Posted by Jay Livingston
France is still playing its typecast role in the American imagination. At least in the imagination of many Americans, France remains synonymous with sex— illicit, tempting sex. Sex for pleasure.
I thought this view had pretty much disappeared now, forty years into the sexual revolution. In pre-revolutionary America of the 1940s and 50s, sex wasn’t American, it was French. If you wanted to imply sex, you alluded to France. There was a big difference between a kiss and a “French kiss.” To “French” someone was to give them a blowjob (pardon my French). American “underwear” was plain cotton, functional without a hint of sex; if you wanted something lacy and sexy, you needed a French word— “lingerie.” A woman’s “nightgown” was about as sexy as flannel pajamas, and she wore it to bed when her goal was sleep. But if she were going to bed for sensual pleasure, she put on her “negligee.”
It was classic Freudian repression and projection. The culture repressed its own sexual thoughts, projected them onto France, and then castigated the French for expressing these sinful ideas.
Apparently, old stereotypes never quite die. Mitt Romney provides the most recent example. Romney was governor of the cosmopolitan and liberal state of Massachusetts, but now he’s running for the Republican nomination for president, and he’s trying to get the votes of the religious right. (Religion in America, and many other places, packs a strong dose of sexual repression.) So on Saturday, he gave a speech at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. According to the Washington Post report
He also criticized people who choose not to get married because they enjoy the single life.
“It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking,” Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. “In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up.”
Pure imagination. There’s no such thing. There was a French movie that came out in 2003, “7 Ans de Marriage.” And in 1955, “The Seven-Year Itch,” a very American film, gave us that famous image of Marilyn Monroe, a blast of air from a subway grating ballooning her white skirt.
But France has no official state-approved seven-year marriage. In fact, France and most other countries in Europe have lower divorce rates (i.e., higher rates of lasting marriages) than does the US.
Where did Romney get this idea? And why didn’t the Washington Post reporter and many others who heard or read about the speech think to check Romney’s “facts”?
It seems that this is a classic “urban legend” — an anecdote, almost always without factual basis, that nevertheless gets passed along, told and retold, as true. According to Jan Harold Brunvand, who coined the term, these false stories gain currency and resist skepticism in part because they resonate with existing images and ideas.
If we already assume that Europeans, especially the French, take a cavalier approach to marriage and that they care more about their own sensual pleasures than about the sanctity and stability of the family; and if we assume that not just their people but also their governments are out to undermine the American way and American ideas (as the French sought to undermine the American view that invading Iraq was a really nifty idea); then the seven-year marriage story is so obviously in keeping with what we already “know” about them that we needn’t bother to check and see whether it’s actually true.
Hat tip to Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community on the Romney story.