Second début: Francine Pelletier on feminism's foundering freedoms

Photo: Le Devoir
The forthright journalist and filmmaker Francine Pelletier has released a new book, summarized in an article in Le Devoir.

"Second Début, Cendres et Renaissance du Feminisme" examines two feminine archtypes that have assumed centre stage in these times: the super-sexy and the ultra-covered. 

She notes, "Fashion and porn bring to life the idea that a woman is first a sexual animal. The hypersexualized images are a way of reminding women to fall in line, as are the burka and chador." 


We live with a new Iron Curtain, she suggests, "one side in lingerie and the other covered head to toe." To be reduced to a body, Pelletier says, is way of telling women, "Stay girls, even if you want to act like men." 

A woman may assert that she is "affirming her sexuality" and "in control of her body", and claim "I'm liberated and empowered and can do what I want". But Pelletier warns that ready participation in a permissive, "cool", soft-porn culture that tells women they have achieved something by overtly sexy display of their bodies is a con job. 

She questions the energy spent fighting for women's freedom to go shirtless or to appear in little but our filmiest underwear. (She does acknowledge the sensual pleasure of displaying one's charms.)

Such matters divert attention from the gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence against women, among other pressing concerns. (There is a belief that we've beaten the gender equality issue; in Canada and the US, the results are an unimpressive 19% gap.) 

She links the fundamentalist beliefs that fueled the Charlie Hebdo massacres to another slaughter, that of fourteen women at Montréal's École Polytechnic twenty-five years ago; both massacres, she notes, were aimed at obliterating a specific group who were represented change, and who spoke openly. (Pelletier lobbied for public release of the killer's suicide note, which included names of women he wished to target; her name was included.)

She says women's confidence has been shaken, leading to women, such as those allegedly attacked by Jian Ghomeshi, who are terrified to speak out. 

And finally, she reveals her own contradictions, fears and humanity. Recounting her assault within an initially consenting relationship, an incident that she did not report, Francine Pelletier refers to her own "Inner Jello" and calls on every woman to end silent collusion with violence.


(Seconde début is currently available in a French edition.)


19 comments

Janice Riggs said...

I never dreamed that 27 years after I finished graduate school that women would STILL earn less than men - I just believed that we would gradually eat away at that horrid difference, and that it would be GONE...

Are young women today as upset by this discrepancy as I am? I wish I saw more real indignation, action, and outspokenness around this (and other gender-related) problems.

big hug,
Janice

une femme said...

Wish my French were good enough to tackle that book. From your recap, I agree with her and always have. I think there's nothing wrong with enjoying our sexuality, but that we've been fed a nice diversion to think of it as "power."

Susan said...

Very thought provoking. Freedom being a big con in disguise is fascinating and most probably the absolute truth. I've been bothered by the rather wide spread adoption (by some) of a new standard of beauty that has evolved from pornography, and everyday women thinking they must conform.

The earnings issue is very troublesome, but I still hold out hope that, as more women than men go to college, earnings equality if near.

Madame Là-bas said...

There is a strong message to "stay girls" but it is a contradictory one. The strong girl plays freely, dreams and does not rely on the approval of others for her self-esteem. The "girl" of the marketing world is always "one product away" from the beauty standard of the day.

Younger women need to be aware early on that they will likely earn less than their male counterparts and that it is not okay.
They can not rely on marriage to "fill the gap." As a society, we need to ask "why" the wage inequality exists and whether we consciously or unconsciously place more value on the work of men.

materfamilias said...

Thanks for the review, K. Sounds like one to add to my list -- a good way to practice my French AND get fired up. I wonder what she thinks about the way that we older women focus so much on our dress in claiming visibility, particularly in social media. It's different than when she's talking about, yes, but seems an extension to me, in many ways, much as I do enjoy following such blogs, to a point. And, obviously, participate in the phenomenon myself. I appreciate what you do here, extending the Style forum to include some discussion of politics, culture, and social issues.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, that sounds like a similar thesis to a book published, wow, 10 years ago now, "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" by Ariel Levy (here: http://www.ariellevy.net/books.php?article=2) Guess the message needs to keep being repeated...

