Friday, July 22, 2011

French Misrepresentation in U.S. culture mid-20th century

When I was growing up I was exposed to stereotypes of a wide variety of people via popular media. These messages were of course untrue and unfair but some of them were so distorted and pervasive so as stick with me and many other kids of my generation for a long time. One of them dealt with the French, particularly French men. The juvenile American television, movies and cartoons I watched caricatured males from this country to the point of ridicule. I've met plenty of Frenchmen throughout my life who are no different from American, English or Australian men, but as a boy I was left with the impression that French men were weak, effeminate and overly emotional. 

Kids growing up in the U.S. in the mid 20th century were told repeatedly that the French man was a namby-pamby weakling. They were often either artists or chefs or some other occupation stereo-typically associated with women and they displayed this in their interpersonal behavior, for example when they cried if they heard the French song, 'The Marseilles'. 

Additionally, most French men in comedies, dramas or (especially) cartoons had what we might consider thin and very weak mustaches. While Americans had Mark Twain or Teddy Roosevelt mustaches, strong and thick and robust as the American west, the French either had pencil-thin mustaches or goatees or something that seemed to violate an American sense of virility.

This caricature of French males could have grown out of government propaganda just after the Second World War, perhaps because of the American GI rescue or maybe it came from some personal vendetta among those in Hollywood and other media production types. I suppose it grew out of a young America seeing France overrun twice in the first half of the century.

There were some notable exceptions to this unfair media stereotyping. One was the French-Canadian lumberjack type who appeared in several cartoons of the period. He was an unshaven, burly guy who wore a knit hat and plaid hunting jacket. Two other exceptions, the Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau and Warner Brothers' French skunk, Pepe Le Pew, defied most of the messages that Frenchmen were lily-livered weaklings, although neither was terribly masculine like John Wayne or James Bond. And both perpetuated the bumbling idiot portrayal of French males to  American men.
The stereotype sometimes suggested homosexuality or hyper-sexuality (as we see in the Warner Brothers' Pepe Le Pew). I've nothing against French men or gay men but it reminds me of a bit of graffiti I once saw in a Baltimore restroom:

"Brian Murphy slept here with 4 french sailors and is still a virgin."

There were four of them.
They were sailors.
They were French.
And they still turned down Brian Murphy

1 comment:

Jed Davis said...

Brian Murphy? That guy owes me money!