Why Are Americans So Obsessed With The French?
“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” ― Oscar Wilde
The trope is so ubiquitous, you’d probably miss it if you blinked. "10 Ways to Dress Like a French Girl This Fall." "7 Ways To Hack A French Girl’s Beauty Routine." "8 Beauty Secrets Only French Girls Know." Heck, The Cut practically does the work for you in its tongue-in-cheek roundup of all the things one can do like a French girl.
Nope, this isn’t an article about internet listicles (though they do perform well on social media). This is about the enduring American fascination with everything French: an insatiable cultural longing for a certain je ne sais quoi that is the supposed native providence (or Provence?) of anyone born between Cherbourg and Cannes; the effortless chic and cultural sophistication immortalized in baguettes, berets and striped Breton shirts, which serve as a quick, easy shorthand for the great Parisian mythos of American fantasy.
To be sure, the history of American Francophilia predates the internet slideshow, and it encompasses much more than fashion and beauty.
"France occupies a place apart in the United States," wrote French academic André Siegfried in 1927. "No other country … is more passionately loved," and none "is more disparaged or harshly condemned. It seems that there is always an excess in either direction, that either illusion or deep disappointment is alternately dominant."
To really understand where this all started, you’d arguably have to go all the way back to the time of Thomas Jefferson.
In Why France?: American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination, Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson note that until mass tourism emerged in the mid-20th century, it was mostly the well-to-do who had any interest in visiting France.
One of the first elites to famously extol the virtues of France was Jefferson, who had lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789. In a letter to Abigail Adams, he wrote, "Here we have singing, dancing, laugh, and merriment. When our king goes out, they fall down and kiss the earth where he has trodden; and then they go on kissing one another. They have as much happiness in one year as an Englishman in ten.”
Downs and Gerson write that shortly after diplomats like Jefferson arrived in the late 18th century, scientists, doctors, art students, businessmen and journalists began traveling to Paris in search of new opportunities and continuing education, and artists and writers flocked there, particularly in the wake of the major American wars. By the 1930s, American campuses were promoting study abroad programs to France as part of what they describe as "an official French campaign to create Francophile elites in the United States — and lessen German intellectual supremacy."
As they summarize, much ink has been spilled over the evolving American vision of France. There’s a case to be made for what drew so many Americans over the years: the allure of good taste; the veneer of a quaint respite from modernity; the promise of pleasure and freedom; and the class signifier of "having the money to visit France."
It also bears mentioning that for a while, Paris was more or less the cultural capital of the Western world; New York City didn’t take up that mantle until after World War II.
Historian David McCullough explained on CNN why so many elite Americans studied in France during the 19th century: "They craved, craved France, and they weren’t anxious to go there because they were disenchanted with our country. They went to find out if the talent they had was really as strong as people were telling them, and in order to get the training, the experience that they could not get here. There were no museums with paintings hanging in them then. There was not one school of architecture in the United States. This is in the 1830s."
As international tourism became more accessible to middle-class Americans and the nexus of culture gradually shifted, Downs and Gerson noted that France maintained a grip on our cultural imagination as a "promised land of genuine revolution" in post-‘68 America.
All of this makes a fair amount of sense, but it doesn’t totally reveal the origins of this dreamy, cinematic notion of fast and furious romances along the Seine — or why Westerners overwhelmingly consider French to be the sexiest accent. There’s a certain amount of fact mixed in with the fiction, but certainly this other-worldly "City of Lurve" mythos didn’t come into its own on the back of excellent brie alone?
It seems facile to suggest that we should blame Hollywood entirely, but, then again: blame Hollywood. In 1923, the International Kinema Research (a Hollywood film agency) asked three Parisian photographers to take representative photos of Paris, which would serve as the model for Hollywood film sets. The photos that came back weren’t necessarily representative, but aspirational: photos of slender, fashionable, high-class Parisians. To be fair, the agency did request images of things like "a Fine Garden of the sort a rich man would have … a French Boudoir, elegantly furnished."
The rest, as they say, is cinematic history: just think An American In Paris, Breathless, Amélie, and basically anything featuring Brigitte Bardot, for a sense of where this cultural trope came from.
Downs and Gerson also have another theory: it’s easy for Americans to exoticize French people because, for the most part, there is no direct ancestral lineage to France. Substantial numbers of American immigrants came from virtually every European country except for France, which means Americans have generally grown up surrounded by visible, authentic traces of those cultures.
"One consequence of this absence has been a tendency for ‘France’ to represent elite and bourgeois culture in American discourse, as if the entire French nation consisted of well-dressed people who dined at Maxim’s every night," Downs and Gerson wrote. "France thus floats more freely in the American imagination, a movie screen onto which fantasies both positive and negative are often and easily projected."
As much as this image continues to persist, it’s also just as often repudiated these days. After all, it’s not hard to ascertain that France is a complex country with just as many ugly realities as ours — one that’s made up of all different types of people, and not just waifish, wealthy white women who can skillfully rock a trench coat. This cognitive dissonance is actually so jarring to some that it sends them into psychological shock: Paris Syndrome strikes roughly 20 victims each year. Seriously, read about it. It’s a thing.
"Let’s face it: This collective yearning is pretty embarrassing," writes Lynn Yaeger in Vogue. "How much time have you wasted on the extremely tiresome observation that even a random six-year-old Frenchie can tie a scarf?"
"As long as we want to imagine that France still looks like a Doisneau photograph, we ignore the very real people who make up the France of today," writes Chelsea Fagan in Refinery 29. "We don’t acknowledge the many women of color, or the women who can’t afford designer labels, or the women who don’t fit into a sample-size skinny jeans."
In an article in Racked, Eliza Brooke explains that though the ideal of the "French girl" is mostly smoke and mirrors, the industry surrounding her is pretty tangible.
The best part of all of this, though? The fascination seems to go both ways. These days, in Paris, "trendy" is more or less synonymous for "Brooklyn." As of yet, however, there have been no reported cases of Brooklyn Syndrome.