle Retaillaud argues, the salon was very much the site of free and fair exchange between the sexes. While their husbands and lovers wielded the levers of power in court, aristocratic French women, such as Madame de Pompadour and Madame de Staël ran a more refined version of the talk shop. Sexual freedom was in vogue, women and men were free to mix, and everyone was fashionable. Olympe de Gouges brazenly challenged the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document published in 1791, which conveniently left out half of the population, denying them enfranchisement. Her rival declaration, a parody of the original piece, except in the name of women, is one of my favourite historical documents of all time. Surely if this is what French women mean by feminism, this outcry must be overrated.

But I remained unconvinced. No matter how leniently we translate “liberté d’importuner”, it doesn’t erase the implication, that men are cast in the role of the aggressor and women, the passive receptor. That Op-Ed itself admits that women’s liberty to “say no to a sexual proposition” cannot work without men’s liberty to “importune”. In its most innocent incarnation, importuning means “to annoy”, but it can carry violent and sexual connotations, of “making repeated, forceful requests”, or propositioning someone for sex, “in return for payment”. While sexual harassment does occur on a scale, regardless of which shade of meaning we adopt, the fact that men should be entitled to importune women, disturbs me deeply.

Another contention I have with the Deneuve piece, is how it equates getting riled up over the Weinstein scandal with conforming to the demeaning stereotype of women as “eternelles victimes”, enchained and under the spell of “phallic demons”  (their words, not mine). In French feminism, the empowered, liberated women, needs no man. Or rather, she needs a man, but she is simultaneously prey and predator according to the giantess of French existentialism, Simone de Beauvoir. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir describes the duality of attraction, “men’s stares flatter and hurt her simultaneously— she wants only what she shows to be seen”. In this vein, “dress can be a weapon of conquest”.

Before we jump to conclusions, that women need to make up their minds whether to play the harlot or the madonna, it is important to acknowledge how much of a debt we owe to French feminists, for emphasising that power ultimately lies in the hands of the woman, who chooses how much flesh she flashes and how many heads she turns. Thanks Simone, for letting me get away with mini skirts and Bardot tops!

Turning away from theory, let’s talk about my “Asian-ness” now. In our collective imagination, hemlines and make-up remain the usual culprits, evidence that she was asking-for-it. But while I can take off my make-up, or put on some pants, I can’t change the colour of my skin, or the shape of my eyes.

Maybe I won’t get slut-shamed for being Asian, but whenever some stranger shouts “你好, konichiwa”, and similar greetings in languages I don’t speak, I wonder how much of this unwanted attention is the result of my female-ness, and how much is due to my “Asiatic features.”

It’s hard to subscribe to French feminism’s concept of the liberated woman, who has the “right to say no.” Did I?  I think about the little boy who threw left-over confetti from a festival at me, even after I shielded myself in protest. It makes me sad, that I have to question whether a male child meant any harm. It makes me sadder, when a harried-looking grandmother, being pelted by confetti by another little boy, pointed to me, and told him, to attack me (“là, la jeune fille!”) instead. This time, I said no, or rather, I said “No, merci” and walked away.

Sometimes, the attacks are not just fun and games, with harmless old people and little kids. While rushing to catch the first train departing for Nice, so that we would make it in time for our train to Avignon, a man started harassing me and my roommate. To this day, I have no idea who he was, a faceless man whose features I was too afraid to even peer at, in the pre-dawn darkness. Bogeyman or drunkard, he started hollering at us. We didn’t respond. Two minutes away from the train station, my roommate told me to run. Even before I could say no, this man wouldn’t take our refusal for an answer. He ran after us, shouting expletives, and only relented, after he saw that there were other people at the train station. I don’t want to think about what would have happened, if we had been alone.

When Bad Things happen, you question whether men and white women see you as an easy target, because your Asian-ness makes you more “docile” and “passive”. I used to keep track of every sexual harassment incident, but I’ve lost count by now. Walking the empty streets at 5am, and not letting the risk of being harassed deter me from taking a well-deserved holiday, may count as being the uninhibited, free woman beloved by French feminism. But would a French, white woman face the same amount of danger as a woman of colour? I’m not sure.

Just like how a leopard can’t change its spots, I can’t just shrug off every micro-aggression that comes my way, pretending that racism no longer exists. The Asian label is particularly pernicious, when Asian women are still expected to live up to outdated American stereotypes of the “model minority”. In France, Asian women still retain an aura of sexiness, that je-ne-sais-quoi appeal of the Oriental woman that Western men of the last century encountered in their exploits overseas. The exotic, lady in the streets/ freak in the sheets trope is romanticised on the stage, in the form of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and the musical Miss Saigon. If you want to see how Orientalism looks like in real life, take a look at the fast-food chains in France that claim to sell Asian food. One place, which I’ll rather not name, is tastelessly decorated with paintings of scantily clad or topless Asian women. Intrigued by a dish labeled as Singaporean rice, I gave them a chance. For dinner that day, I had Disappointment, served on a plate of frozen peas and burnt rice. More bitter, however, was the memory of seeing my culture fetishised and caught in the throes of yellow fever.  

I don’t consider myself a champion of the Asian community. Identifying as Asian only happened after I left my Chinese-majority hometown of Singapore for one of the whitest towns in France. Perhaps this is Howard Becker’s Labelling Theory at its finest. But such a defence is needed, when advertisements still pop up, primed by geo-location and algorithms, to display what they think will appeal to you. My roommate, in October last year, was simply binge watching The Big Bang Theory, when an advertisement (see below) popped up, thinking that “Sexy Asian Women in Menton” were “cool stuff” we would like. Evidently not.

I’m not that liberated French woman, and I can never be. Ironically, despite living in the country that prides itself on “liberty, equality, and fraternity”, my body is more policed than ever. Not by anyone else—by myself. My nervous habit of looking back while walking home at night, regardless of whether I’m alone or not, regardless of whether the streets are full, is permanently here to stay. I’m not fully dressed— without a nervous smile.

Deneuve and Co. warn that a culture that names and shames men will install a “totalitarian climate”, creating a society in which “public confessions and the incursion of prosecutors into the private sphere”, reign supreme. A life of terror may be a man’s (and some French feminist’s) worst nightmare, but it is the reality that I re-live, cat-call after cat-call.

by Jessie Lim

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