Personally, I'm very uncomfortable with this sexualized culture, and the way the younger women just seem to take it for granted... though perhaps they don't, and that's just a mistaken impression also caused by the media, I don't know.

Lin

frugalscholar said...

Sadly, some of the fairly mild feminist comments I make in class (I know my audience) elicit shock and surprise. STILL.

foxandfinchantiques said...

I would like to tell you about an eye-opening conversation I had with a woman that follows my blog and who wears a burka herself. She told me that the western world does not understand this piece of clothing at all. She likened wearing a burka as being the most freeing garment a woman can wear. She said when one is wearing a burka, they are treated as an individual without regard to age, lack of beauty, lack of wealth, etc. On the other hand, she explained to me that a beautiful, young woman can travel throughout her day, without any harassment. I am wondering if the author ever actually spoke to someone who wears a burka.

Rita said...

Foxandfinchantiques: yes, I'm sure this ONE woman who wears a burka speaks for all burka-wearing women.

foxandfinchantiques said...

She was talking about her culture. I'm not sure if you are being sarcastic or not.

Duchesse said...

foxandantiques: I cannot speak for Francine Pelletier. However, she lives in Montréal, a city where one encounters women in burkas. I am reasonably sure she has hear this rationale for complete veiling, as have I. At the same time, a woman in a burka lives in •this• culture, not one from where she may have come. (And native-born Canadian women may also wear burkas.) A woman in Canada may express her perception of that choice, unlike women in many countries for whom wearing it is a requirement.

Duchesse said...

I meant to write "she has heard".

Marilyn said...

I've also heard the argument that wearing a burka is "freeing", but I can't help wondering if the "freedom" comes more from others seeing a woman as an object rather than an individual as your speaker has claimed? Females become objects in the landscape, devoid of personal identity. Choosing that route seems a high price to pay to avoid harrassment.

Duchesse said...

Marilyn: Here, I have seen a woman in a niqab (with mesh over the eyes, covered as she can get and still see where she is going) pass a woman spilling out of a bra top and on the bottom, thin micro shorts that leave nothing to the imagination. Strange world.

Pelletier's point is that, on both sides, the woman has been reduced to her body, a 'thing' to be obscured or served up.

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: Your comment means a great deal to me, as I have long enjoyed writing about issues and our culture; in fact, it is my priority.

frugal: Please, keep making them!

Anonymous said...

Foxandfinchantiques: Rationalize much? In my area to go to Islamic school they cover these girls up in grade 3. Seriously, you are a sexual being at 8 and need to go the rest of your lifetime without ever feeling the wind in your hair. I was in my doctor's office last August on a sweltering day with broken air conditioning. A burka shrouded woman covered head to toe in black came in with a man who was dressed in a tee shirt and shorts. So yeah it's her choice and liberating. If you don't want male attention you can easily wear a longer outfit like the Duggar girls, orthodox Jews or the loose colourful top and pants that Pakistani women wear. There is NO LOGICAL reason to bundle up 8 year old girls and to walk around in a shroud in the worst heat.

Duchesse said...

Anon@ 4:15: What you describe is a subset of one particular religion. We should be careful not to generalize.

Anonymnity is its own kind of veil, and I will shortly be posting on why, in September when the blog returns from summer break, I will disable the ability to comment anonymously. I have a wish that we all stand up for what we write, even if that means getting a Google or other account. In the meantime, I have from time to time asked anonymous commenters to sign a name or pseudonym and am grateful when they do that.





Mardel said...

It has been too many years since I've done any reading in French, but the book sounds interesting. There are many interesting points made here, in your post, and in the notes, about dress and how women let themselves be objectified even while claiming the supposed empowerment of doing so. I've been as guilty as I suppose almost everyone else at some point or another. The interesting thing about the supposed "freedom" of the burka, is that it seems it would only be truly freeing if it worn equally by men and women. But then again there are so many nuances to culture, I feel terribly cautious about jumping to conclusions.

Tiffany said...

Great post, fascinating topic and terrific discussion - thank you! I'm going to see if I can revive my French reading skills sufficiently to take a look at the book ...