French Women Don't Get It, Or Why Do We Resent Mireille Guiliano?

Yesterday, a very nice friend and I were in a bookstore and caught sight of Mireille Guiliano's latest, Women, Work & The Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility. "I've decided I hate her," said my normally mild-mannered friend:

She was not the first whom I've heard express sentiments to this effect. Now, it must be said that the "Guiliano Backlash" is a purely anecdotal phenomenon: while there have been occasional snippy pieces, they're nothing to the millions of readers who made French Women Don't Get Fat an international phenomenon, will probably see the movie (if only to see how the hell to adapt a diet book into a rom-com), and have snapped up the sequels with enthusiasm, probably with a laboriously-draped scarf around their necks and a bowl of leek water in their hands.

Personally, I have no beef with FWDGF. Would I do the leek-soup weekend? Mais non. But her basic message of moderation and eating for pleasure is wholesome and common-sensical, and nothing that hasn't been sold - in less chic sheep's clothing - for decades. I liked the recipes I tried and, while the sequel was completely gratuitous, found it innocuous. The latest volume follows much the same pattern: common sense stuff, wrapped in "French secrets" and "savoir-faire" and with a hefty dose of the same take-care-of-yourself quality-of-life ethos that powered the first two.

All that said, I get the resentment - to a degree. There are legit issues people always bring up: she's rumored to be a difficult boss. The leek soup diet is dangerous and medically unsound. French women do, in fact, get fat. It's still the same old skinny-is-God. And her whole shtick is Americanized Frenchness sold to an American sensibility. I'm not disagreeing - and her attitude towards the overweight, in interviews, often seems to border on downright disdainful (albeit not MeMe-calibur) - but sometimes these arguments have the character of the sort of justification people seize upon to explain a wholly irrational dislike of a movie star (and hey, we've all done it - I know I was gratified to learn about a TV chef apparently maltreating her assistants because it justified my totally irrational gut dislike of her antics.) There are plenty of reasons to dislike her work rationally - but it's not the rational dislike that interests me.

I wrote some friends to get specifics on the dislike. "Smug" and "superior" were constants. "Inflexibility" was another. "For all her pose of self-help, she comes across as judgmental and makes me feel inadequate," wrote one. "It's the same old 'have-it-all' and be sexy too!' shtick they peddled 20 years ago." Another disliked the adulation of her fan-base. "They ask her where she gets her hair cut etc. on her web site, and there's no acknowledgment that this is a very wealthy, privileged woman living a rareified life - with, by the way, no kids to mess up the orchids or the trips to Paris."

I have my own theories, and it's that she plays on the idea of solidarity amongst women - just-between-us advice and I've-been-there collusion - while in fact speaking from aspirational and superior heights. She has none of Oprah's weight struggles or even Martha's financial imbroglios - she's too strong-willed for either. And as such she courts our resentment, much as Stewart did pre-Camp-Cupcake. She's for women, by women - but how much does she like and respect her readership? That, and she's a successful businesswoman - who's still built her rep on weight-loss. Had it just been this, third book, it would be one thing - but in some ways it does feel like she's playing both sides of the coin, making women both her victims and her protagonists, and "empowering" us strictly on her own, thin terms.

But those are just theories. In the end, as I said, my own views are more moderate: as long as people are going to buy weight-loss books - and they are - I'd as soon it was this as Atkins. And the third book, in a vacuum, is (despite its femme-speciifc girliness) not a bad thing for a young girl to read. (Again, most of it is the same as what you'll get in any "business for dummies" text, plus snacks and walks.) But when smart, engaged women whom I respect feel this strongly, I take note - and try to give self-styled role models a second going-over.


THE SUBTLE ART OF SAVOIR FAIRE
[Daily Express]
New York's Worst Bosses: Mireille Guiliano [Gawker]
Mireille Guiliano: Why French Women Don't Get Fired [Time]

Related: Angry American Pundit: "French Women Can Suck It"