Opinion: The myth of the French “superwoman” – a German obsession?

Rebecca is a Modern Languages student, currently on her year abroad in France.


A long-standing rivalry


Looking back across history, it is safe to say that France and Germany have never had the smoothest of relationships. Established as notable Erbfeinde (‘sworn enemies’) during the Franco-Prussian War, oppositionality reared its head once again during WW1 before taking on a new, more complex, and internally divisive turn two decades later. Flash forward to the 21st century and it would appear that the two nations are perhaps the final pillars of the European dream.


Whilst these two neighbouring nations, both steeped in a rich political, cultural and social history, do seem to have progressed to a point of mutual respect, what has not changed – even on the most banal of levels – is the extent to which each country is obsessed with his respective neighbour. Who has the best policy on immigration? Who is the most environmentally friendly? The better worker? Who has the fairer state? The best bread?


All too often, the focus on what the ‘Other’ is doing appears nothing but a reflection of the deficiencies or short-sightedness of one’s own nation. I hasten to add that this is not a phenomenon unique to Franco-German relationships (take a look at Why the Germans Do It Better by British writer John Kampfner, and the Anglophone sales of How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits to see Britain's very own obsession with the continent). However, what is perhaps exclusive to the European power couple is their respective perceptions of and attitudes towards flirting, femininity, and motherhood. Three topics at the heart of what often seems to border on obsessive comparisons within German mediatic discourse.


Germany’s view of the Française


The myth of the French woman has long occupied the Germans. Whether this is rooted in the thousands of clandestine “collaborationist” relationships between French women and German officers during WW2, in the arrival of “Vogue” to Germany in 1979, or even in the widely-admired splendour of the Versailles courts , the image of the insouciant, elegant, and effortless Française has a firm place in Germany’s collective consciousness.

An idealised view of the French woman has existed throughout history. Photo: Midnight Believer via Creative Commons


What our hyper-connected modern world has done, however, is morph this pre-existing fascination into a widespread myth. In an article for WELT, journalist Joachin Lottmann assessed his recent visit to France by – you guessed it – the women, describing them as “irritatingly beautiful” and “effortlessly chic”: two words which perfectly encapsulate the French woman’s hold on the German mindset.


But this is by no means a one-sided mythification. French writer Alain Xavier Wurst issued an acerbic critique of German women and their flirting during a 2010 interview with Die Welt am Sonntag. Bravo, Monsieur Wurst, you have successfully perpetuated the stereotype of the German woman as stilted, unspontaneous, and predictable, placing her in perfect opposition to the much-beloved Française.


With such a stereotyped and idealised image to their name, it is hardly surprising that numerous French women have recently spoken out in an attempt to dismantle such myths. Upon first glance, this seems an empowering move, freeing French women from the clutches of a symbol adored by Germans and others alike.


On the other hand, this idealisation of femininity can work in some women’s favour. German media researcher Maria Furtwängler has alluded to this in her studies of the portrayal of the sexes in film and TV, pointing out that even the “timelessly chic” label grants women more cinematographic presence than they would ever have on the German screen, where actresses are all too often marginalised after reaching a certain age.

Maria Furtwängler. Photo: Siebbi via Wikimedia Commons


A societal issue


Even beyond the stars of stage and screen, this idea of being female without sacrifice is something that appears to be one area where the French excel, whilst their Germanic neighbours lag behind, suffering from both poor quotas of working women and record low birth-rates.


Indeed, Germany’s infamous decline in its birth rate seems to leave the country looking to its Franco neighbours’ arguably better command of a work-life balance. While more German mothers have returned to the workplace in recent years, only a minority do so full-time. In France, on the other hand, INSEE reports over half of women with three or more children are also in full-time work. The French birth rate is strong, as is the percentage of working women, so just where is Germany going wrong?

French fertility has generally been higher than Germany fertility since the war, meaning that a significantly higher birth rate can now be observed in France. Source: INED via OFCE


The main theory is that French cultural attitudes towards women are generally more progressive. A feminist path was established in France during the Ancien Régime, when high society ladies first began to abandon the confines of the domestic sphere and pursue their own interests, placing their identity as “woman” before that of “mother”. Sadly, Germany did not experience such a pronounced cultural shift. Generally speaking, it was the image of the austere woman, expected to concentrate solely on the household, that prevailed here.


The present day


Even today, French women are still held as the object of German admiration, this time not just for their mythicized allure and elegance, but also on a more concrete level for their ability to reconcile both their familial and professional lives. Germans are desperate to get to the bottom of this, with whole think tanks and conferences organised to collect testimonies from working French mothers, whilst multiple writings, in both scholarly and mediatic circles, attempt to discern the error of the German ways. Whilst feminist newspapers in Germany hail the mighty “French supermother”, Annika Joeres’ 'Vive la famille. Was wir von den Franzosen übers Familienglück lernen können' (‘What we can learn from the French about domestic happiness’) sees the fault as internal, linked to a certain cultural perfectionism that is incompatible with motherhood.


Whilst the globally-recognised “French girl” myth may be far from dying a death in German consciousness, it is the “French mother” that perhaps offers the more fascinating insight into the Bundesrepublik’s own perceived shortcomings, proving once and for all that an obsession with the “Other” is often nothing more than an exercise of self-examination.

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